Refer to "the twins" and anyone in the London restaurant business will know you mean Max and Mark Renzland. They came on the scene in 1989, when they opened the first of their three restaurants, Chez Max in Richmond. Chefs and food writers, the likes of Jeremy Round, Elizabeth David and Simon Hopkinson, were almost immediately through their door and enchanted by the twins, the food and the place itself.
Max tended front of house. Mark cooked. They loved the dash, steam and clatter of restaurants. There were frequent queues and confusion, as if they actively preferred chaos. Certainly a loyal band of customers did not come for smooth service. Both twins were giddily passionate about French bistro food, a dozen quivering oysters, the perfect roast chicken, juicy terrines with gherkins, rabbit in mustard sauce with lentils, the densest and richest pot au chocolat, perfectly ripe little cheeses. There was no little hilarity involved in serving it. Customers realised only gradually that the French accents of the Renzland brothers were phony, that they were half-German, half-English, that they were, in fact, from Colchester.
The fittings, however, were authentic. The tulip-shaped lamps, the art nouveau bentwood frontage, even the ashtrays were lovingly collected by the brothers, piece by piece, in France. Produce was shipped in from Lyons and Rungis market. Even the red wine sauce was made with the best burgundies. Their enthusiasm exceeded their means, and it was not long before the first Chez Max closed abruptly, when HM Customs and Excise seized the fixtures and fittings for non-payment of VAT.
During the early Nineties, their smiles dropped. Spurned by angry suppliers and rebuffed by various investors, they spent more than a year in the cold. Then, by 1992, they re-emerged with a quixotic restaurant share in Hampton Wick. By day it was a greasy spoon called Bonzo's. By night it was "Le Petit Max": an unlicensed bistro serving better French food than one finds in France. Again, Mark cooked and Max managed.
In 1994, they opened a third restaurant, again called Chez Max, on Ifield Road in west London. Again, it was charming, but the strain began to show. In place of their mischievous charm some customers began simply to sense mischief. There were long delays, cheeky excuses. However, the food, again, was perfect. One former colleague says, "They had their shortcomings down to an art form at Le Petit Max. They became attractions instead of faults. What happened, when they took their second one, not only did Chez Max not come off, but Le Petit Max suffered as well."
Certainly Mark Renzland lost his way towards the end. His ebullience faded. Unlike his brother, he could not control his weight. He became prey to melancholy. What had begun as a passion became a job, one of the most difficult there is involving long hours, heat, stress and loneliness. When he died late last Wednesday, it was just as family, friends and colleagues were begging him to take a long rest. Restaurateurs mourning his death might consider doing two things: restructuring their rotas so chefs have more livable hours, then toasting Mark Renzland with something exceptional. A 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle would be appropriate.