Retail tycoon Charles Williams dies of natural causes in his sleep early Saturday. The Williams-Sonoma founder was responsible for introducing French cookware and high-end ingredients into American kitchens. He had recently turned 100, according to News York Times.
Williams bought an old hardware store in Sonoma in 1956 and began filling it with the copper and enamel ware he’d seen while traveling through Europe. Chuck ignited America’s enthusiasm for cooking and quickly turned his own passion into a highly successful retail and mail-order business, one that now boasts 623 stores, including Pottery Barn and West Elm.
“He just loved food and entertaining,” said Mary Risley, a close friend of the retail tycoon who formerly ran Tante Marie’s Cooking School and still teaches classes out of her home. Risley first met Williams when the two were neighbors on Nob Hill and shopped at a grocery store nearby.
“The store put produce out front, but the better stuff was in the back,” Risley recalls. “Chuck and I would meet going through the tomatoes in the back room. We knew all the tricks.”
Risley said that over the years, Williams would downplay his success, saying he was just always in the right place at the right time.
The news that Chuck Williams died spread like wildfire over the weekend. Born Oct. 2, 1915, and raised in northern Florida, the housewares enthusiast had fond early memories of baking alongside his grandmother, who once owned a restaurant. But his family suffered in the Great Depression and traversed the country looking for work when Williams was 16, ending up in Palm Springs.
Williams found a job working at the roadside stand of a family-owned date ranch, and his family left him there. The date farmer saw to it that Williams finished high school before Williams moved to Los Angeles to work at I. Magnin & Co. as a window dresser, where he gained experience in visual merchandising. Chuck once placed an enormous vase of lilies on top of a giant pedestal in the glove department, a bold move that “shocked everyone,” he recalled, and became a store tradition.
As a mechanic with the Army during World War II, Williams was stationed in India and Africa, where he was able to explore the culinary techniques and foods of the area.
Chuck Williams moved to Sonoma after a golf trip with friends left him smitten with the then-sleepy town, and began socializing with friends who also loved to cook and entertain. A group of them took a trip to Paris in 1953, and his life was forever changed.
There, Chuck spent time in cookware stores and the restaurant-supply sections of department stores, which were unlike those in America. Williams quickly became enthralled with both the cuisine he experienced and the tools necessary to produce such dishes — the coq au vin and the Dutch ovens, the pâtés and the molds, the gratins and the mandolins.
“Back then, American cooks typically had two knives — a big one and a small one — and not necessarily sharp,” Williams recalled in a 1995 story. “Pots were mostly those terrible little aluminum things that always warped. They would wobble on the stove, and it was hard not to burn food in them.”
When Chuck Williams bought the Sonoma hardware store in 1956, new pots and pans were some of the first items he sold.