Once we were content to cook with flimsy pots and two types of cake pans (round and angel food), and to eat little beyond meat and potatoes, iceberg lettuce and a fair amount of lime-green Jell-O. Then along came Charles E. "Chuck" Williams, with his keen eye and impeccable taste, and an uncanny ability to know what we needed in our kitchens long before we ever did.
It wasn't long before he had us mesmerized by KitchenAid stand mixers, Cuisinart food processors, Krups coffee makers and juicers -- as well as zesters, saute pans, tart pans and real Italian aceto balsamico.
Since Williams, a former carpenter, transformed a hardware store in Sonoma, Calif., into the first Williams-Sonoma cookware shop in 1956, his business has grown into a $3 billion-a-year corporation. More than 36,000 employees operate more than 250 Williams-Sonoma stores nationwide and in Canada, as well as 300 stores in the company's other chains: Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids and PBteen, Hold Everything and West Elm.
This fall, the cookware connoisseur, lifestyle visionary and retail revolutionary at the heart of it all turned 90.
"It took a man to help us understand cooking is not a woman's drudgery," says Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant who has known Williams for years. "It took a man to show us that it could be fulfilling and wonderful."
It took Chuck Williams.
"He really made the phrase 'gourmet kitchen' a part of everyday language," says Narsai David, San Francisco Bay Area restaurateur. "He made the exotica of fancy cooking something accessible to everybody."
Williams -- a genteel gentleman with a penchant for knit vests, tweed jackets and a spot of tea on fine china in the afternoon -- has no plans to retire.
"I wouldn't have anything to do," he says.
Although Williams no longer scouts out and approves every item sold in his stores, he still edits every Williams-Sonoma cookbook published. At the company's headquarters in San Francisco, he comes in every day when he's not traveling, always taking the stairs, never the elevator, to his third-floor office. At night, he's often the last one out the door.
When Williams looks back over the past 49 years, he still seems surprised that one store would beget all this.
"It was a French kitchenware store, only French. And it was successful from the start," Williams says. "I always bought what I liked. Fortunately, a lot of other people liked the things, too. I bought things that were well designed, well made, that performed a function. And I saw no reason not to stick with that."
Just like Julia Child, Williams discovered his destiny in France.
He grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and learned to love cooking from his grandmother, who had owned a restaurant. After working as an airplane mechanic for McDonnell Douglas during World War II, Williams settled in Sonoma in 1947, where, as a contractor, he built homes. Five years later, he traveled with some friends to Paris for the first time. And there, his discerning eye widened in awe. Charlotte molds, omelet pans, heavy-duty knives, even decent wooden spoons -- all were unknown in the United States back then, but in France, Williams found them in abundance.
And along with them, he found a new calling. Williams bought an old hardware store in Sonoma in 1954 with the idea of turning it into a shop specializing in French cookware. Two years later, the doors opened, with the name Williams-Sonoma. It took a while to catch on, he says with a chuckle. In the early days, customers would erroneously call him "Bill Sonoma."
Because many of his clients were upper-crust San Francisco ladies-who-lunch, it wasn't long before Williams decided to move the store to San Francisco.
The Sutter Street building was the perfect location at the time -- just down the block from the Elizabeth Arden salon, a women's club and two medical buildings. Many of those walking by, seeing Williams out front sweeping the entryway, couldn't help but be enticed inside by the artsy cookware displayed in fine cabinets.
In the early 1960s, when Child made a souffle on her The French Chef cooking show, customers would flock to Williams' store the next day for souffle dishes.
In 1971, the first Williams-Sonoma catalog was created. Seven years later, when the business side became too much for Williams, he sold the company to Howard Lester, a computer service and software entrepreneur, for $100,000. Williams, who was given stock in the company when it went public in 1983, has stayed on as director emeritus and watched it grow into a national retail phenomenon.
Williams-Sonoma also started the trend in retailers as lifestyle managers. "When the company found out that someone buys expensive cookware, it figured they would buy expensive patio ware or bed ware, too," says Eugene Muscat, a business educator in San Francisco. "Williams-Sonoma started in the kitchen, but now it wants to treat every part of your life, from the time you wake up to the time you get back home from work. That's how it has evolved."
Carolyn Jung writes for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.
SEEKING COOKIE RECIPES
It's time for The Sun's annual holiday cookie exchange.
Again this year, we decided to focus on the two kinds of cookies that are most popular during the season: cookies that are fast and easy and cookies that are fancy enough to give as gifts or serve at parties.
Send your favorite recipes to Liz Atwood, Food Editor, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278, fax them to 410-783-2519, or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline is Nov. 10.
We will select a dozen of the best to be published in the Taste section in early December.