George Perry Smith (George Perry-Smith), restaurateur: born Widnes, Lancashire 10 October 1922; four times married (three sons, two daughters, three stepsons, one stepdaughter, and one stepson deceased); died Helford, Cornwall 1 October 2003.
People tend to think that there were no restaurants in Britain worth eating at before the food revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, but that is because they are too young or too London-centred to remember the Hole in the Wall at Bath, which George Perry-Smith opened in 1952.
The two dining rooms were dominated by a lavish cold spread of charcuterie, home-made pâtés, potted fish and meat and sometimes complicated and always interesting salads. In its season there was Perry-Smith's signature dish (culled from the description of a dish called "joll of salmon" in André Simon's Encyclopaedia of Gastronomy), chunks of salmon with currants and crystallised ginger wrapped in puff pastry, but the rest of the menu seemed at first to come from the pages of Elizabeth David's books, and then later from Jane Grigson's recipes. Sometimes there was quiche, but it was genuine quiche Lorraine, made with proper pastry, butter, eggs, cream, good bacon and no cheese.
Perry-Smith's wholly benign influence on the British restaurant scene was that he served real food, prepared as a careful home cook would prepare it, with the best ingredients to be got and no short-cuts taken in its preparation. The tradition started by him and Kenneth Bell (first at the Elizabeth, Oxford, and then at Thornbury Castle), which has spawned cooks such as Simon Hopkinson, Alastair Little and Rowley Leigh, stands in contrast to the strand that descends from French haute cuisine, represented by Raymond Blanc, Albert Roux, Anton Mosimann, Nico Ladenis and their culinary heirs such as Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay.
George Perry Smith (he conferred the hyphen upon himself when he was already grown up) was born in Lancashire in 1922. His father was a Methodist minister and, as Methodist ministers then expected to change their posts frequently, the young George Smith led a wandering existence. This was compounded by the death of his mother when he was seven, and that of his father when he was 12. "I lived with two sets of guardians, rivals for my affections," he told a Daily Telegraph interviewer in 1999, the first being
an aunt and an uncle near Northwich who had a walled kitchen garden and led a slightly upper-middle-class life with a gardener, a housekeeper and a maid.
He credited this Cheshire aunt with starting his interest in food - he remained particularly proud that he had learned from her the proper way to present a grapefruit half, though he learned how to cut around the segments
after supper every evening on the well-scrubbed wooden draining-boards among the scuttling silverfish. Very few people know how to prepare grapefruit, an accomplishment of the highest importance.
This time "in my memory revolved around the kitchen and the importance of regular family meals, splendid picnics, and self-sufficiency in the garden". The other pair of guardians was
a retired doctor in Scarborough and his bonkers wife. Meals were never ready, it was chaotic. I did the cooking, such as it was, when I was there.
During school terms he boarded at Kingswood School in Bath, founded by John Wesley for the sons of Methodist ministers, and later said (in an autobiographical essay appended to the 1988 Good Food Guide):
I must have seemed a most unlikely restaurateur, a contradiction of family background and a disappointment to a great headmaster, A.B. Sackett.
In 1940 the Second World War interrupted his career at St John's College, Cambridge, where he had taken a first in French. A Conscientious Objector, he became a Quaker and joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit,
and received my only culinary training from an equally unlikely fellow member, Eric Green, during a week in a tiny nurses' kitchen off a Middlesex Hospital
Ward. He was old enough to talk about Antoine's and Charlotte Street just around the corner, and went on to have quite a lot to do with Shepherd's Hotel, the wartime oasis in Cairo, so he must have known what he was on about.
During the Phoney War he was sent "to a training camp in Somerset to take care of catering for a group of 25". This coincided with the first of his four marriages, to a Quaker lady called Helen,
a little early and a little sudden. My wife had a wonderful book called Good Cookery, which taught you what happened when you beat egg whites. Before long my little group was having marvellous food, such as savarins; the word got around.
Returning to Cambridge after the war to finish his course in Modern Languages, he failed to take the German tripos because of hay fever, "but they gave me a degree and told me to do a diploma in education".
This was followed by a year's exchange in 1951, with Perry-Smith working as a schoolmaster at the Lycée St Louis on Boulevard St-Michel. The Left Bank was his culinary finishing school, and "although I had no money to speak of, I did have a car, which took me around France as well as Paris itself". He returned to Bath and then to Bristol with
the prospect of the Masters' Common Room. I wondered what else I could possibly do. It struck me that no such pleasant relaxation [as in Paris] seemed to be available there. How could life go on without it? No wonder most people seemed unhappy, or at any rate unsmiling.
He heard that the lease of the run-down Hole in the Wall at Bath was available, took it, and stayed for the next 21 years.
