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Over lockdown, chef George Williams went from sitting on his sofa wondering how to spend his time, to delivering thousands of meals to the NHS and becoming somewhat of an Instagram sensation. Only months before, he was hating his job in Marketing, fantasising about following his passion for food
Tom caught up with George, our chef for this Autumn's seasonal subscription case, to hear about his journey to date, what his favourite places to eat and drink are, and what seasonality means to him.
George has crafted two recipes to accompany this Autumn's seasonal subscription case.
George: Due to the upbringing I had, I’d always been surrounded by food and the ceremony of food, but the perception of working in a kitchen by the people around me was always negative – ridiculous hours, bad pay, the fact that you never see the light of day. Growing up, there was this idea that going to university doesn’t warrant a career in hospitality. I now know this to be completely false but the people I respected around me had this idea that food isn’t intellectually stimulating enough to make a career out of. ‘You’ve got to be sitting at a desk, in a professional environment, otherwise you won’t be stimulated’, they’d say to me. Whilst I completely appreciate this is stimulating for some people, there were times in Marketing when I was desperately bored.
I loved the people at my company, but this idea that ‘if it isn’t hard work, it isn’t worthy work’ was the reason I was there, not because I was passionate about the work or because I enjoyed it. I fantasised a lot about getting out, and I had this one recurring fantasy to study at Ballymaloe – an idyllic cooking school and organic farm in the Irish countryside. It was at the end of a particularly bad week at work, I remember I was in the shower in the morning and I said to myself I need to get out of here. So that was it, I got out the shower and I booked onto the course at Ballymaloe.
Cooking had always been my absolute hobby; I’d try new recipes every night and I would think to myself why am I spending all my time doing this thing that gets me down? I thought, after cooking school I’ll work for food startup in a fast-paced environment so I’m still ‘stimulated’ but I’ll be in food and it’ll be great.
George's Autumn Squash and Saffron Risotto
George: Despite everything I had ever been told, at Ballymaloe, I have never been more stimulated in my entire life. I’ve never cared about learning something more and I was absolutely loving getting up at 05.30 (I promise not the norm for me - ask my girlfriend will attest) to bake. I had found something that was effortless but in the best way. It was hard work but it wasn’t tough to do because I loved it.
Without question my favourite element was being in the kitchen – if you want to learn to cook properly, you need to spend time in the kitchen. At Ballymaloe they told us that this was just the introduction and to continue to learn you needed to work in a professional kitchen. There is this perception that the kitchen is a male dominated environment, bullying is commonplace and it’s not a nice place to work. But I loved cooking so much that I told myself I need to try it for a year and then I’ll go back to doing something 'stimulating'. Soon after graduating I was super fortunate to land a stage at The River Café in Hammersmith and at the end of my week there they had an opening for a junior position to cover a maternity leave and I fit the bill. They like young chefs that they can mould so I was just incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
George: I'm a city boy and before Ballymaloe notions like seasonality, farm to table cooking, and proper organic were just buzz words to me. You go to the organic aisle in the supermarket, you eat at ‘farm to table’ restaurants, but actually seeing where food comes from, watching it grow, feeling the seasons come and go via the produce available to us was eye-opening and truly amazing. Before then, these ideas were just things that I accepted without really understanding them.
We arrived at Ballymaloe in September and the greenhouse was completely full, it was coming to the end of all the amazing summer produce, there were so many tomatoes! Whilst we were there, Autumn arrived, and we saw the squash and the pumpkins growing and ripening. By the time we left in December, the greenhouse was almost completely empty, there were no tomatoes left. It instils an appreciation for what it really means to be seasonal, this was something that surprised me.
After seeing this in the flesh, coming back to life outside the school my behaviour changed. I now pretty much exclusively look out for ingredients that are in season, good for the planet, good for me, and if you tick those boxes, you’ll find the ingredients will often taste better too. This is something I'll take with me for life.
George: Yeah of course, so I’d been at River for six weeks before the first lockdown, chef life was short-lived. I was sitting on the sofa in late March thinking I’ve gotta get cooking. But there wasn’t much more I could cook for my girlfriend and housemate. The supermarkets were kind of empty, it was that weird apocalyptic couple of weeks when supermarket shelves were devoid of pasta and toilet roll. So I thought right, I’ll start making fresh pasta and it’ll be a nice excuse to go and see friends, by delivering them some pasta. At the time felt really naughty too, you know going out to deliver things.
So, I started doing it and a few days later a friend asked me to deliver some pasta to their mum who was isolating. I agreed and said instead of paying me (making fresh pasta doesn't cost loads) just make a donation to Hospitality Action. A few hours later, I went to my mate’s mum’s house and she just burst into tears receiving the pasta - it was the first human contact she’d had in over a week. It was really touching. Driving home I was thinking how weird it was the whole lockdown/isolation thing, and I was trying to work out how I could help more people this way.
I posted on Instagram, offering to deliver fresh pasta to people that were isolating in return for donations to Hospitality Action. A few days went past and we were doing this all for free with people donating, until one day someone messaged me asking to deliver some food to their brother, a Doctor at Charring Cross Hospital. Except they wanted me to deliver to his whole department of 50 people. I didn’t want to say no but it was a bit too much for me to fund personally, so after about half an hour of deliberating, I thought you know what, I’ll make a crowdfunding page. I posted on Instagram explaining the situation, asking for £250 and overnight we had raised almost £4,000 – it was completely overwhelming and utterly mad! I was like ‘shit I gotta do some cooking now!’
