I tend to cook out of one pot and use one knife,” says Chuck Williams. “After all, you could make a souffle in a dog dish.” Fortunately for Williams, 67, his customers don’t. Last year the shy bachelor, who reigns over the country’s biggest mail-order cookware business, sent out his quarterly Williams-Sonoma catalogs to 16 million households nationwide. He offers all sorts of exotica—from a French duck press ($600) to dried Cabernet grapevine wreaths from California’s Napa Valley ($15). Williams’ mail-order business in gourmet food and cookware, along with his stores in San Francisco, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and seven other cities, is expected to gross more than $40 million this year.
Williams is as blasé about the famous folk who frequent his emporium on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills as he is about fancy cooking. Ali MacGraw, Dinah Shore, Barbra Streisand, Rock Hudson and even Nancy Reagan come to mingle among the copper fish poachers and Belgian waffle irons. When James Beard is a houseguest at Williams’ century-old, antique-filled cottage off San Francisco’s Nob Hill, the host puts on no airs. “Anything you fix for Beard he just loves,” testifies Williams, who is equally unintimidated by another close friend, Julia Child. “I’d much rather have a lamb chop and spinach cooked for a few minutes than haute cuisine,” shrugs Williams, “although I do understand it.”
The son of an auto repair shop owner and a housewife who, Chuck recalls, “didn’t like to cook,” Williams was raised in Jacksonville, Fla. He was first introduced to the art of cooking by his German-Dutch grandmother, Leona Shaw. “I think I was born knowing how to make a stew,” he quips. “But she taught me how to bake.” In 1931 he moved to Indio, Calif. Eight years later, with a high school diploma, Williams began working for Lockheed as a parts inspector. During World War II he became a civilian employee of the Air Force in East Africa and India. In 1946 he relocated again—this time to Sonoma, smack in the middle of California’s wine country.
It was on a trip to France in 1951 that the seed for the cookware business was planted. “I was fascinated,” he says, “by the traditional housewares I saw in European department stores and shops.” Not long after, he bought a hardware store in Sonoma. Williams expanded it (“I just couldn’t get that excited about a can of redwood stain”) to include the kinds of cookware not found in the average U.S. kitchen, like steel baguette pans, English cream horn molds for making pastries, and artichoke steam racks.
In 1958 Williams was persuaded by his socially prominent customers to move his store to San Francisco. Williams-Sonoma really took off in 1979 after computer software whiz Howard Lester bought into the company and took over the business end. Today Williams-Sonoma, with 300 employees, is booming. Six new shops—including one in Boston—are planned for next year.
Williams prepares all the mouthwatering delicacies featured in his catalogs, writes “culinary notes” for the readers, and shares recipes for some of his favorite dishes, like osso buco (veal shanks with butter, cognac and black pepper). “We have too many stores to talk with customers,” he says, “so I try to do that through the catalogs.” And they answer back with 1.2 million orders a year.