Alastair Little, ‘Godfather of Modern British Cuisine’, Dies at 72

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

Alastair Little, a pioneering chef who is widely considered the “godfather of modern British cuisine”, has died. He is believed to be 72 years old.

The chef helped usher in a style in which he merged simple, seasonal cuisine with influences from across Europe, particularly Italy. It’s a style that has come to influence a wide variety of restaurants since then and continues to be emulated by restaurants today.

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

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

Such anomalies – this was in the years before Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay – would prompt restaurateur Simon Slater to say at the time: “Alastair gets more publicity than Princess Diana.” Though perhaps less remembered today than perhaps he may be, in his time Little was regarded as having a similar impact on London dining as the Roux brothers had some 15 years earlier.

Speaking to Standard today, Maschler said: “The changes in restaurant cuisine that the handsome and helpful Alastair Little coded nearly 40 years ago at his eponymous Soho restaurant still inspire and reverberate – perhaps at an even greater volume. A thirst for knowledge, a love of travel, for Italy and Japan, a strictly seasonal menu that changes twice a day, an ability to get straight to the point and not take silly customers willingly, intolerance of treats; everyone is good, everyone is Alastair.”

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 cuisine and an advocate of simplicity. His cooking was just amazing.” He added: “Unique, charming, brilliant x the joy of cooking with x great inspiration x great friend and a great chef [sic].”

Among the other honors 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 his home delivery service “ByAlastairLittle”, and a restaurant in Sydney called Et Al. The latest move was greeted with amusement by the Australian press, as Little, in 2019, called the country 20 years behind the UK. Prior to his eponymous restaurant, he had cooked at Old Compton Wine Bar and L’Escargot, and has written and published a small handful of cookbooks, including Keep It Simple, Food of the Sun, Italian Kitchen, and Soho Cooking.

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