The cook’s cook Rosemary Shrager on Joyce Molyneux
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’