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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Tom Jaine

Joyce Molyneux obituary

Joyce Molyneux won the Observer Food Monthly’s lifetime achievement award in 2017.
Joyce Molyneux won the Observer Food Monthly’s lifetime achievement award in 2017. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

The chef and restaurateur Joyce Molyneux, who has died aged 91, enjoyed the near universal esteem of her professional colleagues and the wider world of home cooks and diners-out. In great part this was due to an unassuming yet friendly nature and her inveterate lack of pretence, joined to a style of cookery that tasted like heaven and was yet accessible to all. Although her career can be reduced to her having worked in just three provincial restaurant kitchens – learning the ropes at the Mulberry Tree in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1950s, at the Hole in the Wall in Bath in the 60s, and then 25 years at the Carved Angel in Dartmouth – the resonance of her activities echoed through a much broader church.

She was one of the first female chefs to be awarded a Michelin star, in 1978. Her kitchens were open to view from all parts of the restaurant, and were never sullied by the bouts of bad behaviour that were almost expected in the rumbustious 80s. She made an early stand in favour of creative local sourcing of ingredients: a photograph from 1984 portrays Joyce and her small staff in front of three dozen purveyors, all drawn from a five-mile radius.

Her cooking was often described as “heartwarming”, “reassuring” or “honest”: attributes that endeared her to her public, especially as they never detracted from taste and flavour. In her closing decades at the stove, although she never sought the role and although she had many male lieutenants, she might have been deemed a feminist beacon, as her staff and assistants were overwhelmingly female and went on themselves to often distinguished careers.

Molyneux with, from left, Angela Hartnett, Nigella Lawson and Jay Rayner, 2017.
Molyneux with, from left, Angela Hartnett, Nigella Lawson and Jay Rayner, 2017. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

In her years at the Hole in the Wall, where she was employed from 1959 to 1972 by George Perry-Smith, the founder of the restaurant, her (and his) cooking was associated particularly with the books issued from 1951 by Elizabeth David. Neither would deny David’s influence, but in truth their sources were far more eclectic than a single writer. This association continued to be mentioned when Joyce moved to the Carved Angel in 1974, where another intelligent writer, Jane Grigson, was included as a mentor. Again, Joyce would not have disclaimed her admiration for Grigson.

But what joined these three women at the hip was more than recipes, it was a style of refined and observant cookery that respected the locale while never giving up on adventure or, most important of all, the taste of things. This is what made Joyce such a favourite with home cooks – and the many thousands who dined at her tables. Her Carved Angel Cookery Book, written in 1990 with Grigson’s daughter Sophie, sold well given that Joyce’s exposure to media attention was so slight.

Joyce was born in Handsworth, a suburb of Birmingham, the middle child of Irene (nee Wolfenden) and William Morris Molyneux, assistant chief chemist to the firm of W&T Avery, scale makers. Her father’s Christian names are perhaps indicative of his political persuasion. In 1939, as war threatened, the three children were evacuated to Worcestershire, where Joyce was billetted with a family of three girls and attended the local Ombersley primary school and, when she was 11, the Birmingham King Edward VI grammar school for girls, which had been evacuated to Worcester at the same time. She returned to Birmingham in 1943.

Leaving school at 16, she stated her wish to learn cooking and was sent to the Birmingham college of domestic science. She recalled it being run by a “Scottish mafia”, where the standard text was the Edinburgh School of Cookery and Domestic Economy’s Plain Cookery Recipes of 1907 (they also studied Recipes for High-Class Cookery, not a lot of use during postwar rationing). Her first task was to cook very small portions of “brown stew”. Perhaps exposure to French home cooking during a school exchange with St-Dié des Vosges, in the east of the country, gave her ideas of wider possibilities (she recalled the oeufs à la neige in later years).

Leaving college (where she had to resit her cookery exam), she was found a job by her father in a canteen at W Canning & Co, manufacturers of electroplating equipment. A fellow student alerted her to the chance of a job at the Mulberry Tree in Stratford, where she was taken on in 1951 as general assistant by the chef, who worked alone. Douglas Sutherland was classically trained, very well regarded, and gave Joyce a thorough grounding in professional cooking over the next eight years. It was good enough for her to be able to teach Perry-Smith (an amateur) a thing or two when she joined him at the Hole in the Wall.

Carved Angel Cookery Book by Joyce Molyneux

When there was a change of regime in Stratford in 1959, she saw an advertisement for staff at this restaurant in Bath in the Lady magazine. Her application was successful and she soon realised it was no ordinary business. Perry-Smith dressed like a bohemian, had a commanding presence, insisted that his staff work both in the kitchen and front of house (purgatory for Joyce, who was quite shy), and cooked food of generosity and spirit that did not abide by the rules of classical cuisine.

Most of the staff were young, middle-class women, who looked on it as a finishing school. But they always worked flat-out, and there was tremendous team spirit. Joyce survived her time waiting at table and concentrated on the kitchen. Here she was soon often in charge. As the years rolled by, and Perry-Smith took a more executive role, she was eventually offered a junior partnership, together with Heather Crosbie (later George’s fourth wife). When the restaurant was sold in 1972, it was expected that she would join her two partners in a new venture.

In the event, this proved to be two new ventures: a restaurant-with-rooms in Helford, Cornwall, looked after by George and Heather, and a place with sensational views of the mouth of the river at Dartmouth in Devon, soon to be christened the Carved Angel. This was run by Joyce in the kitchen and myself (Perry-Smith’s stepson) front of house. I stayed in the post until 1984 and, after a year or two’s interregnum, Joyce was joined by Meriel Matthews (George’s niece), with whom she had a most warm, profitable and satisfactory business partnership until her retirement.

The early years were never easy commercially: many were the winter nights of zero custom. But as the life of the country as a whole quickened through the 80s, and Joyce gained a certain television exposure in the show Take Six Cooks in 1986, as well as plaudits and awards from guides and critics, so business began to prosper – even for so small a restaurant. There was no doubt who was the restaurateur, and Joyce grew into her role with ease and aplomb. And in Dartmouth too, a small town indeed, her work was no longer viewed with suspicion (“Such prices!”) but as a matter of pride.

In 1999, she moved back to Bath, but would make bi-annual “state visits” to Dartmouth, often coinciding with the town’s autumn food festival. She never gave up cooking; our Christmas parcel of jams, pickles and preserves was always eagerly awaited. Nor did her reputation wane, often thanks to the admiration of her former assistants, now in positions of influence in the food world. In 2017, she won the Observer Food Monthly’s lifetime achievement award, a fitting tribute.

In 1959, Joyce met Stephen Rodríguez-García, a waiter from Barcelona, who was working at the Mulberry Tree. They were partners through thick and thin until his death in 1994: often working in different towns, meeting only on days off, but always holidaying together in Spain, where Stephen built a house by the sea in Cubelles, south-west of Sitges. Apart from her excellent paellas and the odd dish with sauce romescu (long before its general popularity), her cooking did not reflect this connection.

She is survived by her younger brother, Philip, and several nephews and nieces.

Joyce Molyneux, chef and restaurateur, born 17 April 1931; died 27 October 2022

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