Who says a chef can’t reach the top while being decent and unassuming? William Sitwell speaks to the East End boy who’s making Mayfair salivate.
On one of the 700 islands that make up the Bahamas, there is a restaurant that hosts a very special pop-up. For there, come the summer, one of London’s top Michelin-starred chefs can be found plying his trade, doing his best with local fish (adding it to the pasta, spices and tacos he brings in his suitcase) and keeping the locals extremely happy. The only problem is, Alyn Williams (for it is he) won’t tell me which island it is. So you’d have to do a lot of island-hopping to track it down. And his only clues — ‘it’s a very small, secluded island with 30 miles of white sandy beaches’ — isn’t exactly helpful.
So if you want to catch this chef’s cooking, it’s rather more sensible to book into his restaurant at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair. You’ll be treated to his modern British food — with a dash of French technique and style — which, on the day I visited, included soft and sweet Jersey Royals served with mussels and seaweed butter and some pork belly, nestling on a plate with black pudding, white asparagus and apple purée.
But who, you might reasonably ask, is Alyn Williams? The 48-year-old is not widely known to the British public. He’s not a regular fixture on the likes of BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen, he doesn’t parade his talents at food festivals, you won’t see him in newspaper supplements and magazines. But while the public may not know him, he’s a big name in the restaurant business. Because, for many years, he was one of those chefs who ran kitchens for rather more famous individuals. And of his lack of TV presence he simply says: ‘I’ve got a face for radio.’ (In case you’re wondering, he has grey hair slicked back, a fulsome but neat beard and expensive-looking glasses.)
For many years he steadied the ship in restaurants run by the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. Thus a number of young chefs who have gone on to great things passed under his command. His last role as head chef was for Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley in Knightsbridge.
And it was there that I met him, a few years ago, when I was making a documentary that investigated the power and legend that is Michelin. While Wareing was very much at the pass, the famous chef diligently putting the finishing touch to dishes, approving them to be sent out to the dining room and later moving through to glad-hand customers, there was another man at the tiller. Chef Alyn had his eyes about the kitchen, issuing quiet, confident instructions. I remember being impressed at the calming effect it seemed to have on the brigade.
Williams worked for Wareing for eight years. ‘I was very happy,’ he says, ‘and I had a free rein. I wrote pretty much all the menus and Marcus would okay them.’ This surprised me, as I had assumed the menus would be the work of Wareing, with Williams assuming the job of implementing them.
‘I learnt a lot from Marcus and Gordon,’ he says. ‘I used to earwig a lot that was going on. I learnt a great deal more besides cooking: the financial side, front of house, wine…’
All the while he grew in stature among his culinary colleagues. And, he notes, without malice: ‘You don’t make money being respected by your peers. We work bloody hard for peanuts.’
So today Williams is keen, as his fifties beckon, to find a way of upping his earnings. Word is he’s been watching the way that Jason Atherton has spread his restaurant brand around the world and is working on a more modest way of creating a similar business model. The major stepping stone for that came five years ago, when he was finally able to put his own name on the door of a restaurant. Eager to strike out on his own, he had decided to leave Wareing without a job to go to. The role of head chef simply hadn’t afforded him the time to plan his next move, so he took a risk and quit.
It didn’t take long, and after a few discussions the Westbury agreed a mutually beneficial deal. ‘It’s a little daunting, but it was a release and very liberating to do something on my own, and finally I can forge my own identity,’ he comments.
Williams hails from East Ham; his father (the son of a docker) worked for the Inland Revenue. While he’s a lifelong West Ham fan and season ticket holder, he lives in Fulham with his wife Alison and his two young sons. ‘I’ve climbed up the social ladder,’ he jokes.
I ask him if he’s thought of opening a place in Fulham. ‘It’s a culinary desert,’ he says. ‘But there’s always a reason for that. If you come across an area without good restaurants it’s probably because the local residents are all tight sods who don’t want to spend money. Also Fulham has a transient population, so it would be hard to build up a loyal following.’ He does have one idea, though: ‘I reckon a Polpo [Russell Norman’s Italian chain] would go down a storm there.’
Williams’s own interest in food began early, mainly the result of his father being a passionate grower of vegetables. From his allotment, back garden and greenhouse (the last of these bought with winnings gained as a contestant on the game show Sale of the Century) he turned out staples such as potatoes and carrots, but he also grew rarer veg such as purple kohlrabi and fennel.
‘I’ll never forget the first time I grew something that I could eat,’ he says. ‘My dad gave me some seeds for sweetcorn and I was amazed to watch it grow
and then be able to cook it.’ He then gravitated towards cooking in his teens because ‘I was completely unacademic’.
These days his father, an active 81-year-old, still comes up to town each week. The pair chat over cups of tea and his father often brings a friend to dine in his son’s restaurant. ‘He likes my food,’ says Williams, ‘and of course it’s free, but that’s the least I can do given all that he’s done for me. He’s proud of me and my brother [a successful lawyer].’ And he is proud that, having toiled in many places that bear Michelin stars, he now has one of his own.
‘It’s an important benchmark,’ he says, ‘and with the star comes an increase in business. It gives us visibility internationally and I’ve finally been asked to do some demos. And that’s all because of the star. So while some don’t like Michelin I think it’s still relevant and I’d love to get a second one.’
If Michelin doled out stars solely on the basis that a chef was one of the most decent in his industry, I reckon Alyn Williams would have three.