Chris Williams of Franco

This is part one of Chrissy Wilmes' Chef's Choice profile of chef Chris Williams of Franco. Part two, a Q&A with Williams, is available here. Look for part three, a recipe from Williams, on Thursday.

Chris Williams of Franco
Chrissy Wilmes

Chef Chris Williams' journey from his first experience in a kitchen to his present position as executive chef at Franco (1535 South Eighth Street; 314-436-2500) has been a long and adventure-filled one.

Williams' first culinary job arose entirely by happenstance. Following in the footsteps of a friend who'd just found a job as a ski-lift operator in Colorado, Williams decided to move there for a season and do the same. It was December, he was twenty, and between one portion of the job interview and another, he got lost.

"I ran into this guy, asked him for directions. We got to talking, and it turns out he was the new executive chef at the Summit House for Keystone, right on top of the mountain," Williams recounts. Right there, on the spot, the chef made Williams an offer, one that included better lodging and pay than the ski-lift position. Plus, he'd get to work indoors. He accepted.

Months later Williams returned to St. Louis with a new passion: cooking. He worked at Shiitake, Cafe Provençal, Portabella -- anywhere he could get himself hired on, just so long as he was cooking and learning more about the art.

Eventually Williams moved to upstate New York and enrolled at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park. "The first two [terms], you're not in the kitchen. This was the first time I'd been without cooking for that length of time in seven or eight years," says Williams. "I was a junkie who's not getting his fix. I was like, I gotta pick up my knives, I gotta cook!"

Chris Williams of Franco
Chrissy Wilmes

Studying at the CIA gave Williams access to externships at several restaurants in New York, as well as a summer spent cooking in France, at Le Relais de Pigasse.

After completing his formal studies, Williams returned to St. Louis, where he met his future wife, Daniella. A trip to Ecuador to meet his future in-laws paved the way for a job as a chef (him) and volunteer coordinator (her) in the Galapagos Islands, for Jatun Sacha, an Ecuadorian environmental NGO.

"My wife has a degree in environmental science, more the policy side, and has done volunteer coordinating for Wash. U. and SLU, so she had some experience in this -- and I can cook! We just leapt at it. We got married, and two weeks later we were back in Ecuador."

Next Williams found a listing for a job at the Universidad de Cuenca in Ecuador, teaching in the school's gastronomy department. He worked there for a few semesters, with Daniella serving as his translator. Finally, in 2010, the Williamses returned to St. Louis...

...where, coincidentally, Franco was in search of a sous chef. Williams won the job and on January 1 of this year took over as executive chef.

When Williams isn't cooking for customers or experimenting with new recipies, he's enjoying time with his wife and their baby daughter, Lucia. He also intends to find time to play for an amateur hockey team.