Foodie Features

Sam Williams – Rising Star

By Rosie Birkett

Sam Williams, Cafe Murano’s head chef and a Seasoned By Chefs editorial board member, tells us about her love of billtong and how she came to be Angela Hartnett’s protégée.

“Billtong is the biggest thing I miss,” says Sam Williams, the South African-born head chef of Cafe Murano in London’s St James’. “It’s hard to find here and it’s extremely expensive. I always used to chew away on that and watch sport. Living here for such a long time I’m very accustomed to the food now and I’m ‘English and Italian’ when I eat.” Williams has lived in the UK on and off for sixteen years, working as a chef after completing catering college in Cape Town.

However, her forays into food started in the family home, with food cooked by her Norwegian mother and English father.

“My mum loved cooking and still does – we always had home cooked meals. As a girl I’d be sitting on a chair in the kitchen, peeling beans and – especially at Christmas – we would all get together and cook and bake for weeks. Food, family and sharing has always been a big thing for us. My brothers live over here in London now and we’ve carried on that tradition of getting together to cook.”

Williams has also found parallels with the adopted North Italian cuisine she cooks at Cafe Murano and that of the country in which she grew up. “With South African food there’s lots of fish, white meat and chicken, lots of salads and cured meat in the summer. In winter it was the opposite – lots of rustic, hearty food; loads of pulses and beans – it reminds me of North Italian cuisine.”

It was during time spent working as a chef with high end contract caterer Smart Hospitality during the London Olympics in 2012 that Williams formed a career-defining relationship with Murano’s Michelin-starred chef, Angela Hartnett.

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“The Olympics were amazing, but it was the hardest seventeen days of my life,” she says. “I ran the hot service kitchen under Angela and we fed five thousand people a day – including sending food out to chalets and the royals. It went so quickly and I wish I’d had more appreciation of it, but I was just on deadline. I was really honoured to be involved and I thought London pulled off a great job.”

After the Olympics, Williams took a much-deserved holiday and, as fate would have it, she was in New York at the same time as her former boss, on whom she’d clearly left a lasting impression. “We met up for lunch and Angela asked me what my plans were and I didn’t really know; we chatted about the fact that she wanted to do something else along the lines of a Cafe Murano and asked if I would be interested in cooking there. Of course, I told her I was and she said that, in the meantime, I could come and work at Murano itself. She’s an amazing chef and really down to earth.”

Fast-forward to 2013 and Williams was the opening chef of Murano’s more relaxed little sister – and she’s loved every minute of it (as too, have London’s food press). “It’s so honest, it’s rustic – there’s no paraphernalia involved – we’re just taking really good ingredients and using them to the best of their ability. We don’t waterbath anything – it’s back to the old way of doing things and treating things with respect. Cooking fish in a pan, coating it with butter and looking after it.”

Cafe Murano is currently expanding its private dining room offering, with special events and wine dinners.

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