Kenneth Bell obituary

The chef and restaurateur Kenneth Bell, who has died aged 94, was one of a handful of cooks who brought sunshine and hope to a land still mired in gastronomical gloom in the decades after the second world war. His name was attached to two exceptional places to dine, the Restaurant Elizabeth in Oxford, from 1958 to 1966, and Thornbury Castle, north of Bristol, from 1966 until his retirement in 1986, and to a third, at one remove, when he opened Popjoy’s restaurant in Bath in 1973 and installed the young couple Stephen and Penny Ross to run the show in the elegant two-storey Georgian mansionette next door to the Theatre Royal.

At the Restaurant Elizabeth, borne up by an enthusiasm for French and Mediterranean cooking, he weaned many an epicurean, if not hedonist, Oxford don from the tired ornamentation of the college high table, as well as giving indigent students a taste for proper cookery. When he moved to Thornbury, the only sign of commerce was a small panel at the castle lodge announcing “K Bell: Restaurateur”, but the happy traveller was able to eat his or her fill in the last castle to be built in Britain, erected by a Duke of Buckingham who shortly thereafter lost his head to Henry VIII, who promptly installed Anne Boleyn for a weekend break.

In his early years his dishes were often robust interpretations of French provincial cuisine (one of his favourite books was French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David, published in 1951), shot through with the colours and flavours of the south in items such as prawns, rice and aioli, or a good paella (an apt choice as his staff at front of house were all Spanish). England was not ignored, however, for he was an early proponent of the restaurant standards burnt cream (creme brulee) and syllabub (which an early Good Food Guide had to gloss as “a kind of cold zabaglione”, so unused were we to the idea of such things coming from English cookery).

When at Thornbury, his style put on a certain weight. Cream sauces were much favoured: stuffed breast of chicken with Pernod and cream was a signature dish; cream-laden dauphinoise potatoes were constant companions. But he was also an enthusiast for mousses and mousselines, even wrapping a salmon mousseline in pastry. It was his salmon mousse that he produced for a memorable dinner at Maxim’s in Paris in 1976 when the guide editor Egon Ronay took five British chefs to cook a meal for French gastronauts. “It could have a little more herbs,” was the Gallic verdict.

Kenneth was the third of four children of William Bell, an Edinburgh solicitor, and his wife, Ella (nee Phillips), whose family were brewers in Hertfordshire. Schooled at the Edinburgh Academy, he missed the second world war by a whisker, but did his national service in the Royal Artillery. He thought to become a regular soldier, as were many of his mother’s family, but was rejected on grounds of deafness. Nothing daunted, and perhaps with brewing and catering in mind, he enrolled at the Ecole Hotelière in Lausanne in Switzerland. There he graduated top of his year, unusual, then, for a Briton.

Not long after, in the early 1950s, he took a job managing the Old Bell in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, by their account the oldest inn in England (founded in 1220), with a view perhaps to purchase, but this was denied him and instead, he gained a wife, Jill (nee Hawkins), who was then a nursing sister at Malmesbury hospital.

The possibility of inheriting his father-in-law’s Bristol engineering business did not charm him as much as the sight of George Perry-Smith’s pioneering menus at the Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath, where Kenneth and Jill were then living. This was the impetus to taking a lease in 1958 on a first-floor tea-room opposite Christ Church in Oxford and starting the Restaurant Elizabeth, with a non-English-speaking Spanish waiter, Antonio Lopez (who eventually took on the restaurant himself), as his staff. For seven years, the oak-panelled small dining-room resounded with plaudits. So emphatic and recognisable was the style that when Lopez continued the business, old customers could return a decade later and think Bell still was in the kitchen.

Thornbury Castle was a different kettle of fish. Bell bought it at his second attempt, the ancestral occupants having first preferred an unsuccessful scheme to turn it into a golf course. Its twisted, ornate and fantastical Tudor brick chimneys, its semi-ruined composition (the Victorians having built a house within a ruin), marked it out as singular. Bell installed his burgeoning family in the rooms upstairs and set about cooking for a dining room in the base of a massive corner tower. In time, the castle would gain a vineyard (Mueller-Thurgau grapes) as well as a piggery filled with wild boar-cross swine (which sometimes escaped). Bell would also gain plaudits from the world at large: Egon Ronay restaurant of the year (the first such award) in 1967; a Michelin star in 1974 (the first outside London); and, the final touch, MBE for services to catering in 1973. It was said that he was put up for this by Ronay himself, who had been asked if there was anyone worthy of the honour from the world of cookery.

If his relationship with these two restaurant guides was amicable, it was not quite so much with the third, the Good Food Guide, which in the middle 1970s started cataloguing what it saw as a range of defects in the Castle’s offerings. This may be the reason why Bell and others in the hotel and restaurant world joined in a letter of complaint to the Times about the then-editor, Christopher Driver. It had little discernible effect.

Bell sold Thornbury in 1986 to an American, Maurice Taylor, and then moved to the Dordogne for a decade before returning to Bristol and Cornwall in his later years.

He is survived by his second wife, Molly (nee Davy), his three children, Simon, Fiona and James, from his marriage to Jill, which ended in divorce, and his stepdaughter, Jane.