8 Sept 2012

The Williams Team

DESIGNER, Alex Kravetz’s carpet features glittery fibres, which cleaners failed to vacuum clear. They are part of a glamorous scheme of polished veneers and sheer ‘Igloo’ bottle fridges. Between services, waiters un-wrap linen cloths, which billow like ghosts, before settling on generous tables, to be steamed. 

East Ham-born Alyn Williams worked at Le Champignon Sauvage, Pétrus and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. With Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, he spent eight-years, half that time as head chef. He was also head chef at the Groucho Club.
His mantra is respectful leadership. “Hospitality is just that, to be hospitable. To offer as many experience makers that compliment each other is vital. To deliver this, he runs a strict kitchen. “I try to be phlegmatic to avoid high blood pressure.” Bearing testament to the effective this approach is the fact that the Williams team are largely the same as when the restaurant opened last September. “I think we’ve hired one new person front of house and four in the kitchen,” he says.
Williams clearly loves London. “I loved growing up in 70s London. I’d like to say it was a lot safer, then, though I don’t know if it really was.” He now lives in Fulham. Of his two boys (six and nine), he admits to being “completely paranoid” about their safety – “which really pisses me off!” His eldest son, Fergus is interested in animal welfare, and aims to work at Battersea Cats and Dogs home, while youngest, Lachlan, aims to play football professionally – although it’s his “acute sense of smell” which most interests Williams.
As well as snowboarding with his wife, whom he met on the journey to Colorado where he worked as instructor for five seasons “as a whore to snowboarding”, Williams relaxes by foraging in London’s green belt. “We must be one of the greenest capitals,” he appraises. “Even in what we consider as heavily-populated areas, you encounter massive amounts of greenery and woods: Hackney Marshes, Wanstead Flats, Clapham Common, Richmond Park and Hampsted Heath. You can really escape.”
Examples of readily available flora include member of the pea family, common vetch and chickweed - “a really delicious herb which grows everywhere.” Williams also enjoys scanning the landscape for small dead nettles with pretty purple and white flowers, “delicious, and they add flashes of colour to our lunch dish of tortellini, nettles, ricotta and nettle salsa.”
Has he bumped into other chefs while foraging, I ask? “Not yet! I’m still met mostly with surprise when I tell people what grows wild in London. I went on a foraging tour walking around Queensway, from churchyards to Kensington Gardens. In three hours we’d located 26 edible varieties of plants, including an olive tree!”
Williams fervour for finding clean, free produce begun a decade ago. “Welsh forager, Yun Hider introduced me to wood sorrel, sea purslane and rock samphire, which is different to marsh samphire, being more pungent and coarse. Yun abseils down rocks to pick it for me.” Also supplying the restaurant is author of The Forager Handbook, Miles Irving, who works the Kent coastline and fields.

Simple Descriptions, Intricate Dishes
Rather than the expansive explanations of dishes he encountered while working at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, “which read like a chapter”, Williams lists elemental ingredients. “Superlatives don’t necessarily help your decision, and good staff can elaborate,” he says. 
Is the restaurant a London fixture yet, I ask? “The first year’s about building foundations. There are disadvantages we turn into advantages, like the fact The Westbury’s never had a reputation for ‘fine dining’. I thought, stupidly, where I worked before, at the two Michelin-starred Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, would play to my advantage. But my restaurant still became quite a foodie destination early on – particularly for lots of bloggers and chefs.” Indeed, a recent visitor was fourth best restaurant chef (Restaurant Magazine’s 50 Best), Alex Atala, who heads ‘D.O.M.’ in Brazil. “The 50 Best is like a list of royalty,” says Williams, “although there are at least 500 superb restaurants in the world.”

A Room of Wine
Williams and sommelier, Alex Gilbert, relish the bookings in the wine room, which sits eight in comfort. “If we get the wine choices beforehand, Alex and I can sit and discuss the characteristics of the wine, ideally tasting it, then realize ingredients which work around it. You often come up with unusual ingredients.”
The next step was the beer list and beer tasting flight. “I had a strong pre conception about beers being matched with food. I just started in the role of beer ambassador for Cornish brewer, Sharps,” says Williams. He describes Sharps’ engineer turned multi award-winning brewer, Stuart Howe as a “genius” - “a year ago I wrote beer off, but restaurant manager, Giancarlo Princigalli, (previously manager with me at Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley), said I should really try Sharps’ selection.  I went in thinking ‘beer’s beer’, but what an epiphany!” By the end of the nine beer-strong flight, Williams was not only “quite drunk, but “completely won over - I now encourage my wine team to always serve a beer within our wine flight.”
Princigalli and Williams were particularly struck by one experiment, a two year bottle-conditioned 24% alcohol brew. “Sadly they only made 200 bottles. But it had sensational notes of rum, sugar cane and, barley.”
Williams and Gilbert lavish praise upon beer communicator, Melissa Cole. “She brings me hops and I come up with dishes or rubs and marinades,” says Williams, ”like pork belly marinated for two days in hops and malt extract. You get the sweetness of malt, bitterness of hops and fruitiness of the beer which lends real depth.

