Washington -- As Chuck Williams sees it, there are similarities between selling hardware and selling cookware.
Williams knows both fields. Back in the '50s he transformed his hardware store in Sonoma, Calif., into a kitchen supply store, soon moving it to San Francisco. That was the beginning of what is now a national Williams-Sonoma empire with over 100 stores, including three in the Baltimore area.
The secret to success in hardware as well as housewares, Williams said, is hiring folks who are familiar with the devices they are selling.
"The service and knowledge has to be there. When you walk into one of those big supermarket-style hardware stores, there is nobody around to ask a question. In the old community hardware stores, you'd pick up a tool and ask somebody, 'What is this for?' and you would get an answer."
Williams-Sonoma stores, he said, "always try to hire cooks." That means the stores have clerks who not only know what a springform pan looks like, but have actually sprung one.
Williams is 76. He no longer worries about the day-to-day operations of the company or supervises selection of goods for its catalog. But he still attends big food shows, like the Fancy Food Show in Washington this week. And he samples the fare. "There is no sense in going to one of these things unless you are going to eat your way through it."
He functions as goodwill ambassador, visiting the stores that carry his name, talking with the employees during potluck suppers.
And he has taken on a new project -- general editor of a series of cookbooks aimed at folks who are afraid of cooking.
It is maybe ironic that a man whose empire once armed culinary-obsessed Americans with food processors, pasta machines, bread makers and electric ice cream makers is now publishing books that illustrate what a pair of tongs looks like.
But Williams, a pleasant man with a straight-ahead manner, is undertaking the task with the vigor and sense of purpose of a man who once built his own house, from scratch.
"There are some things -- muffins, pizza, cookies -- that people who don't ordinarily cook are willing to try at home," he said during an interview Sunday.
And so the series of 20 books, done in cooperation with John Phillip Carroll and other chefs, published by Time-Life, keeps things very simple and very visual.
The first four books "Pies and Tarts," "Grilling" "Pasta" and "Hors d'Oeuvres" are being released next month ($14.95, Time-Life) and sold through the Williams-Sonoma stores and catalog before moving into bookstores.
Rather than frighten fledgling cooks out of the kitchen, Williams thinks these books will make the readers say, "OK, I can do that."
Williams paged through one of the books, "Grilling," as he spoke. Grilling appeals to uninitiated cooks, he said, because it isn't mysterious; all the food is in plain view. It is a cooking style that is popular all around the country, but especially in California, he said.
"In California, they grill the Thanksgiving turkey, they cook pizza on the grill. They would cook muffins on the grill if they could."
As for Williams, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., who now lives in California, he likes to grill chicken with lemon and ginger.
The following recipe is from "Grilling," Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library ($14.95 Time-Life Books).
) Lemon chicken breasts Serves six.
1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 gloves garlic minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 chicken breast halves, skinned and boned
In small bowl, stir together the juices, garlic, ginger, tarragon, salt and pepper. Arrange chicken breasts in a shallow glass or porcelain dish or enameled baking pan and pour the juice mixture evenly over them. Marinate in the refrigerator, 2 to 3 hours, turning occasionally.
Prepare a fire in the grill. Position the oiled grill rack 4-6 inches above the fire. Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat it dry with absorbent paper towels; reserve the marinade. Arrange the chicken on the rack. Grill, turning two or three times and brushing with the reserved marinade, until the chicken is no longer pink in the center, 15-20 minutes.