He’s an American icon, a man credited with changing the American kitchen – a man who’s won every culinary award imaginable.
He’s hobnobbed with Julia Child and James Beard. He’s dined with cookbook author Marion Cunningham and knife magnate Wolfgang Wusthof. And he’s appeared on television with Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and others.
Charles E. Williams, known as “Chuck” to the world, has built an empire from his love of cooking and made Williams-Sonoma, the company he founded, a household name.
And while it should be obvious, not everyone knows that Chuck Williams’ dream started here in this small town almost 70 years ago – a town that captured his attention and his heart.
“It seemed natural to select Chuck Williams as our 2013 Muse,” said Toni Castrone, executive director of the Sonoma Community Center. “In the past two years, we’ve completed the Rotary Kitchen and expanded our culinary programming. It was the right time.”
The event, which annually honors a historic or iconic figure related to Sonoma, will take place on Friday, Oct. 11, at Ramekins Culinary and Event Center. When it first opened, Williams, who is now 97, was present to give it a good start.
His own start came many years earlier, at a time when the town had a population of 2,500 and a hardware store came on the market.
“Three Sonoma Business Firms Have New Owners,” said the Index-Tribune’s front-page headline on Oct. 15, 1953, with small stories about three new merchants. One of them was Chuck Williams, who was pictured holding a stack of boxes with cluttered hardware store shelves in the background. The story said he’d come to Sonoma as “a guest of friends at Sonoma Golf Course and immediately fell in love with the area and has made it his home since.”
The story went on to say that he planned to “expand the business operated by Ralph Morse for five years.”
Expand he did. Chuck knew all about remodeling. He liked to work with his hands and build things. After returning home after World War II, he’d helped a friend in Porterville build a home and remodel others and decided to become a building contractor. It was 1947 when he settled in Sonoma, and during the next six years he built three houses here, which he sold. All are still standing today.
But becoming a merchant appealed to him more than home-building. Having grown up during the Great Depression, he wanted to engage in a business that had more stability. The hardware store, built in front of a house, could be turned into smaller spaces, providing rental income, and the house could be his residence.
One of his remodeling efforts nearly caused him serious injury.
“Chuck Williams Escapes Injury as Fumes Explode in Kitchen in Store,” read the headline in the February, 1956 edition of the Index-Tribune. The fire department, just across the street, arrived in record time. Chuck, who was using a binding cement to install a sink top, was unaware of its flammability and the fumes, ignited by a pilot light in a heater, caused the fire. He was unhurt, but the “resulting explosion smashed all the dishes and glasses, burned all the cabinets, broke the ceiling plaster and shattered kitchen windows. “The damage estimate was several hundred dollars.