Chef Name: Oli Williamson
Title: Head Chef
How old were you when you started cooking professionally?
I was 16 when I properly started cooking at any kind of professional level. I had done kitchen-porter work and worked in cafes previously, from the age of 13 – that’s when I began to think this would be the career for me. I finished school and went to college one day a week, working the other four or five days.
What’s your earliest and fondest first memory of food?
I remember buying pre-made pizza bases when I was around 10. I used to love making pizzas with the family… as well as making marble cakes with loads of food colouring!
I also have good memories of making broccoli and blue cheese soup with my Dad. And he always used to make chilli con carne – one of my favourites.
But my fondest food memory has to be boozy Christmas cake with icing and marzipan made by my Grandma!
Which chefs inspire you most and why?
I’ve had the great fortune of working for some incredibly inspiring chefs, who have all inspired me enormously: Daniel Clifford, Corey Lee, Isaac McHale, Alex Dilling, and Ed Cooke.
Kevin Mangeolles, who I worked for aged 18, really inspired me to go to Australia and this advice changed my life. Aged 21, in another country, with different cuisines and seeing another culture – I grew up massively.
I worked with Dan Barber for a short period on a project called WastED, and his mentality has resonated with me ever since. Thinking of future proteins, looking after the planet and people, and reducing waste are all things we are currently working on at the Fat Duck in a huge way.
And Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay have inspired me from a young age. Boiling Point and In Search of Perfection are still shows I watch today.
What are your two favourite cookbooks and why?
Like many chefs and keen cooks, I have way too many! (So I’ve forced myself to narrow it down to three)
James Martins’ Desserts – I’ve had it for around 15 years, and it’s always my go-to for a classic, delicious dessert.
Modernist Bread by the Modernist Cuisine team – although I’ve only read around 20% of it, it’s the most amazing collection of information and I’ve loved learning and baking from it.
Astrance: A Cook’s Book by Pascal Barbot – an incredible insight into a genius chef and one of my favourite restaurants.
Which two ingredients could you not live without?
Salts – soys/salts/even msg.
Acids – vinegars and lemon juice.
What is your favourite comfort food to cook at home?
Chilli cheese beans on toast with crispy chilli oil and gruyere cheese.
Anything on the barbecue, and Cote de Boeuf with vegetables.
If you could eat at any Michelin star restaurant in the world today, where would it be and why?
Etxebarri – open-fire cooking at its absolute pinnacle.
L’Ambroisie – no words needed.
And who would you take as your guest?
My partner, Marie (also in the industry and the best dining partner).
What do you look for in a good chef?
Someone willing to take initiative, push themselves and be pushed beyond what they thought was possible, a good palate, and open minded.
Humility also goes a very long way, as well as being a good team player.
What advice would you give to chefs starting their career paths now?
Cooking is a long-term career path. Strongly consider your options before starting a job, then commit to one for a few years minimum and grow. Don’t rush into things and move around between too many jobs. Work hard and push yourself, and the rewards will come.
How has the pandemic affected your restaurant? And how did you adapt and evolve throughout?
When the pandemic hit I was working at the Greenhouse, and it forced its closure. For almost 6 months I didn’t have a full-time job, so I took part in pop-ups, takeaways and private chef work to keep paying the bills and stay busy. I really loved all these new experiences.
That led me to a position at the Fat Duck, where it’s been a huge challenge – constantly updating the rota at any given moment, and ‘adapting to survive’. We are fortunate to have such a committed and flexible team. We were all in it together, and this strong sense of community and teamwork really got us though.
Can you share any wisdom from the experience so far with others? Have you changed? Has your cooking changed?
I’ve aged!! But seriously, taking more control of my physical and mental health has always eluded me, but giving that more time during the pandemic has really taught me a lot about myself. I enjoyed running and exercising, and have learnt the importance of sleep.
Staying positive whatever happens, and spreading that energy throughout a team, has been tough – but something I’ve relied on. I wouldn’t say my cooking style has changed much; much more my management style.
Chef Oli Williamson is a Head Chef at The Fat Duck Restaurant
Address: High Street, Bray, Berkshire
Telephone: +44 (0) 1628 580333