Paul Williams on his ‘dead simple’ menu, working with Heston Blumenthal, and why every kitchen needs a Sharpie
The Tipperary native is marking ten years in business this year, having moved to a larger premises when his Limerick restaurant Canteen took off
When Tipperary chef Paul Williams started his stint as a stagiaire at The Fat Duck in England in 2002, he was one of just two trainees in the kitchen of what would go on to become one of the world’s best-known restaurants. Heston Blumenthal, the restaurant’s owner and culinary driving force, routinely worked alongside him in the kitchen.
By the time Murphy left two years later, The Fat Duck had been awarded its third Michelin star and was on the cusp of being named the best restaurant in the world. A prep kitchen that had been built across the road was taking on between ten and 14 new stagiaires every month, but by then, few of them got to spend any significant time with Blumenthal.
“My experience was very different to that of the people who came later, so I suppose I was lucky in that I was in the right place at the right time,” says Williams, who now works at a very different pace running Canteen, his acclaimed café in Limerick city.
In recent weeks there has been some press controversy over the conditions stagiaires are expected to put up with while they train. In many fine dining restaurants around the world, it’s considered normal for people to work for free and put in long hours in order to learn and to be able to say they trained at a famous restaurant. Some argue that this is unethical.
“I don’t have much time for that to be honest. I think everyone going into that world knows what they’re doing and should know what they’re getting themselves into,” says Williams. “Working at three star level means going in at 8am and coming out at midnight, six days a week. You’re in the trenches and it’s not for the faint-hearted. I don’t know how people can feel bitter about that kind of experience.”
Williams started his food journey after dropping out of a civil engineering degree course and working in a pizzeria in Waterford. What was meant to be a stop-gap job ended up as a career when he discovered that he loved the buzz of a professional kitchen.
He decided to study culinary arts in Dublin and interned in France before working as a chef in London and ending up at The Fat Duck. After his stint with Blumenthal, Williams moved back from Britain to Clonmel, and helped out with the family’s construction business for a year or two before taking a job lecturing at the Shannon College of Hotel Management.
“I’d applied for jobs in Irish kitchens but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to do that again, so I was very happy to teach for a while. But I had always wanted to open my own business, and back then things were pretty interesting,” he says.
“In Dublin, the likes of Jo’Burger, 3FE and Brother Hubbard had just opened. You didn’t need a lot of cash to open a café restaurant at the time - a few chairs from IKEA and a coffee machine and you were away. I kept an eye on things, then in 2012 I saw a little premises on Mallow Street in Limerick city and realised I didn’t want to be in academia all my life, so I went for it.”
Canteen became a success, and five years later, Williams moved it to its current larger premises on Catherine Street. In typically understated style, Williams describes what he does as “dead simple”.
“We serve breakfast and lunch every day, and we try to make everything ourselves. We bake, we make juice and lemonade, we make all our own pastries and we try to have some fun with it,” he says. “The menu is fun and light, and the idea is that you can come in every day or every other day, eat with us and not feel like you’re ruining your health.”
Lunch specials on at the moment include organic lamb meatball flatbreads, confit duck and sweet red onion toasties, fresh crab served with mayonnaise, pickled cucumber and homemade brown bread, and onion bhajis with black onion seeds.
“We’re very lucky with our staff, they’re excellent and we’re able to retain them. We make an effort to create a friendly and happy environment for them to work in. I’ve found though that in recent years we’ve had to learn to be a bit more flexible in terms of accommodating them,” says Williams.
“For example, we had a great staff member who wanted to take two months off last summer to go work with a non-profit in Africa, and we were happy to accommodate that.”
This is very different to how kitchens were run in the past, where people were told ‘this is the job, these are the hours, be here or don’t get paid’.
“And if you didn’t do well enough your first day in the kitchen, you were told not to bother coming back. But things have moved on a lot, and that kind of attitude isn’t helpful in terms of running a business that depends on people,” says Williams.
“A lot of our staff work part-time. They go to college and want to have a better work life balance. I think out of 19 or 20 staff, I’m the only one that works five days a week.”
Paul’s favourite five
Two years ago I was able to go to La Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch in London. It’s a restaurant built into the bike sheds in the grounds of an inner city school. It’s pretty minimalist, but I loved everything about it. They were serving simple things like roast chicken and vegetables, crab with lemon and mayo – it reminded me of St John’s Bread and Wine in London. Lots of simple things done really well.
I’ve always wanted to stay at the Grand Hotel Du Cap-Ferrat on the Côte D’Azur. It’s a five star hotel right on the coast in a part of France where all the stars have stayed and continue to stay - everyone from Winston Churchill to Elizabeth Taylor. If I won the Euromillions, that’s where I’d go.
Herbs. I love flat leaf parsley and chervil in particular, even though chervil is a herb that doesn’t seem to get used that much here. Along with butter, I use them in pretty much everything.
I love Moro: The Cookbook by Samantha Clark and Samuel Clark. It’s from Moro restaurant in London, which does Moorish-influenced Spanish food, and it’s just stunning. I’d love to open something like that here, but I don’t know if I ever will. If the stars aligned, that’s what I’d do. I love that book.
THE KITCHEN GADGET
I think a Sharpie is the most important thing you need in the kitchen. It keeps you organised and keeps everything running smoothly. They write on paper and clingfilm, so everything that gets prepped and stored in the fridge gets labelled and dated. Without that kind of info, we’d be lost. Everyone should have one.