” No one is born a great cook one learns it by doing “
About Chef Willi The Person
Everything in Willi Wilson’s life has been accidental; from becoming a chef after joining the army to moving from his hometown in New Zealand to Australia to China and finally making India his home.
Popularly known in the hotel circles as ‘Chef Willi’, (he is now the chief operating officer, food and beverages at Burgundy Restaurants, Fresco Gelato and Tuscana Restaurants) Wilson was born in a lower middle class family in a small town in New Zealand. His family could never afford a holiday or exotic food when he was a child. The only holiday in the weekends were the visits to his grandmother, and the only food he had was what his mother provided at home.
After a small stint as a horticulturist, he joined the army at 17. But what awaited him was not the battlefield but the kitchen.
“I was a bad soldier but the army gave me good training in cooking. It happened accidentally. One of the first people I met was an English sergeant who had won some medals for his culinary skills. The way he made pastries amazed me. He showed me what cooking was all about, and cooking suddenly interested me. Luckily, I was put in the mess by chance.
Soon, I was sent to train in international cooking in a hotel in New Zealand. And that changed my life forever.”
As days passed by, the joy he derived from cooking grew by leaps and bounds; so did the desire to learn the culinary practices of other countries. At 21, he left the army and went to Australia to be a chef. Then he went on to Great Britain and Germany. After 1987, he started traveling all around the world, and that is how he reached China and became the executive chef at the Sheraton.
His mother was initially happy that he had a job. As he started working in hotels all around the world, his mother became really proud of him. But not his friend’s mother, chuckles Willi. “She asked me one day, ‘Willi, in which pub are you working?’ That was the time I was the chief chef in a five-star hotel and 180 cooks worked under me. But her question brought me back to the ground!”
After the Tiananman Square incident, Willi decided to leave Beijing for Singapore. The next destination was the newly renovated Oberoi Grand in Kolkata as the chief chef. That was in 1996.
“I wanted to be in a place that was different from Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. India, and Kolkata, seemed to be a land of excitement,” remembers Willi. But his Scottish wife didn’t share the excitement, and she left for Scotland after two months in Kolkata, only to come back after he moved to Goa.
Kolkata was the City of Joy for him “despite the slums, the traffic and red flags. The poverty did not shake me as I was in China before I came to Kolkata. More than that, more of my interactions were with the people who worked with me. I had a tough time in China as I had to educate the Chinese workers more than I did in India. And I still cherish the long walks I had from the bridge over the Hooghly river. It was a tough but friendly city.”
It was at the Oberoi that he also got the name ‘Chef Willi’. The name stuck and even today, people call him that. “When I came here [Chennai], many people asked me, are you not Chef Willi from the Oberoi?”
One thing he will never forget about Kolkata is the love and warmth he received from his team. He recollects with amusement his shock when he saw his kitchen staff shouting “Chef go home, Chef go home…” outside his office. A couple of weeks later, when they greeted him, ‘Hello Chef, how are you?’ he said, ‘I thought you wanted me to go home’. “No, no… don’t worry. You are always welcome here and we want you here but when the union man makes us stand there and shout, we have to do that!”
That was Willi’s first exposure to “red flags and Communism” and he describes this as “Communism with a human face”! Most of them are Willi’s friends even now. After three years, he bid goodbye to the Oberoi Grand, red flags and Communism, and moved from Kolkata to Goa. “It was a different experience altogether. My wife, who joined me in Goa, and I, used to go down to the beach and have coffee every evening! However busy I was, we used to go for a half hour walk on the beach.Those were wonderful days, very relaxing. On the other hand, you don’t have any such place to relax in Kolkata.”
After Goa, it was the Leela at Mumbai. And in 2002, he moved to Chennai to take care of the Park with the intention of going back in six months. “But here I am. It is 2010 and I am still here in Chennai.”
From being a chef at the Park, he decided to take charge of food and beverages at Pink Papaya Foods in 2006. Why this change? “With the untimely death of my wife, I had only my cat as company. I had no family, and I was going through a real tough time. I did not want to work from morning till night. I was tired of hotels as it was my work that prevented me from spending enough time with my wife when she was ill. I wanted to take a break and travel to unknown countries. If I am a chef, I can’t do this. That was when Vipin Sachdev (managing director, Pink Papaya) asked me, will you work for me? I accepted the offer and decided to move from the kitchen to F&B.”
Wherever he escaped to, he has to be back in Chennai where his friends and acquaintances are. ” I don’t know anyone in New Zealand now. I have no one in any other place in the world. I have to be back in Chennai after a while. If the government of India had the permanent resident option, I would have definitely taken it.
Sadly even after 15 years, I can’t stay permanently in India. I like India. I like its people. Yes, I don’t like the dirt and the traffic but my likes are far more than my dislikes. Chennai is one of the few cities in India where you have a beautiful beach right outside the city. You work in the city and in the weekends, disappear to the East Coast Road. Where else you can have such a luxury? I will buy an apartment here and make my base here. I do not want to be a refugee any more.”
