The king of exotic cookware and kitchen catalogs
Home cooking was a relatively simple matter in the '50s. The average cook was quite satisfied with a flour sifter, a set of plastic measuring spoons, and a well-seasoned spider inherited from grandmother to round out one's batterie de cuisine.
A French, tin-lined, copper pomme Anna pan? Who needed it? Who'd even heard of it?
That was before Chuck Williams went to Europe. Upon his return, he started the store that would eventually mushroom into the first mail-order professional-quality kitchen equipment business.
Thirty years ago, after years as a building contractor, Mr. Williams pounded his last nail, hung up his hammer, bought an old hardware store in Sonoma, Calif., and went abroad.
He didn't return with a miniature of the Eiffel Tower or a stub from a night at the Lido. Williams came back with visions of sugarplums dancing in his head and the best container in which to prepare them.
He began stocking his store window and shelves with the finest in French restaurant-quality kitchenware.
Gradually Williams said ``nuts'' to the bolts. Saut'e pans began replacing saws, and poultry shears replaced pliers. In the late '50s he christened his store ``Williams-Sonoma'' and moved it lox, stockpot, and pickle barrel to a tony section in downtown San Francisco.
``The timing was right,'' says Williams, sitting impeccably and conservatively dressed in brown herringbone jacket, pin-striped shirt, paisley Polo tie, argyle socks, Gucci loafers, and -- with a nod to this generation -- a Swatch.
``We located right near Elizabeth Arden. It was about the time Julia [Child] came out with her book and then her TV show. All the wealthy women in town would get their hair done at Elizabeth Arden and chat about Julia's show the night before. Julia was very specific about what tools to use in the kitchen. So when she said to get a 9-inch spring-form pan, we had it! No one else did.
``It wasn't just wealthy matrons. Hippies too were interested in cooking. We got them, too. They often came from good homes and wouldn't think twice of paying $30 for a good pot.''
Williams is a man who knows exactly what he likes, and as his success proves, what his customers will probably like, too. But he always keeps an eye on the bottom line.
Anne Kupper, a co-worker, tells this story:
``I found this absolutely wonderful little Swedish smoker in Paris. You could smoke one or two trout or quail right on top of your stove in just a few minutes. I thought it was absolutely marvelous. I brought it back and showed it to Chuck. He considered it but decided it would cost more to have it manufactured, shipped to the United States, and then shipped to our customers than it was worth.''
Hopeful vendors around the country and the world are always sending items for Williams's seal of approval.
``But what they don't realize,'' says Ms. Kupper, ``is that we need quantity as well as quality. We had such a demand for some of our Portuguese pottery that we had to build one small factory another kiln.''
Finding an item is only part of the story. ``I saw one of these in a Paris flea market,'' says Williams, reaching across a cluttered 8-foot butcher-block slab he uses as a desk and picking up a small milk-white creamer in the shape of a cow. ``I found an old one like this that had a `Welcome to Dijon' decal on the side. Then I had to track down someone to manufacture them for us -- without the decal. It's been one of our most popular items for years.''
Marcel Proust may have immortalized the madeleine -- those little shell-shaped, finger-cakes that tuck comfortably between teacup and saucer -- but Williams is responsible for bringing them from text to table. Madeleine pans were introduced in his first catalog in 1971, and to date, over one-half million have been sold.
Never one who enjoyed juggling figures, Williams sold the company in 1978 to businessman Howard Lester but remains as chairman of the board, with a fist still in the pie. He still decides what goes into the more than 25 million ``A Catalogue for Cooks'' sent out each year, and he personally writes and tests the recipes in the catalog as well.
So how does Williams & Co. see through the herds of cow creamers and forests of wire egg trees to anticipate the trends in American taste? ``We don't really, it just sort of happens,'' says Williams, who then adds as modestly as possible, ``Actually, we create more of a trend. Like today it's those little Italian ice-cream makers.''
``The Italians are by far the best and most influential cooks today,'' he says, ``American food today is based on the Italian -- good, fast, and simple.'' He lets loose with a rare chuckle when he muses about chefs today that are ``trying to outdo each other with the smallest vegetables served on the largest plates. Some of them use service plates for dinner plates,'' he says with a grin.
With 22 Williams-Sonoma stores dotted across the country, 4 more opening this year, and another 10 opening next, plus a 5-acre warehouse in Memphis to draw from, what 3 items would Williams tote along with him to a desert island?
``Let's see. You need a good knife, don't you? And I guess a saut'e pan.'' Then, after a pause long enough to boil a perfect three-minute egg, he adds, ``Well, I guess that's about all you really need, isn't it?''