WHEN, a few years back, the position of head chef at The Ritz became vacant, The Times reported that a book had opened on who would get it. The two favourites were John Williams and David Nicholls, both renowned chefs with stellar reputations. John lost out to the more experienced candidate – but a few more years down the line and, having tried to tempt him with the job three times, the hotel made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I got a telephone call and they said, ‘What would it take for you to work at The Ritz?’,” he recalls. “I came to speak to them and I knew the general manager, Terry Holmes, and he said, ‘Look, we would love to have you here. What would it take?’. I said, ‘Not a lot – let’s see what we can do.’ I walked away an hour and a half later as executive chef of The Ritz.”

What this illustrates is just how prestigious the hotel is. Conceived by renowned hotelier César Ritz and built in 1906, it is truly iconic, frequented by presidents and prime ministers, royalty and celebrities down the years. During John’s tenure, the venue famous for its Louis XVI-style décor has received a Royal Warrant – the first and only hotel to do so – and a Michelin star, and John himself has been recognised with an MBE and the French equivalent, a CMA. He commands a team of more than 60 chefs, overseeing menus at The Ritz Restaurant, The Palm Court and The Rivoli Bar and he’s just produced a book, The Ritz London, The Cookbook, detailing recipes from all three. For John, there’s something magical about the hotel. “I love The Ritz,” he says simply. “It’s a great environment and we’ve got a beautiful kitchen. It’s quintessentially British and of a certain style.”

Yet this was not a style to which John was brought up – far from it. The son of a largely absent South Shields fisherman and one of six children, he was cared for almost single-handedly by his mother. It wasn’t a privileged childhood, but it taught him a love of food. “I loved Sunday dinner,” says John, 60. “Because there were six kids and my father was away, my mam needed help. I was probably the chosen one to help her. I distinctly remember one day having lamb and I had to make the mint sauce. She said, ‘Just chop it up’ and she put it in a cup with vinegar, water and sugar and popped it in the oven to get hot and that was it. It was absolutely lovely. I got the job scraping the Jersey Royals – anybody who knows me will tell you they hide them in the kitchen here because I’ll eat them all. I do have a real love of Jerseys. It was 12 o’clock, before she served the Sunday dinner, and she put four Jersey Royals on a plate with a little bit of butter. I tell you, I love that flavour – it drives me nuts – and it goes back to that time.”

Having decided on a career in cooking, John enrolled on a “link course” – deemed to be more masculine than domestic science – at South Shields Marine and Technical College. Naturally loquacious, and still with a strong Tyneside accent, he recounts the first time he cooked for his dad. “One of the first things I made in college was a curry and I brought it home,” he says. “My dad said, ‘Ye can cook, ye, can’t ye?’.” He received a similar response from the course leader, chef Arthur Robertson, who was an early mentor. “The first dish was spaghetti Bolognese – can you imagine? It was quite exotic then,” laughs John. “He was watching me and he said, ‘You really like this, don’t you?’ and I said, ‘Like it? I bloody love it!’.”

An apprenticeship followed, with John working 12-hour spilt shifts at The Percy Arms, in Otterburn, for only £9 a week – “They couldn’t even tax me,” he jokes – and attending college in his own time. It taught him a strong work ethic and made him realise where he wanted to be. “I said to myself early on, ‘I’ve got to go where the money is, i.e. London, to do the kind of cooking I want to do,’ so off I went and never looked back,” he says.

John’s first job in the capital was at The Royal Garden, where he honed his skills in both cooking and management. He realised he wanted to work in hotels, rather than restaurants, which he describes as “brutal” and set his sights on the very best. At 27 – extremely young for the position – he was appointed premier sous chef at Claridge’s, later becoming head chef. “I adored Claridge’s,” he says. “I stayed there for nine years as premier sous chef and another nine-and-a-half, nearly ten years, as executive head chef. It made me realise that I only ever wanted to work in the finest establishments.”

And then came The Ritz, where he’s worked for the past 14-and-a-half years, cooking for the great and good, serving – if this can be said of any chef – Britishness on a plate. He’s not impressed by the clientele – unless, that is, they happen to be royal. “People say to me, ‘Do you like cooking for celebrities?’ but I don’t even know who they are,” laughs John. “If you talk to me about presidents of America, I’ve cooked for lots of them, but does that mean anything to me? No. If you say to me the Queen, if you say to me the Prince of Wales, if you say to me the royal family, I’m proud.”

The feeling, it seems, is mutual, with John having catered for such prestigious occasions as the Queen’s 70th and 80th birthdays and, most recently, Charles’ 70th. “He was the editor-in-chief of Country Life magazine and he asked me to cook his favourite pheasant dish,” explains John. “You can see it in the November issue – I recreated his recipe. I’ve cooked a few things for him.

He loves me to cook mutton and I made him some lovely little mutton pies in November, which he really adored.” And the Queen? “For the Queen, it’s quite conservative food – fish, lamb, probably chicken,” he says. “I’m not cooking for the royal family every day, it’s only special occasions.”

John describes his food as classic, but with a modern twist. It’s British and seasonal and he insists on everything being fresh, down to the Dublin Bay shellfish being brought to the kitchen alive. There’s nothing fancy or exotic on his menus – just simple, honest fare. Much, in fact, like the food of his childhood. “I love food,” he says. “Food is everything to me. I think that’s probably the most important thing – you’ve got to have a real, genuine love of food.”

The Ritz London: The Cookbook by John Williams MBE (Mitchell Beazley, £30). Photography by John Carey