Just two weeks into his first kitchen position at The Square in Mayfair, Stephen Williams was ready to quit. Three years spent studying for his NVQs at Westminster Kingsway College had not prepared the then 21-year old for the long hours and physically demanding nature of a career as a chef, let alone one in a two Michelin-starred restaurant.
But a helping hand from The Ledbury’s Brett Graham (then junior sous chef at The Sqaure) pulled Williams back to the stove and set him on course to head the kitchen at Time Out’s 2009 Gastropub of the Year, The Harwood Arms in Fulham.
Taking time out on a rare day off, Williams spoke to Becky Paskin about how his mentor and now ‘great friend’s’ encouragement helped him realise his dream of becoming a respected chef.
“Getting the commis chef job at The Square was a real coup for me, as they’d never employed anyone straight from college before,” says Williams. “My CV up until then read very well, but nothing prepared me for how demanding that job was. When I tried to quit, it was Brett who took me outside and said ‘Stop freaking out, you’re not giving up. You’re going to sort yourself out and I’m going to help you.’”
Although Williams always aspired to be a chef, it was Graham’s words that day that inspired him to shoot for the stars, and after 11 months working at The Square, in which time he claims he ‘never got far’, Williams realised that to get ahead he needed to experience other kitchen environments.
“A guy I went to college with was working at The Coach and Horses in Clerkenwell and was looking for a new sous chef. The challenge of coming from a kitchen where nine or 10 people were working on a service, to a significantly smaller team serving simpler food was appealing, and although I enjoyed working at The Square I was interested in something a bit more rustic and hands on.”
Taking Time Out
Perhaps as a sign of his own success to come, Williams helped the Coach and Horses become Time Out’s 2004 Gastropub of the Year, an accolade he says was surprising.
“I look back on it now and I don’t think we really knew what we were doing. Although I know I was a good chef at the time, I didn’t have enough discipline to work in such a small team. It was a good time; we cooked some great food and people obviously thought it was good, but I soon realised it wasn’t quite what I wanted there.”
After just eight months in Clerkenwell, Williams was offered the chance to work alongside his mentor once more, as Graham launched The Ledbury in Notting Hill.
“It was such an intense period to be there at the birth of what is now such a great restaurant,” he enthuses. “I learned an enormous amount there and worked extremely hard - I think a little bit of my soul will always be on the stove there.
“I also realised just how hardworking Brett is, and that doing something that big wasn’t what I wanted to do myself in the future. Seeing the pressure, stress and strain that place put on him and knowing full well he’s a more talented chef and a more remarkable, hardworking guy than I am, I know I couldn’t do it. It nearly broke him, and if I was in that situation I wouldn’t be able to cope.”
Williams spent two years learning from Graham’s example before leaving once again to downscale his working week at the legendary Anchor and Hope gastropub and then Melrose and Morgan in Primrose Hill, where he first became head chef. His aim was to learn more about different aspects of the position, from designing menus to speaking to suppliers, but ultimately, after taking two years out, Williams found himself back at The Ledbury to learn about pastry.
“I never had any experience on the pastry section so I looked at trying to learn that specifically. I was nervous about heading back to The Ledbury on a section I knew nothing about after being junior sous chef, but I’m so glad I did it now – I would struggle if I hadn’t of had that experience.”
Handling the pressure
One month on and Williams was given an offer he couldn’t refuse. Graham had bought an old Victorian pub in a residential area of Fulham, along with TV chef Mike Robinson and Edwin Vaux of the Vaux Brewery, and wanted Williams to run it for him.
After two months of scrubbing, decorating and polishing, and at the beginning of one of the worst recessions Britain has known, The Harwood Arms was ready to launch in September 2008, and although Williams had just weeks to devise a menu, the gastropub was a success from the off.
“We opened not really knowing how much of a success it would be,” he recalls. “I felt so much pressure on me; I couldn’t let the guys who’d invested so much into the business, down. But that was nothing compared to the pressure I put on myself to make sure it achieved what I wanted it to, in my ambition as a chef.
“I know we opened right in the middle of a recession, but I think places that offer quality and value will always do well, in whatever economic climate. People are less willing to go and have a meal and a drink midweek now, and we’ve certainly felt that, but because we’ve received some pretty good reviews, we’ve never really had a problem.”
In the year since its opening, The Harwood Arms has received some glowing write-ups, praising mostly the seasonal British menu and insistence on retaining its ‘pubiness’. Matthew Norman of The Guardian gave it 9/10, while Terry Durack at The Independent gave 16/20 claiming ‘this is exactly the sort of dining experience we need right now: a top trained chef dealing directly with country supplies and doing something twisty with it’.
The biggest accolade however came from Time Out, who last month named The Harwood Arms as Gastropub of the Year, claiming the venue stood out above the hoard of ‘smart local pubs’ in the area, but despite so much praise for Williams and his obvious talent in the kitchen, the young chef is nothing but modest and humble in his ambitions.
“All I want to do is be respected by my peers; that other chefs will read my menu and say it’s a nice menu or sounds delicious. It’s nice to see Time Out saying that British food is being realised, because that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m so proud of that and hopefully I can continue moving forwards – there are so many new things we want to do.”
Graham’s influence on Williams is obvious, both in his food, ambition and attitude. Williams says he owes a lot to the man whose been his ‘biggest inspiration’, and in a way, so does Fulham – without Graham, Williams may have given up on himself long before he had the chance to flourish, and The Harwood Arms would be ‘just another gastropub’.