This coming Saturday, 28th July 2012, Stephen Marwick will hang up his apron for the final time after 35 years at the stove. He is a very modest man, but really deserves to take a bow and receive a standing ovation for all the pleasure he has brought to diners throughout his career.
He belongs to an genre of restaurateurs that prefer to be known as cooks rather than chefs, adhering to the principals of good cooking that were once to be found in bistros throughout France, although now, even there, are a rare find.
Stephen is a direct disciple of George Perry Smith, considered the grandfather of the Anglo-French restaurant tradition; he is in fact the last chef cooking in Britain to have worked with George. Whilst he readily acknowledges the influence of George on his cooking, remarking that the longer he has been at the stove the more he returns to the principles instilled in those early days working with him, Stephen has nonetheless made his own distinct mark on the restaurant scene.
There are absolutely no shortcuts in his style of cooking, yet it is completely without pretention and cares not a hoot about the latest food fashions. Without the whistles and bells that sound so loudly around many restaurants, I think that some people may have wondered why this simple bistro was held in such high regard. On the other hand genuine food lovers, who knew a bit about cooking themselves, could appreciate just how much love and effort goes into achieving his consistently well-tuned performance. Whilst front of house his wife, Judy, perfectly mirrors that standard and you know that neither of them would be there if they didn’t enjoy it so much.
Over 35 years Stephen has evolved and perfected a menu of well-loved dishes that his customers welcome back as the seasons turn. These same customers are often also the source of his ingredients, such as the figs that grow behind Horfield Prison or the crab apples that are turned into jelly to accompany game. Stephen has always shown a keen interest in the raw ingredients he uses, perhaps learnt from his father, who was a great gardener. He found the very best suppliers and even went himself for those fiddly-to-pick barberries grown by local herb expert, Anthony Lyman-Dixon.
There are a few dishes that you can expect to see whatever the season – Provençal Fish Soup is one such and as Stephen himself says he would be lynched if it ever disappeared from the menu. This recipe originated with George Perry Smith, an economical fish soup from wartime France. It continued to be a favourite at Joyce Molyneux’s Carved Angel restaurant, an early offshoot of George’s disciples, where Stephen worked for a number of years before returning to Bristol to open his own restaurant, Bistro Twenty One. I have a handwritten copy of the recipe given to me by Stephen from his days at Markwicks, which contains more herbs and spices than the one Joyce served. It was however only when Stephen published his own recipe book in 2009 that I learnt the further important secret of thinning down the aioli with warm water to make it easier to amalgamate into the soup. The creamy texture of Stephen’s version had, up until that point, eluded me.
I am so glad that, with the help of Fiona Becket, Stephen managed to find the time before he retired to set down some of his best-loved recipes – a second book followed a year after the first. Both books are still available from their website www.culinariabristol.co.uk . Now it is up to us, his past customers, to keep his cooking alive. He has set the bar very high and there is no pretending that the dishes can be effortlessly recreated, but I know that as each season comes around the yearning to taste again those wonderful flavours will be too strong not to rise to the challenge.