Every day at Tante Marie’s, the best of our plates were saved for a special friend of the house. We took pains to be certain that he received our finest preparation of the starter, main course, and dessert from our menu of the day. Before the plates were whisked out the door to him for dinner, they were inspected by Chef Frances to be sure every sauce, every slice, every nut was just so.

When Mary, a.k.a. Tante Marie, needed a stand-in to make the special delivery each evening after class while she was away on a fall trip, I found myself with the fortunate opportunity to proudly place our food on the table for our friend, and to sit and visit a while in his apartment in Russian Hill.

Leading me to the living room so I could see the jaw-dropping view from his picture windows, Chuck noted the barges passing under the bridge or the twinkling lights across the bay in Marin, all basking in the ethereal colors of a San Francisco sunset. I asked Chuck, who is in his mid-90s, to tell me about his life. He described how he came to California as a young man and worked on a date farm for a time, showing me a black and white photo of an earlier version of himself picking dates. He told me about growing up at his grandmother’s apron strings in her restaurant; of his only sibling, a sister who died as a child in a bad accident; and then of the time he spent overseas in the military and how influenced he was there by French cookery.

Back in the U.S., he decided to import copper cookware from France and sell it from his little hardware shop, Williams-Sonoma. At the time there was only inferior aluminum or thin stainless cookware available in the U.S., so the French copper was a fast hit. Soon enough Chuck Williams opened a second shop in downtown San Francisco, and, well, you can gather the rest.

Chuck often wore a handsome, finely woven loden cashmere sweater, blue dress shirt, red tie, tan wool pants, and tan dress shoes. This was his uniform of sorts, part of his daily regimen of dress and work, which he still tended to every day in his office at the Williams-Sonoma headquarters just a few blocks away from his home. He ate the food we made for him with formality, dignity—and often, gusto: the tournedos, artichokes and potatoes Parisienne, the mocha pot de crème in a coffee cup with whipped cream and a chocolate covered espresso bean. “This is very good,” he said, “very special. They have pots de crème in France, and there it’s special too.”


Mostly it was quiet as we sat at his table, which was positioned directly in front of the picture windows, and ate. “Aren’t you going to eat anything?” he’d ask, wondering why a friend would bring dinner and then not eat. I usually had had more than enough that day of the dishes, but I could see it would be an offense not to eat with him, so I did. His mind was often there and sometimes, not. I couldn’t help but wonder if he thought I was an old friend who he only vaguely recognized. Sometimes he was confused and told me the same story again and then again. Of course, I never minded.

Chuck’s kitchen was as endearing and unexpected as he was, a humble kitchen with an electric coil stove and two antique copper molds hanging on the wall. He took pleasure in the little treasures he had on display all over the apartment. The tiny porcelain replicas of fruits and vegetables that were placed here and there were of particular delight, and he pointed them out to me as a kind of buffer whenever I said it was time for me to go.

The only sign in Chuck’s home of his empire was a small, creamy throw pillow on a side chair in the living room, decorated simply with a woven golden pineapple. Chuck didn’t need props from Williams-Sonoma to bolster his hospitality; he wore his welcome on his shirtsleeve as he greeted me in and lingered over good-bye when I left. He would be alone there for the rest of the evening, and it got so that it pained me to walk out the door. I would talk all the way down the long hallway to the elevator, and he would stand in his doorway saying goodbye until I disappeared.

Warm Dates with Toasted Almonds & Lime Zest
I learned about these dates at Tante Marie’s from the great chef and cooking teacher, Tori Ritchie. Her classes there are always jammed because she is such a dynamo, super knowledgeable, and so fun to cook with. I bought big, chewy dates every week from a stall at the Ferry Farmer’s Market in San Francisco, and once I learned Tori’s beautiful way to prepare them, it became my favorite way to eat and serve dates. They’re wonderful as an appetizer or after a meal. Pitting the date yourself is simple, similar to pitting an apricot.

12 Medjool dates
12-24 whole roasted, salted almonds, toasted
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Zest of 1 lime

Pull open the tip of each date with your thumbs or a paring knife and pull out the pit. Push one or two almonds into the cavity and push the edges of the date back together.

To warm the dates, in a nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium low heat. Add the dates and cook, shaking the pan so the dates are coated in oil and warmed through, 2-3 minutes. Place the dates on a platter and sprinkle with salt and lime zest. Serve warm.

Print this recipe here.

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24 Responses to "Warm Dates with Toasted Almonds & Lime; a California story"
  1. Tom says:

    Dear Maureen,
    What a joy it was to read today’s post. Thank you for introducing me to your friend Chuck, and for the gem of a short story you constructed from your memories of your visits. Life can be wonderful. Thank you for the glimpse into your time in San Francisco.

    Tom

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thank you, thank you Thomas. I still wonder at how quickly my time in California went…’twas special indeed.

  2. Maureen:
    You’ve left me with tears in my eyes. What a beautiful, touching story. And I’m so glad to know that Chuck had someone as kind and sweet as you to join him in his meals–at least for a short while.

    Sofia
    xo

  3. And one other thing: You look very smart in those chef’s whites!

  4. Peggy says:

    I almost wonder, Maureen, if it all seems like a dream to you now that you were even in San Francisco: the lovely cooking school, the beautiful walk through Pacific Heights each day, meeting this sweetheart of a man!

    Maybe we should all run away to San Francisco for the chance to serve Mr. Williams his dinner!

    Peg

  5. Of course, I had to click through for a story about you and Tante Marie’s, since we reconnected there – and what a lovely surprise to read this story. Nicely done, Maureen!

  6. Gregory Jarous GA says:

    What a wonderful story, and the chance to to meet the man who started Williams-Sonoma. Keep them coming Maureen.

  7. Diane Nassir says:

    Dear Maureen,
    I heartily concur with ALL of the above comments and can not bring anything new to them, but I must reiterate: such a beautiful story, so lovingly told, and yes, it helps fill in your history and the history of the magical Williams-Sonoma store and catalog which has brought so much joy (culinary and esthetic) to so many.
    And, I have never had warmed dates– sounds divine.
    Never, ever stop creating whether thru your cooking, your writing, your teaching, or, your photographing.
    Diane

  8. Gayane says:

    WOW! Thank you very much: I love your photographs, writings, cooking, Best wishes!!!!

  9. Tori says:

    I’m honored to have my recipe included in a story on Chuck…xo

  10. Paula says:

    I LOVE dates!…

    You’re beautifull in all ways and white suits you.

  11. Gayane says:

    Thank you for your wonderful work !
    Your work is perfect
    Gayane

  12. Jen Farhat says:

    Well, as I’ve said before, you’re amazing. Your words pulled me in within seconds and I so loved reading your story of San Francisco – even just this one small anecdote – and getting a peek inside your (clearly loving, giving and yes, amazing) heart. I have no doubt I could spent countless hours listening to your stories like this, just as you did with Chuck. How wonderful to have known him and how special that we all get to share in that, even in this small way. All my best.

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