When Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma, died in December at the age of 100, he left behind a vast collection of culinary artifacts.
It included everything from a copper pig mold (for serving suckling pig), terrines adorned with rabbit heads and pastry equipment from the early 1900s.
Some of the items filled his San Francisco residence. Others were in storage. Now, Williams’ estate has gifted the nearly 4,000 piece collection to the Culinary Institute of America. Many of the pieces will be permanently displayed at a new culinary arts museum named in Williams’ honor in Napa Valley, Calif.
The museum will be housed in the Copia building in downtown Napa, which the CIA acquired in 2015. This facility will expand the CIA’s West Coast presence and also serve as the headquarters of its new Food Business School.
“Chuck Williams introduced the culinary tools and equipment that were essential in transforming the art of cooking, eating and entertaining in the American home,” CIA President Dr. Tim Ryan said this month in a statement.
Williams began collecting cookware in the early 1950’s while traveling through France and other countries in Europe.
“That interest grew into a passion,” Wade Bentson, Williams’ long-time business associate, travel companion and friend of 55 years, tells us.
“When Chuck first went to France and discovered all the types of cooking equipment — how beautifully items were made — he fell in love,” says Bentson, who also serves as director of Williams’ estate.
This was the inspiration that kick-started his business. He purchased a hardware store in the mid 1950’s in Sonoma, Calif., that he transformed into a cooking store and eventually a chain.
At that time, in the 1950’s, “America was baking in aluminum pans and making tuna fish casseroles … and jellos,” says Bentson. Most Americans had never used a heavy cast-iron pan or a Madeleine mold.
But as Julia Child introduced Americans to French cooking techniques on her television show, there was growing interest in cooking that way at home. “Julia led the way,” says Bentson.
This gave Williams an opening. “While Julia Child guided these intrepid home cooks through unfamiliar techniques and recipes, Chuck Williams supplied them with previously unavailable cookware from France and Italy to help them achieve results,” wrote Paula Johnson, a curator at the Smithsonian, in a blog post for the National Museum of American History. Johnson visited Williams as part of curating the museum’s ongoing exhibit, Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.
As American cooks began to expand their horizons, Williams began importing all sorts of cookware, ranging from the useful to the fanciful: souffle dishes, tart pans and terrines. “It was a great scavenger hunt,” says Bentson.
Bentson recalls shopping with Williams at the Les Halles market in Paris (before it was demolished). “It was iron and glass, like a huge old Victorian conservatory,” he says. In the area surrounding the fresh food market, “there were dealers selling all kinds of cookware,” where Williams was introduced to brands such as E. Dehillerin.
The search for interesting cooking accouterments took Williams to “the basement of department stores, hardware stores,” says Bentson. “There were even shops for just tin molds.” Williams connected with commercial distributors and began importing cookware to sell in the U.S. “It was exciting,” says Bentson.
In addition to the French cookware, he became enamored of the Cuisinart food processor, which was inspired by a French device called the French Robot Coupe. (His personal Cusinart was donated to the Smithsonian exhibit.)
Bentson says his hope is that once the collection is on display at the CIA , “we’d like to see a lot of interaction with the students at the CIA. We hope to have them use some of the equipment … to see how things used to be done.”
The CIA has hired experts who are in the process of appraising and documenting articles in the collection.