Does that mean he feels at home in Chennai? “No, I don’t ‘feel at home’ in Chennai; It is my home.”
|NAME:||(Roger C.) Willi Willson|
|NATIONALITY:||New Zealand / Australian|
|BIRTHPLACE:||Tauranga, New Zealand|
|DATE OF BIRTH:||29th May, 1956|
|MARITAL STATUS:||Widowed – No children|
|APPRENTICESHIP:||Cooking Apprenticeship, New Zealand Forces|
|CITY AND GUILDS:||706/1 Pass / Credit, 1974 and 706/2 Pass / 1976|
1. April 2006 until present
Director of Food and Services, The Park Hotel, Chennai
214 Room boutique Hotel and Spa
2. January 2002 until 2006
Executive Chef, The Park Hotel, Chennai
214 Room boutique Hotel, opened in May 2002
3. October 2000 to December 2001
Executive Chef,The Leela Kempinski Hotel,Mumbai
243 Room deluxe Leading Hotel of the World Hotel
References – Philippe Charraudeau
4. January 1999 to August 2000
General Manager, Kenilworth Beach Resort, Utorda Beach, Goa
5 Star renovating property http://www.kenilworthhotels.com/goa_home_page.htm
Reference – Raju Bharat
5. April 1996 to January 1999
Executive Chef, The Oberoi Grand, Calcutta, India
249 Room Heritage Leading Hotel of the world Hotel
References – Dominique Nordmann, – Roland Fuchs, – Peter Schatzmann
6. April 1993 to April 1996
Executive Chef, Holiday Inn Park View, Singapore
300 Rooms, established city Hotel
References – Michael Horsburgh, Ab Jan Vasseur
7. December 1991 to March 1993
Opening Executive Chef Consultant, Holiday Bali Hai, Bali, Indonesia
200 Rooms, of an opening Hotel (June 1992)
References – Patrick Fiat, – Peter Pollmeier, – Bali Staff members
8. September 1990 to November 1991
Opening Executive Chef, Sheraton Lagoon Nusa Dua Beach, Bali, Indonesia
276 Rooms, opening Hotel (March 1991)
Reference – Leonardo Altamarino
9. May 1988 to July 1990
Executive Sous, then Executive Chef, Great Wall Sheraton Hotel, Beijing, China
1004 Room deluxe city Hotel
Reference – Bernard Brender, – Karl Steeb
10. May 1987 to May 1988
Chef de Partie, Frankfurt Airport Sheraton Hotel, West Germany
1050 Room airport deluxe Hotel, Papillon Restaurant
Reference – Gabriel Crettz
11. October 1985 to May 1987
Sous Chef, Sheraton Brisbane Hotel & Towers, Brisbane, Australia
411 Room five star deluxe Hotel with towers
References – Robert Powell, – John O’Shea
PROFILE ON R. C. WILLSON (CHEF WILLI)
NAME: R. C. Willi Willson
DATE OF BIRTH: May 1956
NATIONALITY: New Zealand / Australian
Managing Director – Chef Willi’s Restaurants and Consultancy Pvt Ltd
Known around the world by his friends as “Willi”, I am an original “Kiwi/Aussie”, who has been working in Asia for the past 30 years, while I have lived in Chennai the last 14 of them and India for over 21 years now. I arrived in Calcutta in 1996 for three years as executive Chef where I was involved heavily in the upgrading of the Food and Beverage operations at the Oberoi Grand as executive Chef as well as catering to Mothers Theresa’s funeral guests who stayed with us. It was here that my reputation started in India and I still have friends who were work colleagues of guests from those day!
A short stint for eighteen months in Goa helping to renovate a small privately operated hotel was followed by Mumbai as Executive Chef of The Leela Kempinski Hotel. Early 2002 and it was time to move down to Chennai to open the kitchens of The Park Hotel, a very contemporary hotel right in the heart of the city. I took up the role of Director of Food and Services at the Hotel before tragedy overtook me and my wife died and was cremated here in Chennai.
It was after this that I became a Director of Burgundy Restaurants and of the Tuscana group until December 2015, which I opened and made the concepts for, in what became a very popular chain of Italian restaurants. With Tuscana at Wallace Gardens, Tuscana on Chamiers by Willi and Kryptos by Willi, we operated some of the best stand alone restaurants in the city, specializing in thin crust pizza, pasta, Italian and Greek Cypriot dishes.
Now married to my beautiful wife Marika (Marina) for four years or more, we are on a new direction as Managing Director for my own company in Chennai, “Chef Willi’s Restaurants and Consultancy Pvt. Ltd”, where I offer restaurant start up services and consultancy, operational training and system set ups, while we look to enter into our own signature restaurants showcasing the skills and experience built up extensively during our travels and work at home and abroad! We are in the process of signing as Director for a new venture, Ven’s and Wills Taverns Pvt Ltd and construction has already started in Mahabalipuram for a 15 plus crore Hotel and restaurant venture that will feature a “Willi’s Signature Restaurant” as a key component. Presently I am consulting for Green Park in Salem, Infinitea in Bangalore, The Mechanics Café in Chennai and the five restaurant Jonah’s group in Chennai.
