From Notting Hill to Earlwood: Why one of Britain's greatest chefs is making Australia home

Myffy Rigby
British chef Alastair Little is taking over the late Jeremy Strode's kitchen at at Bistrode CBD until later this year.
British chef Alastair Little is taking over the late Jeremy Strode's kitchen at at Bistrode CBD until later this year. Photo: James Brickwood

One of Britain's most respected chefs has moved to Australia permanently. But to get a good understanding of why Alastair Little's here, you need to have an idea where he's from.

It all started for the "godfather of British cooking" in the mid-1960s when he refused to eat his cabbage at boarding school in Lancashire. Little had been brought up by a family that enjoyed cooking and eating. His father, a naval officer, ate broadly and would always rise to the occasion when Little would push for something new. His mother was a great cook with a large vegetable garden at her disposal. Imagine three months' worth of cabbage cooked to death. Unacceptable.

But, being forced to eat dehydrated mashed potato is the mother of invention. And so it was here that he started cooking for himself. He'd make toasted sandwiches and curries on a little gas ring in his dorm room.

Through learning to cook on that camp stove, Little developed an even sharper interest in food. His pliable parents would feed his curiosity on holidays through Europe where, at 14, Little would try his first gazpacho. Then coq au vin. An unforgettable glass of Chateau d'Yquem. It was mind-blowing for the teenager, who still remembers rationing.

Later when studying anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge (fun fact: his uncle Teddy Bullard, who also studied at the elite university, was the geophysicist who helped prove the existence of the continental drift) he met fellow student Rowley Leigh, another soon-to-be famous British chef. "The food," he says, "was just as bad as boarding school." So he'd hold dinner parties instead.

Back then if you put a good tomato, mozzarella and olive oil on a plate, people were gobsmacked. Now it's routine.

Alastair Little

The pair, along with Simon Hopkinson, went on to form the bedrock of a new era in British dining. One that was focused on celebrating what was on the plate rather than the expensive trappings and egos that were usually associated with dining at the time in London.

Self-taught with no official culinary school training, Little worked his way up through the ranks of London restaurants and wine bars, learning to cook through observation, helped along by sheer natural talent. His style was very much influenced by the likes of food writers such as Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan and Jane Grigson. Lightness, freshness and simplicity were his catch cries. And he produced this at his eponymous restaurant in Soho in 1985.

Soho, over the years, has been many things. Today, it's a mash of strip clubs, fancy restaurants, bars and shops. A splice of Sydney's Kings Cross and Melbourne's King Street. But go back 50 years and there was no fancy – it was the real seedy deal. A magnet for bohemians, sex workers and shakedown artists. Adult entertainment entrepreneur Paul "King of Soho" Raymond, pretty much ran the area during the '70s, when the beating heart of the borough was vice. It was definitely an interesting choice of location for a little Mediterranean restaurant serving monkfish saltimbocca.

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Just before opening, Alastair recalls having a conversation with a local butcher about his reservations. "I said, 'Is there a problem here? Am I going to have a guy 'say nice place, but what if something happens to it?'. The butcher pointed over to a local cafe where a group of elderly Maltese men sat around smoking. They were all retired gangsters, and the closest they'd come to a shakedown recently was brushing the sandwich crumbs off their cardigans. "Nice old boys," says Little. "It was porn central though. They hadn't regulated it at all."

Around the same time, Soho House and the Groucho Club (the members-only venues that weren't predicated on being born into aristocracy) were about to open. In return for doing some work for the owners, Little was given a lifetime membership. "It was really good because I could go to sleep in the library in the afternoon on my breaks. I'd be napping under The Times crossword and the manager would include me in the tour of would-be members: 'Here's Alastair asleep'."

A few years later, and riding on the kind of success that prompted one colleague to comment that he was "getting more press than Princess Di", the chef opened a second Alastair Little restaurant in Notting Hill. He spent years teaching cookery at La Cacciata, a farm near Orvieto in Umbria, where he met his second wife who was on holiday from Australia. And then in 2002, Little closed both restaurants and opened Tavola, an Italian delicatessen/trattoria in Notting Hill, where you could buy Sicilian lemons, his house-made soups, fresh bread, hams or sit at one of the rickety tables for a bowl of pasta.

Little underplays his influence on the British food scene. But terms such as "produce driven", "seasonality'' and "market to plate" weren't bandied around until Little hit the scene. Back then, he says, "if you put a good tomato, mozzarella and olive oil on a plate, people were gobsmacked. Now it's routine. The challenge is I've been doing it since time immemorial. But yeah if you watched the old-style Italian restaurants in London they'd put the chip oil on it. I mean it'd be awful. There is a skill in shopping, but it's just having restraint and taste."

And now, in a very unexpected turn, he's moved with his wife and young son from Notting Hill to the south-west Sydney suburb of Earlwood and is running a pop-up with Merivale, which opens this week. At 67, most chefs are either winding down or stopped completely but Little still feels he has a lot to give. So he'll be taking over the late Jeremy Strode's kitchen upstairs at the Hotel CBD, and running it until late 2018. Though Little never had the chance to meet Strode, he says he considers him a kindred spirit. Little will have a few homages to Strode on the menu, including his duck confit salad. In an interesting turn, Strode had already featured an original dish of Little's on the menu – oysters and spicy sausage. "So I'm putting that back on. I'm going to do those dishes because I should."

For Little, a cautious, considered chef, pop-ups don't come naturally to him. It's a very different mentality to take an idea, try it, and if it doesn't work, throw it away and try something else. This is a man who's been working on the same apple tart recipe since 1983. "I remember because I set fire to the oven," he says. The caramel spilled and my brother was washing up and he said, 'I'm never working in the kitchen again'." He's still not happy with it either.

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to: The problem with the music is it's fine if I choose it. But if I get in and my sous chef played country and western the whole time… there's only so much Patsy Cline I can take.

After midnight snack: Chinatown for salt and pepper eel. The first time I had it was opposite the father of the owner of the Chinese restaurant and he was, with great accuracy, spitting the bones out into a bowl. I said "bring me one of those".

Kitchen weapon: Just a good big solid brass pot. You can cook almost anything in it.

Formative food moment: Tomato salad in central France on my first visit. It opened the world for me. It was like a door, a portal to another universe of food. It's science fiction.

Ninja skill: I'm good at table tennis.