Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams dies at 100

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Chuck Williams, who founded Williams-Sonoma 60 years ago in Sonoma and helped launch a food revolution by putting quality French saucepans, paring knives and fine oils in the hands of American cooks, has died.

Williams died of natural causes Saturday, a company representative said. He was 100.

Charles E. Williams was inspired to transform a hardware store on Broadway near the Sonoma Plaza into a shop for European kitchen tools after a trip to France in 1953. It was a time when canned soups and packaged meals dominated American home cooking, but Williams was part of a nascent movement of food enthusiasts who were experimenting with French recipes.

Williams’ vision for the business he opened in 1956, named Williams-Sonoma because he felt it sounded high-end, came five years before the debut of Julia Child’s landmark cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Stocked with the proper tools like the soufflé dish, madeleine mold and saute pan, Williams-Sonoma already was poised for a sea change in American cooking.

Today, the multibillion-dollar retail juggernaut has more than 250 outlets across the country and its catalog is ubiquitous. The parent company also operates the Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids and West Elm home-goods chains.

Sonoma chef, cheesemaker and caterer Sheana Davis said she remembers as a teenager walking into the Broadway store with its iconic black-and-white checkerboard tiles and yellow walls. She would later open a catering company, Epicurean Connection, through which she worked for Williams.

“He was a great leader and culinary professional, and he was always so graceful,” Davis said. “Everyone locally admired him.”

Williams understood the concept that the tool can make the dish, Davis said.

“If I didn’t make cheese in a Le Creuset, it wouldn’t turn out the same,” Davis said.

Last year, Williams celebrated his 99th birthday at a newly reopened store at the company’s original Plaza location.

Born Oct. 2, 1915, in northern Florida, Williams has said that his first memories included hand-mixing egg whites with his grandmother, who at one time owned a restaurant.

The Depression caused great turmoil in his family, but it also brought him to Southern California after his father’s auto-repair business closed.

His father soon abandoned the family, and his older sister died in an accident. When his mother moved back to Florida, Williams stayed behind.

Williams packed fruit for shipment for a Palm Springs date ranch and began learning carpentry. He moved to Los Angeles just before World War II and worked for Bullock’s and I. Magnin department stores. Williams had said this began his study of visual merchandising, and he once shocked people by placing a large vase of lilies on top of a giant pedestal in the glove department, company officials said in a news release.

Williams moved north to Sonoma in 1947, at a time when the sleepy town was more apples and almonds than wine and tourism. He built a house that still stands on MacArthur Street in Sonoma.

When he opened the store in 1956, he built the cabinets himself and began lining the walls with copper pots and white porcelain dishes. And he quickly began capturing the interest of people who lived in San Francisco and Piedmont but had summer homes in Sonoma.

He sold most of the company in 1978, but continued to work for it into his 90s.

Williams, in a 2006 an interview with The Press Democrat, said that he took annual trips to France to source pots and pans. He would track down manufacturers and visit factories to find the best kitchen tools.

“I spent a lot of time in Paris. I loved looking at the stores and saw what was available for the home cook, like heavy pots and pans. You couldn’t buy those here — just thin aluminum pots. The tools were lousy. I thought somebody should do something about it,” he said.

In 1961, when Child’s first cookbook launched a nationwide effort to learn French cooking, Williams had already moved his Sonoma shop to downtown San Francisco near high-end women’s clubs, beauty parlors and just about every medical office during that time.

What began as a drive to fuel his own interest in cooking and entertaining led him through a six-decade career with recognition from the James Beard Foundation and induction into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame.

Described as hard working and insistent that customers be treated well, Williams could be seen in the store’s early days sweeping the sidewalk and never retired from the company, continuing to edit cook books and make appearances into his 90s.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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