Carpenter a food fan

Chuck Williams.

NEW YORK • Chuck Williams, whose 1956 French cookware shop in Sonoma, California, helped introduce high-quality tools, condiments and stylish touches to food in the United States, died in his sleep last Saturday at his home in San Francisco. He was 100. No cause was given.

Back when he started out, souffles fell flat and pasta lacked oomph. Drab kitchens had pots, pans and knives from a department store.

The opening of the shop by Mr Williams, then a carpenter- gourmet, was fortuitous. Americans were beginning to think about food as more than sustenance. With James Beard's books for inspiration and Julia Child's coaching on television, French cuisine was infiltrating the creative kitchen.

His company eventually became Williams-Sonoma - a retail home furnishings and mail-order giant, with more than 600 stores and US$4.7 billion (S$6.6 billion) in net revenue - which transformed many kitchens into gleaming, efficient refectories hung with copper pots and stashed with pleated souffle moulds, garlic presses and carbon-steel knives.

Mr Williams sold the company in 1978, but remained its public face to promote Williams-Sonoma.

"He built a powerful brand that inspired a cultural revolution around food and had immeasurable impact on home and family life around the world," the company said in a statement.

He wrote more than 200 cookbooks that sold tens of millions of copies and oversaw catalogues delivered to millions of homes.

He was born Charles Edward Williams in Jacksonville, Florida. His grandmother, who once owned a restaurant, taught him about cooking. His father's auto-repair business failed during the Great Depression, the family moved to California and his parents separated. He became a window-dresser at a Los Angeles department store.

After the war, he worked as a contractor in Sonoma, where he built houses and enjoyed cooking and drinking wine with friends.

In 1952, he visited Paris and became fascinated by French cookware. After returning to the US, he renovated a hardware store in Sonoma and opened his first shop, offering imported French cooking equipment. By the time he moved his company to San Francisco, it had a reputation for attracting affluent consumers and hippies who cooked communally in the big French stew pots he sold. The store became a must-visit for foodies.

Mr Williams, who never married, had served on the boards of the Culinary Institute of America and the American Institute of Wine and Food. He won many honours, including the James Beard Foundation's lifetime achievement award.

He found time to scout Valrhona chocolate from France, glazed apricots from Australia and paella pans from Spain. "I bought what I liked," he told The New York Times in 2004. "I looked for quality and design and I had reasonably good taste. Basically, I think I was right."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'Carpenter a food fan'. Subscribe