Joyce Molyneux obituary: A legendary chef who led the way for women in restaurants
Published 31 October 2022

Joyce Molyneux, who owned the Carved Angel near Dartmouth, Devon, has died aged 91. (Credit: The Observer)

The chef Joyce Molyneux has died aged 91. Stuart Walton remembers a woman at the forefront of British dining.

Restaurant history is not invariably marked by seismic shifts in culinary fashion. Some reputations are honed by quiet persistence in that most elusive field of all – providing a broad constituency of diners with food that is readily comprehensible, but every bit the treat that we hope to find in eating out. The long career of Joyce Molyneux, who has died aged 91, was testament to just that culinary virtue.

She will be remembered, with more than the usual fondness at the passing of a veteran, for the quarter-century she spent at the stoves in the Carved Angel on the quayside at Dartmouth. The profound sense of comfort that diners enjoyed, with a view over the river Dart out front, and the undemonstrative bustle of the open kitchens behind (and it is worth recalling what a novelty an open kitchen was in this era), made the Angel one of the radiant jewels of southwestern dining. It seemed a perfect fit with a harbour town still reached, when the road fizzles out, by a short crossing on a flat-bed ferry.

Joyce's cooking style derived something from the post-war books of Elizabeth David and the cookery writing of the Observer's Jane Grigson, but in truth, it was never about assiduously following any particular movement. Like a lot of the most admired food, it had a homely quality, except that the technique brought to bear was always several shades above what even the keenest domestic cook could achieve. Her signature dish for many years was a salmon en croute, which contained preserved ginger and currants in golden shortcrust. It was served with a herb cream sauce, and was described as 'a strange but beguiling combination' by the former Good Food Guide editor Tom Jaine, who for many years worked the front of house at the Angel.

Prior to Dartmouth, Joyce had undergone probationary years at Stratford-upon-Avon's Mulberry Tree, and then an all-important stint at George Perry-Smith's Hole in the Wall in Bath, one of Britain's most influential restaurants in the 1960s. The salmon dish began there, but was honed to glazed, egg-washed nonpareil at the Carved Angel, along with offerings that owed a little to Mediterranean modes – Provençal fish soup with red-hot rouille; peperanata as a garnish for the cheese soufflé – as well as the demotic food of the European and English heartlands. There was crisply seared boudin blanc with lentils and apple, but there was also in winter a hefty mutton pie. Long before it became the universal badge of honour, Joyce championed local producers, fishers and farmers, with salmon from the Dart, moorland lamb, and Slapton strawberries with clotted cream.

Over her long residency, from the early 1970s to her final retirement in 1999, the Carved Angel became a place not just of culinary pilgrimage, but of solidly grounded training too. In a still very masculine profession, the Angel often looked like a safe space for women chefs. Joyce herself famously cooked in a skirt, rather than the usual chef's trousers -- she was at home in every sense, as were the youthful brigades that learned from her. When she was bestowed with the lifetime achievement award by the Observer Food Monthly in 2017, she said that running a restaurant, and seeing your protégés launched out on their own careers, was 'very satisfying, very enjoyable, almost like having a family'. In 1978, she became one of the first women chefs to be awarded a Michelin star, itself an accolade undreamed of in an organisation that was axiomatically Francocentric in its disposition, and that still regarded a woman in a restaurant kitchen as bordering on the bizarre. Like women the world over, Joyce had been cooking since her earliest adulthood, during the obstacle course of postwar rationing, and the lure of a professional calling had been impossible to resist.

Joyce Molyneux was profiled on Channel 4's pathbreaking series, Take Six Cooks, in 1986, when she showcased some of her fish recipes. There could hardly have been a greater disparity between her appealing domestic approach and the highly fangled nouvellerie on display in the rest of the strand. In 1990, The Carved Angel Cookery Book was published, written in association with Jane Grigson's daughter Sophie. Here too, the contrast was instructive. Unlike many another restaurateur's recipe book of the period, it was both inspiring in its reach but practical for the home cook. On the cover, Joyce appeared in the famous headscarf, sparing a moment for a camera in the act of slicing a salmon. It would become one of the most treasured cookbooks of the period.

Her retirement was only partial. She continued cooking well into her seniority, despatching parcels of pickles and preserves to the cognoscenti of Devon and beyond.