The cook’s cook Rose­mary Shrager on Joyce Molyneux

The Guardian - Feast - - Feast -

A pas­sion for cook­ing is in my genes, which has been passed on to my chil­dren, too. My grand­mother was a won­der­ful cook, as was my mother, but my first great cook­book in­flu­ence came in the form of Ju­lia Child. Mas­ter­ing the Art of French Cook­ing is my cook­ing down to a T – clas­sic ally French and sim­ply com­mu­ni­cated. It’s en­tirely with­out pho­tog­ra­phy, but it was my go-to cook­book as a young and am­a­teur cook.

Then, in the 70s, there was a group of chefs who I like to call the im­pres­sion­ists in cook­ing – Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, the Trois­gros brothers – be­cause they were both cre­ative and helped ad­vance cui­sine so dra­mat­i­cally in this coun­try, paving the way to the Ray­mond Blancs and the Roux brothers of this world. They all wrote books in quick suc­ces­sion and I bought them all, brand new, which I re­mem­ber felt like a huge ex­trav­a­gance at the time. They took my cook­ing a step fur­ther, dar­ing me to try things I might not have done be­fore. Their recipes rep­re­sented a chal­lenge, yet armed me with the con­fi­dence to try things at home: crust­ing pi­geons, home-cur­ing duck breasts, mak­ing bouil­l­abaise from salt cod …

At the time I was work­ing as an in­te­rior de­signer for a Lon­don­based ar­chi­tec­ture firm. When I got home in the evenings, all I did was cook. Some­times I stayed up all night cook­ing. It was an ob­ses­sion and, even­tu­ally, I de­cided to hand in my no­tice to pur­sue it as a ca­reer. Trou­ble is, then I re­alised how lit­tle I knew! Go­ing through the im­pres­sion­ists’ books was im­por­tant to me, be­cause they put me on to a dif­fer­ent level be­fore I went into pro­fes­sional kitchens.

Look­ing back at those books now, like Guérard’s Cui­sine Gour­mande, they look very much of their time, some­times laugh­ably so. Lots of gar­nishes, tomato “roses” and tiny por­tions in the mid­dle of plates. But they made sub­tle changes to pre­sen­ta­tion, bring­ing more height and colour to their dishes: things started to look re­ally pretty. You ate with your eyes, paving the way to taste. Things be­came much more thought­ful in their ex­e­cu­tion.

And then there was Joyce Molyneux – some­one I re­ally as­pired to. She was cook­ing at the Carved An­gel in Dart­mouth and was a hugely im­por­tant fig­ure, not only for her food, but for what she rep­re­sented. Kitchens then were very chau­vin­is­tic, pompous, and of­ten with a “French is best” at­ti­tude. Women were only sup­posed to cook at home or in schools. Well, Joyce took that cul­ture by the scruff of its neck, mak­ing the kitchen her own and teach­ing peo­ple about how good Bri­tish food could be in the process. [The res­tau­rant’s recipes were col­lected in 1990’s The Carved An­gel Cook­ery Book, co-writ­ten with So­phie Grig­son.]

Joyce is a self-taught cook who learned from El­iz­a­beth David’s books, and she cham­pi­ons the very best kind of cook­ing: sea­sonal, lo­cal, ex­pertly ex­e­cuted. She has a par­tic­u­lar way with fish – sole, mus­sels, lob­ster. More than any­thing, her food has great gen­eros­ity about it. Food is all about shar­ing, and Joyce knew that; nowa­days, shar­ing food pub­licly has be­come a thing – there are restaurants that serve only food to share – and I’m so pleased about it.

There’s a deep soul to her cook­ing: it has strong roots, an hon­esty and aware­ness of what she as good at.

Rose­mary Shrager: Joyce Molyneux (above) took ma­cho kitchen cul­ture ‘by the scruff of the neck’

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