Over the years I have had the privilege to work and help develop many hospitalit professionals in India. Included are three senior Chefs holding top positions in three Michelin starred restaurants including Vivek Singh with Cinnamon Kitchen, Vijay Venkatesh with Reblochon and Gopalkrishnan, ex Tamarind Chef all in London. Vivek worked with me in Calcutta and Gopal and Vijay in Chennai. There are many, many others who I have been instrumental in some way in shaping their careers into strong hospitality positions today, both here in India and abroad. It is a well known fact that a reference letter with my signature on it will enable any young cook to gain their American visa to pursue their cruise line positions overseas.
Chef Willi, June 2017
Some other things!
I lived in Australia nearly eight years, 1 in Britain, 1 in Germany, 3 in China, 2 in Indonesia, 3 in Singapore, more than 21years in India and also 21 years in New Zealand and yet I am not a resident of any country on earth! I have been in India longer than about 45% of the Indian population now!
Only three more letters of the alphabet to finish in visiting countries that go through the alphabet list!!! There is no z Country though, only a province.
I have crossed the Bospherous, been to Ephesus and Gallipoli, the Sun temples in Mexico and the temples of Greece, had a pizza in Rome and a dive in Muscat, sunbathed on Copacabana in Brazil, climbed the pyramids, watched Michael Jackson in Singapore and tunneled under in Vietnam, had a beer or two at Octoberfest and wandered around Ankur Wat, flew over Everest, took a train to Bubanishwa, ran the bridges in Calcutta and sailed the back waters of Kerala. Dipped myself into the Dead Sea, was amazed by Petra, saw the Mona Lisa and listened to old time Jazz in New Orleans, even had seafood in Marseille and drank tea in the Romania of old! I have even visited Stonehenge and kissed the Blarney Stone and had food for thought on Table Top mountain before seafaring into the plains of Africa and paddle steamed down the Mississippi but I still need to get to Casablanca, Manchu Pitchu, the Antarctic and oh, so many more places yet!
I was one of only a handful of persons who stayed in Beijing, China before and after the 1987 Tiananmen Square episode, even my wife was evacuated!
I have sailed through cyclones, flew through hurricanes, been close to eruptions and managed through earthquakes, been in a few car accidents and count it lucky that plane accidents are not on this list yet!
Ran the New York marathon, my first one at 55 years old and also it was my first time in New York, and now I regularly take part in the Chennai half marathons! Not bad for 61 yo and still counting!!! I have bungee jumped in Thailand, sailed in Austrlia, sky dived in New Zealand, I am an advanced scuba diver from Bali and have hot air ballooned in Egypt!
Each country I have worked in usually two hospital stays and two injury problems that need repairing! I have lived in eight countries full time until now!
My biggest Pride is having so many of my staff becoming senior and extremely respected members of the profession, both here and abroad! This is what I love!!!
My biggest regret was always being at work when too many of my family members died on me.
Lost my money twice over the years and nearly lost my belongings once, so have a good perspective of what is important in life, and that does not include anything that can be held in the hand!
I have paid a heavy price in being an expatriate over the years but still would not have changed my life style if I had known what the damage would be! Would change just how I did some things from the lesson learnt!
Would not change the opportunity I have had to meet and be friends with so, so many people of all nationalities. I have made many, many friends who are in India and worldwide and who will always be a major part of my life with shared memories,
Largest kitchen I worked had 180 staff, largest restaurant had 750 covers, smallest had 32 covers, and the busiest was in China before Tiananmen Square,
Cooked for George Bush senior, for Princess Michael at Mother Teresa funeral, a deputy Prime Minister of Britain, and the Aussie, South African and Indian cricket teams, and any one else who has walked through the restaurant doors over the years!!!
Most satisfying meal made was a dinner party I cooked for my mother and her friends, the first one I had made in all the years of cooking, three months before she passed on,
Have worked probably about 36 jobs, including riverboats, 95 foot sailing schooner, a combine driver on a 40,000 acre farm, a fireman, a soldier, in 1000 room hotels, small restaurants and the 2nd largest restaurant southern hemisphere,
I have opened six restaurants and four hotels as Executive Chef and have even cooked on the Great Wall itself! I have been a fire fighter, a rugby player, a horticulturist, a squash player and a swimmer, and I was even a farm driver at one stage as well as a soldier cook, but mostly I am just a cook, and as Antonio Carluccio once said to me, we shall always be a cook, no matter how grand our title is! This I take pride and my achievements and the achievements of my colleagues who have all moved on to bigger and brighter futures than myself, but that is what we are here for!