Alastair Little remembered

Alistair Little holding a fish

Memories of one of Britain's great self-taught chefs, cookbook writers and provisioners.

Alastair Little, the chef who recently died aged 72 in his sleep at his home in Sydney, Australia, while waiting for a heart operation following a complication of COVID-19, was very well known to me.

We met in the winter of 1980. I had taken over the lease of what had been known as L’Escargot Bienvenu at 48 Greek Street in London’s Soho and the builders were busy on its very necessary modernisation; the basement kitchens had been condemned on 44 counts by Westminster Council.

I had hired the late Sue Miles to help me – I had no practical experience of what life as a restaurateur would entail – and her preoccupations were twofold: to help me with the redesign of the kitchens so that we could feed the three floors of restaurant above, and to find me a head chef who could then run these kitchens.

She presented me with Alastair and he was duly chosen from a field of one. On 2 June 1981 when L’Escargot opened it was with him as head chef. Alastair was very easy to like and we shared several common features.

We had both been born in Lancashire and been educated at Cambridge. Alastair had studied Archaeology and Anthropology at Downing College and once told me that he had been woken up by the college’s porters to be told he must attend a morning lecture. Apparently, Prince Charles, a student of the same subject, was also expected. However, he spent most of his time at Cambridge cooking dinner parties from the books of Elizabeth David for friends, one of whom was Rowley Leigh, who was also to become a very well-known chef and food writer.

Alastair had a ready smile, he was relatively easy-going, and he could cook wonderfully well. But there was a flaw in our marriage. L’Escargot had the potential to be a big restaurant, certainly in that era, and Alastair could not cope with the numbers. When bookings reached 50 for the restaurant (there was also a brasserie on the ground floor) he seemed to lose interest and for the business that I had in mind that was just not workable. By the end of 1981 Alastair had left – I believe that I am the only restaurateur who can claim to have ever fired him – and his role was more than adequately filled by Martin Lam.

One dish that brought Alastair and me together was black pudding. A favourite ingredient that we both liked, this became a staple dish, cooked by Alastair with sautéed apples, on LEscargots brasserie menu. The puddings came from the champion maker Jack Morris of Bury Market, and I would collect them weekly at the Red Star depot behind Euston station.

To verify these memories, I got in touch with Bryan Symonds, who during the 1980s fulfilled an extremely important role at L’Escargot. The kitchens were in the basement and linked to the three rooms of restaurant by a dumb waiter and an intercom system. The food was sent up to a servery that was Symonds’ fiefdom. He was responsible for sending orders down, for receiving all the food, and for distributing it, via waiting staff, to the appropriate tables, a herculean task which Symonds performed expertly. Symonds recalls, ‘When our initial success put quite a strain on our lunchtime service I’m sure that Alastair was the only chef in London to embrace “catastrophe theory” as an explanation of how a busy service didn’t just slow down, but came to a complete halt’.

Alastair subsequently found smaller restaurants more attuned to his skills. While cooking at 192 restaurant in Notting Hill he met Kirsten Pedersen and Mercedes Andre-Vega and in 1985 they opened Alastair Little restaurant round the corner from L’Escargot on Frith Street, Soho (the site has since become the first Hoppers and continues to trade successfully). There, with the kitchen in the back of the ground floor, Alastair cooked at his best. His menus were always fresh – they changed between lunch and dinner – and his timing was spot on. This was an era when Great Britain was finally waking up to the charms of good, fresh ingredients and to Al’s expertise.

His new venture was to renew our friendship. As his restaurant prospered he had dreams of expansion, which he decided to do downwards via a spiral staircase into what proved to be a rather gloomy basement. This expansion cost far more than predicted. But worse was to follow. One day, while carrying a large tuna fish down these stairs with the late William Black, his supplier, Alastair slipped and crushed his ankle. This injury is never an easy burden for anyone to carry, but was particularly heavy for a chef, and Alastair was someone who never liked to stand still and one who had chosen to name his restaurant after himself.

There was to be a silver lining, however. Alastair was rushed to the Royal Free Hospital, where the country’s leading ankle expert was based and which was very close to where we then lived, so I was able to visit him frequently and this repaired our friendship. In that era, when the restaurant market was much, much smaller than it is today, breaks such as the one our friendship had suffered tended to linger (both of us were men, too!).

By the mid 1990s Alastair had fallen out with his two partners in his restaurant and moved on, back to Notting Hill. By this time, he had fallen in love with the produce and cooking of Italy – he used to teach cookery classes during the summer near Orvieto in Umbria – and there he met Sharon Jacob, an Australian marketing manager whom he married in 2000. In 2003 they opened a fantastic delicatessen called Tavola, where he would fuss around in his chef’s whites, walking out from behind the kitchen if he recognised you. Always smiling.

In 2017 Alastair moved with Sharon and their son Alexander, now 18, to Sydney where he started a pop-up restaurant in a hotel and then in 2020 became co-owner and head chef of Et Al restaurant in Potts Point.

In retrospect, I think that Alastair’s contribution in the evolution of British cooking may be misconstrued. He was definitely not the grandfather of the movement but he was an enormously influential part alongside Rowley Leigh, Simon Hopkinson and Anthony Worrall Thompson, all of whom shared the same quietly authoritative approach to cooking – an approach that was sadly drowned out by the much higher-volume antics of Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay.

I will always remember Alastair for three things in particular. The first was his ready acceptance of my suggestion that our menus should, unusually for the time, be written in English and his openness to agreeing to write our menus in his lovely handwriting. This was definitely a first.

The second was for his book Keep It Simple, which was published in 1993 with Richard Whittington as his co-author. It is a cookbook of over 100 recipes but one in which Alastair’s voice comes through clearly. When I am using it in my kitchen – and my hard-backed copy is stained, dog-eared and extremely worn – it’s as though he is standing there behind me, urging me to think about what I am going to cook and how the dish will eventually appear while undertaking the next crucial step in the recipe.

And I will miss his smile. It really was most infectious. As Nick Smallwood, general manager at L’Escargot and the founder of Kensington Place Restaurants, put it in an email, ‘thinking of Alastair brings back lots of good memories’.