Inside design: Chuck Williams
For gourmands, the arrival of Williams-Sonoma in Canada five years ago was a welcome addition to the culinary landscape. The chain was born in 1956, when founder Chuck Williams purchased a hardware store in Sonoma, Calif. He quickly traded electrical wire for whisks, and today the chain is 250 stores strong. Inducted into The Culinary Institute of America's Hall of Fame four years ago, the 91-year-old is the recipient of numerous honours, most notably the James Beard Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award. As Williams-Sonoma celebrates its 50th year, we sat down with Chuck to discuss holidays past and present.
S@H: The holidays are rich in tradition. Which ones do you hold sacred?
CW: I always adorn my door. It might be something as simple as a sprig of green foliage -- the bough of a Christmas tree or some holly tied with a ribbon -- but it's inviting for people passing by.
I celebrate the holidays with friends. Three of us get together at a country home. There, we prepare dinner, a simple meal so we can enjoy one another's company. It's tempting to get fancy, but if you keep it easy and prepare as many items as possible ahead, then you'll have a lot more time to enjoy your guests, family and friends.
Another tradition we enjoy is to dress the table. Often, one of us will see dinner napkins or a charming serving dish that we must have. We each collect things and then put them all together just before dinner. The end result is a creative, collaborative effort that always seems to work out.
S@H: How can we modernize our holiday table without sacrificing tradition?
CW: I think simplicity is timeless. Pick a colour scheme for your table -- and, please, it doesn't have to be red or green. Work within that scheme, combining your favourite traditional pieces, like classic French porcelain (a part of Williams-Sonoma from the very beginning), and more contemporary, colourful items. I often find a point of inspiration, like a seasonal flower, and from there I come up with a plan for setting the table.
Photography courtesy of Williams-Sonoma
S@H: What forces do you think are shaping the holidays these days?
CW: The pace of our lives. Things are more informal and simpler today. Families vacation during the holidays and spend time away from home. People are experiencing more global cuisine, and we're seeing that influence traditional recipes. A great example is herbes de Provence-roasted turkey.
S@H: Williams-Sonoma is celebrating its 50th anniversary. As its creator, you've been central to determining the aesthetic of 50 holiday seasons. What are the biggest changes you've witnessed?
CW: Fifty years ago, we entertained more frequently and in a much more formal way. We had more time to prepare, and we had hired help. Today, it's much more informal. As well, people eat out more and have more sophisticated palates. My advice is not to copy. Don't try to replicate dishes you've eaten at a restaurant. Put your own personality into the meal you're serving by offering guests your own favourite dishes.
S@H: Do you have any gift-giving tips?
CW: The true gift is spending time together and making memories. If you must put something under the tree, make it simple and special. Keep your eye out for gifts throughout the year. If you see something in May that you know a friend or family member will like, buy it. Pick up unique treasures for people during your travels. Never leave it to the last minute or you'll end up with something impersonal.
Get cooking for Christmas
We asked Chuck for gift ideas for the gastronome.
• For the baker, choose quality ingredients like exotic vanilla, or artisan chocolate or a baking pan.
• For the king of the grill, opt for high-end, stainless-steel barbecue tools, gloves or a cookbook.
• For your little one, inspire a love of cooking with children's cookbooks or by personalizing a pint-size apron with his or her name. Adorn the gift with cute cookie cutters in fun shapes.
• For the novice, go simple with gourmet rubs, sauces and marinades, or a good-quality olive oil.
Photography courtesy of Williams-Sonoma