Over the years Perry-Smith acquired more and more of the properties housing and adjoining the basement restaurant and the Georgian house above. At first he had difficulties because the rooms above the Hole in the Wall had acquired some notoriety during the war as a place of assignation for officers. Then the bearded, sandal-wearing Perry-Smith could not persuade the retired naval officers who were the local magistrates to give him a licence.
So he closed the place down for three months and made some repairs. "That the food should be the best," he wrote, "I took for granted, and that the house should be as open, welcoming, unexpected and attractive as I should like my own home to be." In fact, it was his own home, as he lived over the restaurant, first with Helen and their two children, and then, following their divorce and his 1954 second marriage to Ruth Jaine, with her children and stepchildren (who included her stepson Tom Jaine, sometime restaurateur, editor of The Good Food Guide and gastronomic publisher, who was brought up by Perry-Smith and remained with him after he and Jaine's stepmother divorced in 1961).
At first at the Hole in the Wall, he admitted, he had been "terribly naïve about the food". The only experienced member of the staff was the washer-up, Dot (who told him afterwards she had given him six months. She "later became famous for her beef and vegetable soup; few people knew that she also made the fish soup, absolutely consistently and successfully, satisfied that if it tasted 'orrible it must be right").
His saviour was Christopher Hammond-Spencer,
an ex-Navy, ex-Mountie, ex-everything man who, quite late in life, remained madly enthusiastic about food, knew that Wheelbarrow butter was the best, along with Scotch beef and Blue Mountain Jamaica coffee, that you ate the parson's nose and the oysters and threw away the chicken, that you were allowed to eat onion soup, tripe and treacle pudding just as much as consommé, Dover sole and oeufs à la neige; and he had a less hazy idea than mine that income should exceed expenditure.
Hammond-Spencer persuaded him to put MA (Cantab) after his name on the printed menu, in the hope of persuading the ladies of Bath that the Hole in the Wall was now respectable.
They still didn't quite know what they were doing in the kitchen, though the evolution of the cold table both eliminated the cooking of the first course and ultimately meant that the service was excellent and rapid. The menu was at first too large, and there was a huge problem of waste, as both he and his new chef preferred "cooking joints on the bone and slow, full-flavoured casseroles to quick fixes". They were both accustomed to people sitting down and eating in a disciplined fashion, rather than in an order and at a time of their own choosing:
We neither liked crowded tables nor could we have cooked for the numbers that most restaurateurs would have packed into our large rooms, so we had a wide open space in front of a splendid log fire, and a refectory table that we dared not fill with diners.
As the number of hot dishes actually mastered grew, they were added to the large formica menu board, under the rubrics "usually" and "sometimes", to accommodate both the seasons and the vagaries of the market. The "usually" list included bourride, cassoulet, Dover sole à la dieppoise, queue de boeuf des vignerons and ragout of shellfish.
Eventually the wine list grew as interesting as the menu, with the help of first Ronald Avery, and later Robin Yapp. (It was at the Hole in the Wall in the mid-1960s that I first learned there were Loire white wines - such as Quincy I first tasted there - in addition to Sancerre.)
Elizabeth David did finally come to lunch, but Perry-Smith remembered his gastronomic heroine being "almost too tired to eat". She had "a very little cold duck, and appreciated the home-grown sorrel in the salad".
It was to the Hole in the Wall that a young woman with a training in domestic science called Joyce Molyneux applied for a cook's job. All the staff at first did everything (as is the practice today at the River Café), prep, cooking, serving tables and wine-waiting. But Molyneux was someone with a special talent, and she became Perry-Smith's partner at the Carved Angel in Dartmouth, Devon, when he bought it in 1973.
In 1972 Perry-Smith had decided to sell up and move to France with Heather Crosbie, his about-to-be fourth wife (the third, to whom he was married until 1970, with one child, was a Spaniard named Mercedes). In July 1973, they came back to England in a red, open-top Alvis, and saw and bought both the Carved Angel, and the Riverside in Helford Village, Cornwall, where they finally settled themselves. They ran the Riverside as a restaurant with rooms, as was becoming fashionable (and economically necessary) outside London.
Perry-Smith had a bout of heart failure while visiting Australia in 1988. He didn't have the surgery that was indicated, and he never properly recovered. He then wrote his own epitaph in a letter to Tom Jaine:
George Perry-Smith, author of waitress advertisements for failed graduates over a generation . . . He is survived by countless children and grandchildren and by his partner, Heather Crosbie, who would welcome enquiries from a more active and more socially inclined husband.
Tom Jaine's Prospect Books intends to publish a collection of Perry-Smith's recipes.