Lots of people were thinking we love the NHS but we’re sitting at home, and we’ve got nothing to do, this was a small way of helping and being part of something. I was a drop in the ocean but there was this really amazing feeling of togetherness and all of that money went specifically to feeding the NHS staff.
A happy moment after sampling some of George's delicious food
George: Ha I don’t know about that, but I guess it was picking up a bit of traction. Around the same time, we decided to start charging for orders, we moved into a professional kitchen and set up a website. We were effectively starting a business, it was crazy! We were still not for profit, everything we made went towards feeding NHS staff or was donated to Hospitality Action, but charging meant we could cover things like deliveries and stock ordering, at one point we had five drivers delivering everyday which was pretty wild!
George: Ah it was brilliant, there was so much goodwill flying around and I couldn’t have done it without Olivia and Joel. Joel is normally a sound engineer and now he’s a better pasta chef than me…Olivia took care of a lot of the logistics. I also happened to buy Olivia a calligraphy set about three months before lockdown after she voiced an interest, it turned out to be the best investment I’ve ever made. She beautifully hand wrote so many brown bags you wouldn’t believe. Lots of friends helped along the way too, it was a great way of getting people together, we were even given use of the professional kitchen for free as it wasn’t being used. It was really amazing.
George: I get to eat really well at work which is a huge privilege. It's mostly Italian food and that doesn’t include loads of spice. I love Asian flavours and it depends how healthy I’m feeling, but I love Indian curries. My first real love for cooking came on a spice course where I learnt how to layer spices to create delicious flavours. On the other side of the spectrum, after a big weekend or a gluttonous week of heavy eating, I make myself eat a ‘punishment salad’ – I get enjoyment out of it being as bland and simple as possible – a marked and necessary change from all the oil, fat, and salt that is piled on at restaurants.
George: Kol was a highlight of 2021 – it’s definitely a big treat to go there price-wise, but in London, I don’t know anywhere that is cooking Mexican food to that level. Santiago Lastra is going to be a huge deal – he brings Mexican soul and applies it to British ingredients, it's amazing to see, and taste. Also they happen to mix the best Margarita I’ve ever tasted. It's so good I had to order five of them.
I love Bright too, for me it’s the pinnacle of a neighbourhood restaurant. Such a relaxed atmosphere, they make you feel completely at ease, but there is so much hard work that goes into the food and the wine list. The food changes frequently but you can always rely on it to deliver what you want and the service is impeccable.
Also, Fischer’s is a classic favourite. For Bratwurst and Schnitzel – it’s just sooo good – an unchanged gem.
George: I think in terms of British chefs, someone who works so well with British ingredients in such an inspiring way is Simon Rogan, who had Roganic but also owns L’Enclume in The Lakes. It’s that type of food which is incredibly complex and unquestionably ‘fine dining’ but every single item on the plate is so considered and absolutely meant to be there, right down to the tiny bit of sorrel that’s been grown in the garden and placed on top of the dish. Everything is so thoroughly thought through and refined in the best way. It’s also British through and through and I love how he’s spread his wings, he’s got an empire now, with a school of chefs but in a great way.
George's second recipe is a Beef and Anchovy Ragù served with Pappardelle.
George: I would say the best thing to do is to try it out. You don’t need to quit your job and just start working in restaurants, there are so many ways to try your hand at it first. Help a friend out at a popup, get in touch with restaurants to do a bit of a stage. Get a feel for if you like the atmosphere.
There is such a shortage of staff at the moment that there will be places happy to take you on for a bit and accept that you’re gonna get a few nos. You could try food markets, farmer’s markets, restaurants, there are lots of ways you can test it out. Accept you’re going to work for free for a day or too but, the great thing about working in food is that you’ll always get a great meal or two on your shift.
Sonia: Hmm...I was given a bottle of 1993 Château Haut-Brion by my Godfather a couple of years after I was born as it’s my birth year. He gave it to my dad who neglected to mention it to me ever, to be honest I think my he forgot about it. It wasn’t until my Godfather asked me years later how it was that it prompted my dad to find the bottle. Sharing that bottle with my dad and Godfather was really special. It was one of the most complex flavours I had ever had in my mouth, but at the same time it was so seamless and balanced it was like drinking water. As a drinking experience it was quite amazing, it just slipped down and yet my mouth was alight with flavour. I’ve grown to understand that this is what the best bottles are like, completely full of flavour yet simultaneously silky and effortless
George: Haha did she set you up for this?! Clem was an amazing flatmate! We discovered quite quickly that we were both pretty similar, we had similar educations, we took a similar route into cooking school, we’d both left marketing, and we both love sport.
Clem lights up the room and gets along with everyone so I would say if anyone is thinking about living with Clem, definitely live with her, but definitely don’t go on a run with her…I literally couldn’t keep up! She was such a good housemate and we had a lot of fun, it was always handy stealing her notes too, they were so dense! Also she makes a damn good cake!
You can order our Seasonal Wine Subscription from 1st September and sample George's cooking via the two recipes in the box. Each recipe is paired with a wine in the case.
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