Alastair Little, who has died aged 72, was a chef who symbolised for many the spurt of energy that revolutionised UK food in the 1980s and was described as “modern British cooking”. Cooks looked beyond the Anglo-French model to the dishes and methods of other cuisines. In the London restaurant that took his name and opened on Frith Street in Soho in 1985, diners might encounter sushi, tataki, carpaccio, pizze, chorizo, couscous, or Thai or Chinese spices, served all on the same day alongside French staples and English standbys.
Alastair was also a harbinger of deeper trends, such as the postwar infiltration of retail services by the hitherto professional middle-class. In earlier years, actors, to name but one trade, had often become restaurateurs, after years in other walks of life. Alastair was well educated, a Cambridge graduate, and young: he went straight into his chosen occupation. Nor did he follow the well-worn path of apprenticeship or vocational study. He was self-taught, and was only ever a head chef in his own kitchen (bar a few early weeks of part-time skivvying).
His restaurants laid down markers, especially for London. The menus, depending on inspiration and supplies, were composed twice daily, rather than relying on long printed catalogues of classic variations. The settings were stripped back: paper napkins, black wooden tables, white walls and no thick-piled carpets. Cover and service charges were ditched. Waiting staff wore street clothes, not uniforms. In Alastair’s cooking, too, trends were set. There was a turning away from “the sauce of concealment … the contrived picture on a plate”, as he described it, and a lack of pretension – all explained in his inspirational cookery book Keep It Simple (1993), written with Richard Whittington.
Alastair was born in Colne, Lancashire, one of two children of Robert, a submarine officer in the Royal Navy, and Marion (nee Irving). A love of food was fostered early by sound home cooking, profound horror at his encounters with institutional catering when boarding at Kirkham grammar school (and, later, at Downing College, Cambridge, where he studied anthropology and archaeology), and delight at restaurant meals consumed on family motoring holidays to continental Europe – navigated by young Alastair, Michelin guide in hand. He first tried his hand at the stove in lodgings during his last year at Cambridge, with a borrowed copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking.
He had envisaged a career in film editing, but the low initial wages were soon eclipsed by those he earned waiting at table in the fashionable Small’s restaurant in Knightsbridge, owned by Alasdair Scott-Sutherland. When that closed in 1974, Little followed his employer to another family business, the Old Compton Wine Bar in Soho. After the chef’s precipitate departure, Alastair volunteered to replace him. It was a baptism by fire indeed – a passing journalist noticed the young man “setting fire to lamb chops” behind the bar.
He was recruited from there by the owner of Le Routier, a restaurant in the Suffolk village of Wrentham, for two years, then moved to Simpson’s restaurant in Putney, where he earned his first public notice. The sudden closure of Simpson’s led to a stressful year as chef at Nicholas Lander’s L’Escargot before a move to Tony Mackintosh’s new wine bar at 192 Kensington Park Road.
At 192 Alastair perfected his market-led, improvisational cooking. There he fell in with Kirsten Pedersen and Mercedes André-Vega, who were front of house. They proposed going into business together and Alastair Little at Frith Street opened in 1985. Pedersen also became Alastair’s life partner for 10 years.
That restaurant was galvanic. It attracted young recruits such as Juliet Peston, Jeremy Lee and Dan Lepard, it was a beacon of adventure and delight in its range of offerings, and it operated in a style far removed from the hushed napery of candidates for Michelin.
Over the years, the kitchen’s emphasis leaned more strongly towards things Italian, partly inspired by Alastair’s own reading of writers such as Marcella Hazan and by his involvement in a cooking school, La Cacciata, near Orvieto in Umbria, to which he would retreat every summer to host sometimes chaotic, always inspirational classes, leaving Peston in charge of the London kitchen.
A second Alastair Little restaurant opened off Ladbroke Grove in 1995, which was largely the responsibility of Pedersen. The partnership was fraying at the edges as Alastair had met the Australian marketing executive Sharon Jacob in Italy in 1995 – they married in 2000. It was not dissolved, however, until 2002, when Alastair lost the use of his own name for business purposes, and his involvement with the restaurants ended.
In the next year he and Sharon opened Tavola, a tableware shop and delicatessen, in Notting Hill, for which he cooked mostly Italian food laid out in large bowls and tubs on uneven rustic tables.
In 2017, the shop’s lease ran out and the Littles relocated to Australia. Alastair started a pop-up in Hotel CBD in Sydney, then bought into a partnership in the Et Al restaurant in Pott’s Point, a stone’s throw from Sydney Harbour Bridge. He retained a link with Britain by setting up a home delivery service called ByAlastairLittle in 2019, which harked back to the dishes he cooked for Tavola.
Little wrote a handful of books as well as Keep It Simple, including Food of the Sun (1995, with Richard Whittington), Alastair Little’s Italian Kitchen (1996), The Modern British Cookbook (1998, with Richard Whittington) and Soho Cooking (1999). His appearances on television were fitful and he never achieved that general celebrity now coveted by chefs.
He is survived by Sharon and their son Alexander, and by George and Frederika, his children with Pedersen.