Long Term Approach
Contracted for five-years, Williams describes the hotel’s owners as “supportive and pragmatic.” Unlike his time at Claridge’s, Williams benefits from not being involved with breakfast or room service. “At Claridge’s we did Gordon Ramsay breakfasts while trying to do mise-en-place for lunch. You’d finish at 11am, and then at 12pm your first customers come in. Bang, 150 covers, then 180 for dinner.”
Within the next two-years, following a full kitchen re-fit, Williams will install a kitchen table. “Then I’ll be happy. At The Berkeley, things felt rather quiet and un-atmospheric when the kitchen table wasn’t occupied. Guests always thought they’d put us off by sitting there, but the result was the opposite.”
For his 50th birthday, Williams would like to open an impressive liquid line-up, “including a Petrus '82, Haut Brion '90 and of course Chateau D'Yquem ‘67 (my birth year).”
Although Williams has only visited one wine region, the Napa Valley, he relished comparing the development of newer producers to older houses like Beringer and Mondavi. “I have since enjoyed a lot of great Californian wines,” he says, adding: “I developed a taste for the Mondavi/Rothschild collaboration, Opus One.” In the near future, Williams hopes to visit Alsace, Austria and Germany. “I'm a big fan of wines from those places, and as a complete novice I’d love to learn more at the source.”

Alex Gilbert – Head Sommelier
Before opening Alyn Williams at The Westbury in September, Gilbert worked alongside Joao Pires, head sommelier at Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner. “I learnt so much,” he says. However, unlike that “relentless experience,” Gilbert relishes having time to engage customers here, who “he never judges.” He says: “It’s a less physically tiring environment than Dinner, but sometimes I can talk too much!”
Gilbert cites the example of the customer who requested out-of-stock Champagne, Veuve Clicquot demi-sec. “By understanding their tastes, I was able to recommend an Asti Spumante substitute which they thoroughly enjoyed.”
Drawing on 10 suppliers, including Robertson for “versatility of single bottle purchases”, Flint Wines “for Burgundy”, Les Caves de Pyrene “for natural wines” and Liberty “for by-the-glass listings”, Gilbert’s cellar stands between 450-475 listings. Always involving Williams and Princigalli in tastings, Gilbert’s goal is to reach “the manageable amount of 500 listings.”
Gilbert’s list is “personal” on account of numerous natural and biodynamic wines. “Natural wines are an acquired taste,” he admits, “meaning it’s down to me to introduce diners to the different styles.” He is a particular fan of the Loire – “I’ve got friends in Angers.” Contrasting the ostentatiously priced ‘96 pink Moet in Methuselah for £35k, Gilbert is also fond of the Languedoc-Roussillon on account of the “great value” and “brave newer generations.”
But, realising the restaurant’s location, beside Bond Street, Gilbert stocks an enviable line-up of wines from Pauillac winery, Lynch-Bages. “I first encountered the château seven years-ago while assistant head sommelier at The Goring Hotel. I told myself, when I had my own list, I’d bring back memories by stocking it.” Gilbert honours that promise by listing 10 vintages (1970-2006).
Being a patriotic Brit, Gilbert is keen to amass a showcase of English sparkling wines from wineries which  aren’t available at every other restaurant.”

Epicureanism at Alyn Williams
The £55 tasting menu (nearly half the cost of that at nearby two Michelin-starred, The Square) provides a fine-tuned journey over eight courses. Highlights dispensed from a kitchen fronted by illuminated live seedlings, include an intensely sweet baby carrot grown in sand with savoury semi-freddo of foie gras and brightening liquorice. Gilbert partners this with grapey dry Alsatian Muscat (Albert Mann). Also showing precision and flair, ‘Orkney/Mersea Aquitaine’ arrives in a glass bowl featuring tender Orkney scallop tartare with Mersea rock oyster, finished with beads of Aquitaine caviar. A base of grated cucumber and juiced cucumber (a member of the melon family) reacts well with an incisive pairing of citric, Trappist-style Monsieur Rock beer from Sharps.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most fulsome partnership occurs not with flesh but very fresh vegetables from Keveral community farm, West of Plymouth. Tamed a little by age, ’09 Barossa Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro (Mourvèdre) from Torbreck (Cuvée Juveniles) brings black pepper and reasonably-ripe berry fruit to the dish’s depthful mushroom stock. Considering Williams’ careful handling of well-sourced vegetables, it’s not surprising to learn that many guests opt for a fully vegetarian offering.
Desserts are also accomplished enough to distract from the glittery carpet. Williams’ Crème Catalan cleanser is reinvented with pear granita with pine sugar. But my favourite sweet incarnation is his amusing gentrification of confectionery. I am accurately told by a waiter who, like Gilbert, also worked at ‘Dinner’, that Williams’ ‘Twix’ finger becomes ‘Snickers’-like when combined with nuts offered on the same plate. Decade mature Rivesaltes Ambré (JM Lafage) enhances such cheeky decadence...

For Harper's Wine Magazine