A group of apprentice chefs, who are studying at home with Westminster Kingsway College during the COVID pandemic, had an online coaching session with a difference, when John Williams MBE, Executive Chef at the legendary Ritz hotel in London and a former student of the college himself, spoke to them as part of the college’s National Apprenticeship Week activities.
John started his illustrious career as an apprentice – in a small country house hotel in Northumberland called The Percy Arms Hotel – and he is both a great friend of the college and a firm believer in the power of apprenticeships, having hired and coached apprentices in his kitchens for the last 30 years.
In an hour-long session with the college’s apprentice chefs, John spoke about his journey from one of six children born into a fishing family on Tyneside, to travelling the world and creating dishes for the rich and famous.
John grew up in South Shields in the north east and trained at his local college before moving to London. In a glittering and highly successful career spanning more than four decades, John has cooked for countless famous people and heads of state including The Queen and Mrs Thatcher.
He’s worked at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, The Berkeley, Claridge’s and now The Ritz.
John’s Executive Chef role means he is responsible for all aspects of the Ritz’s dining experience, including the Michelin-starred restaurant, The Palm Court (where the world-famous afternoon teas are served) and the Rivoli Bar, as well as room service for the hotel’s guests and the Ritz’s six private dining rooms.
The Ritz currently employs two apprentices who, like all apprentices, have a paid job and study at a college or other training provider for one fifth of their year (usually one day of study each week). John feels very strongly about the value that apprentices bring to his kitchen.
“I take on an apprentice to train and coach them, so eventually they can become a head chef. Apprentices are probably the most important aspect of my kitchen. The two main people who run my kitchen were both apprentices when they started and now they are two of the best young chefs in Britain.”
John is also clear about the value to the employer too: “An apprentice comes to a kitchen with almost no skills at all, so in a way they are perfect in that they will soak up all the support and training that they get. And that one day a week at college that a culinary apprentice also has as part of their apprenticeship, gives them the underpinning knowledge that they need and which they won’t always get working in a kitchen.
He is passionate about the vital role that apprentices can play across the culinary industry as it looks to recover from the effects of the COVID pandemic. “I’ve had apprentices in my brigades for over 30 years, but now, as we’ll be trying to get back on our feet after the pandemic, I think they will be more important than ever.”
To back up his words, John, is working with the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts (he is their Chairman) to encourage more hospitality businesses to take on apprentices.
John has a plea for the industry, to rethink everything they thought they knew about apprentices. “Especially in this time, with funding for apprenticeships available [though the apprenticeship levy, which all large employers pay into], the profession should be able to do more. It’s worth the
investment of time and effort to bring an apprentice on and trained in your way of thinking. An apprentice needs time to develop their skills, but if their employer commits to it, then everyone gains.”
John’s top tips for apprentices
It takes time. John is a firm believer in the time it takes to truly master the fundamentals of cooking. “It takes around 15 years for someone to master their skills.
Work hard. “That’s what this job is. The harder you work, the easier it is to get promotion and get where you want to be. By then, working hard is second nature
Tough it out. “It’s very hard starting out in your first kitchen when you’re so young. I was homesick for a year when I came to London, but I stuck with it and stayed.
Listen. “It’s so important to listen. Sometimes you won’t want to hear it, but listen, decipher what you’ve been told and use it to educate yourself, so you can improve and move forward and educate yourself.”
Love what you do. You must enjoy – really enjoy – making people happy. Bringing pleasure to people through food that they put in their mouths is what this profession is all about.
Be good, honest and honourable: “Be a good human being, and be honest with yourself and reflect on how things have gone – good or bad”. And be honest with your chef too. As John puts it: “If you tell me fibs, I can’t solve it.”
…and for employers
Hire an apprentice. John passionately believes in the importance of apprentices to the profession. “I’ve had apprentices every year for 30 years and bringing an apprentice in really is the most rewarding thing any chef can do.
Create a good environment. “If you want to make it work, you need to invest time and effort in creating an environment for an apprentice to thrive in, where they are stretched and can develop their skills. You also need to educate your kitchen, for example so they understand that they apprentice won’t be there five days a week.
Nick Gunyon is Curriculum Manager for Hospitality apprenticeships and adults at Westminster Kingsway College. He teaches the culinary apprentices on their college day and invited John as guest speaker to inspire them. “It was great to have John with us today”, Nick said. “The students really got a lot from hearing someone which so much knowledge and experience and we are very grateful to John for taking time out from his busy day to speak to us.”
Find out more about Westminster Kingsway’s culinary and hospitality apprenticeships here.