Alastair Little, the ‘godfather of modern British cooking’ dies at 72

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Pioneer: Little pictured in the 1980s   (Rex Features)
Pioneer: Little pictured in the 1980s (Rex Features)

Alastair Little, a pioneering chef who is widely considered the “godfather of modern British cooking” has died. He is believed to have been 72.

The chef helped usher in a style whereby he fused simple, seasonal cooking with influences from across Europe, most notably Italy. It is a style that has gone on to influence a great swathe of restaurants since, and continues to be mimicked by restaurants today.

He opened an eponymous restaurant on Soho’s Frith Street in 1985 which did away with most of the rules that were considered sacrosanct at the time: the floorboards were bare, cloth napkins were swapped for paper ones and tablecloths were scrapped altogether. A 2003 profile of the chef in the Independent notes that Little would change his menu twice a day according to what he could pick up while shopping, a practice that was almost unheard of at the time; similarly, he opened up the kitchen so guests could see the chefs at work. It was named the Times Restaurant of the Year in 1993.

A stark contrast to what else was on offer in London in the era, reviews from critics were warm, and it led to television appearances. Fay Maschler, the critic for this paper for 48 years, recalled that Little even appeared on the cover of Elle magazine in the 1980s: “I remember ... thinking how terrific it was to have a chef on the cover of a magazine like that and that something was changing,” she told the Caterer magazine in 2012.

Such anomalies — this was in the years before Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay — would lead the restaurateur Simon Slater to reportedly say at the time: “Alastair gets more publicity than Princess Diana”. While perhaps less well-remembered today than perhaps he might be, in his time Little was considered to have had a similar impact on London dining as the Roux brothers had some 15 years prior.

Speaking to the Standard today, Maschler said: “The changes to restaurant cooking that handsome, helpful Alastair Little codified nearly 40 years ago in his eponymous Soho restaurant still inspire and reverberate — perhaps at even a higher volume. A thirst for knowledge, love of travel, of Italy and Japan, a strictly seasonal menu changing twice daily, an ability to cut to the chase and not suffer foolish customers gladly, intolerance for fripperies; all are sound, all are Alastair.”

The Quo Vadis restaurateur Jeremy Lee announced the news on Instagram earlier today, writing “There goes a great man. Alastair Little was a godfather of modern British cooking and a champion of keeping it simple. His cooking was just incredible.” He added “Unique, charming, brilliant x a joy to cook with x a huge inspiration x a great pal and a great boss [sic].”

Among the other tributes was one from Times critic Marina O’Loughlin, who called Little “an inspiration and a pioneer”.

Among Little’s other projects were the Notting Hill deli Tavola, and later its home delivery service “ByAlastairLittle”, and a restaurant in Sydney called Et Al. The latter move was greeted with amusement by the Australian press as Little had, in 2019, called the country 20 years behind the UK. Prior to his namesake restaurant, he had cooked at the Old Compton Wine Bar and L’Escargot, and wrote and published a small handful of cookery books, including Keep It Simple, Food of the Sun, Italian Kitchen, and Soho Cooking.

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