In the 1950s, she was the only woman working in her restaurant kitchen. In the 70s, she won a Michelin star at the Carved Angel. The OFM judges celebrate a food pioneer
Joyce Molyneux, the winner of OFM’s Lifetime Achievement award and one of the first British women to be awarded a Michelin star, began her remarkable life in food almost by accident. “I enjoyed cooking as a child,” she says. “I used to make apple and sultana turnovers, things like that. There was a cherry flan I made for a picnic once that I remember very much pleased Father. But I didn’t think of it as a career. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me.” Uncertain what to do after leaving school in Birmingham, she spent two years at domestic science college, studying a leftover pre-war syllabus that was effectively designed to teach young women how to run a home, after which, thanks to a little help from her chemist father, she landed a job working in the canteen at Canning and Co, a manufacturer of polishing and electroplating machines. She smiles. “The executives got special things like roast chicken, and the workers had fish and chips and pies.” Did she enjoy the job? “Not really. I was a bit bored. But I wasn’t sure what I could do about it.” The expectation was that in the fullness of time, she would marry, and that this would signal the end of her working life.
Salvation came in the form of a friend from college, now working for the gas board demonstrating ovens, who happened to visit a flat above the Mulberry Tree, a restaurant in Stratford-upon-Avon. “The chef came out and asked her if she knew of anyone who would work for him. She thought of me, I went for an interview, and I got the job.” The restaurant, owned by a wine merchant, was small – only 30 covers – and when she began the kitchen still had a coal-fired gas range (this, remember, was the 50s). But the chef, Douglas Sutherland, had trained in London before the war, and she realised immediately how much she would be able to learn from him: “I remember doing puff pastry. We made some vol-au-vents. I was so delighted by these little things that went in the oven so tiny, and came out so large.” It goes without saying that she was the only woman in the kitchen. She wonders now if it wasn’t simply that she came cheaper than a man.