Missing ingredient

Last month, after a turbulent year-and-a-half away, Juliet Peston returned, unheralded, to the scene of her greatest triumphs. Famous triumphs they were, too, though not famously hers. Emily Green reports. Portrait by Sarah Maingot

Emily Green
Friday 20 October 1995 23:02 BST

It might seem unlikely in this, the age of the media chef, that one of the very best cooks in Britain should be anonymous; actually, make that impossible, if said cook is at the nexus of the London restaurant boom. Yet this is the case with a 34-year-old Londoner named Juliet Peston.

Ten years ago this week, a restaurant called Alastair Little opened in Soho. Peston was with Little at the stove as they forged the movement dubbed "Modern British Cooking" by The Good Food Guide. Then 35, he was already something of a hotshot, famous for sending out terrific food at the west London wine bar 192. She was a painfully shy 24-year-old lesbian, with scant catering experience, an ever-growing collection of cookbooks and a piercing intelligence that, Little admits, came to unnerve him as much as it impressed him.

Initially, as the name of the restaurant so clearly indicates, Little was boss. "Juliet went from being a real beginner to complete chef in less than three years," he says. "I had nothing more to teach her." So he promoted her to be, alongside himself, head-chef. Five triumphant entries in The Good Food Guide, from 1989 to 1993, credit her as such. Little will freely concede that much of the food in his award-winning cookery book, Keep it Simple, is theirs, some purely hers. Today, he enjoys fame and plaudits. She is obscure. This has caused problems.

While it is not unusual for famous chefs, the Nicos, the Marcos and the Raymonds of the world, to have relatively anonymous drones do their cooking, the relationship between Peston and Little is different. They came to the restaurant business with unusual pedigrees. Both went to Cambridge. When they started in the business, they cooked what they liked to eat rather than what British catering colleges taught was hygienic and economical, or what French chefs thought looked impressive. They served it in a lean modern dining room tended by casually dressed, but fleet, staff. The tables were bare and napkins paper.

Ten years later it still feels fresh. The food was the point, and the cooking amounted to an inspired badinage. "It's hard to say where my food begins and hers leaves off," says Little. "We simply fed ideas one way and the other."

It was Little's practice that the menu change with each service, with each new inspiration. He became passionate about sushi, and made regular forays to Chinatown, returning with dried scallops, wontons, ginger, chillies and rice vinegars. Peston dug into cookbooks: the restrained and classical French and Italian influences of Marcella Hazan, Richard Olney and Alice Waters show in their cooking. Yet their menus would also take in dishes from Russia, Sweden, California and England.

Today eclecticism is rife. However, ten years ago, no British cook would have listed, day to day, meal to meal, the likes of gravadlax, borscht, osso bucco, pressed scallop terrines, Orvieto chicken, olive oil and sauternes cake, fish and chips. Their concern was less with authenticity, more with what she calls "making connections": ensuring the right flavours and textures show up at the right moments, not merely for show, or curiosity value.

The critics loved it and said so in the tabloids, the broadsheets, the glossies, the telly. Yet nothing captured the breakneck pace, the duelling banjo quality of their cooking better than Tom Jaine's 1991 Good Food Guide entry: "Even a basic such as fish soup may be traditionally brick coloured one day, with coarse texture; velvety smooth with chunks of fish another; a delicate consomme with hints of sweetness and a glistening selection of scallops, fish fillets and mussels a third." The credit went to Little.

When Jonathan Meades, the critic from the Times, gave the restaurant a rave review and a nine out of ten marking, it was Peston's food he ate and Little he praised. Peston recalls, "That was the point I said to Alastair: 'you have to sort this out'. And he did. Meades rang to apologise." Still, Peston remained obscure, and Little ubiquitous. It was Little smiling from the back of London buses in BBC Good Food Show advertisements. Or on Masterchef. Or on sherry ads in the London Underground. Or modelling waistcoats in the Evening Standard.

Peston does not blame him. "I was allowing myself to be invisible," she says. Why? "I don't know." A likely explanation is a mixture of genuine shyness and proud reserve. She only agreed to be interviewed after a series of tentative conversations that began last January. And, had I not singled out the salads for praise, a speciality of hers, I doubt she would have come out of the kitchen.

Her reserve shows on the plate. If there is an abiding ethos to their cooking, it is a belief that ingredients should speak for themselves, and the chef's contribution, no matter how involved, should be understated. The same can be said of her instinctive attitude to self promotion, while Little is a natural and engaging showman. Add to this, Peston could not help but have wondered: just how ready is the food world for a top chef in the form of a shy Jewish lesbian partial to cowboy boots?

She is the daughter of Lord Peston of Mile End, who founded the economics department at Queen Mary College. As if disciplines should be inheritable, she herself read economics at Trinity. "I did sort of get a degree," she says. "Yeah, I did. I got an honours degree." Later, less punchily, she concedes: "Cambridge was not a good time. I wasn't myself. I wasn't true to myself. I'd never mixed with people from public schools before. I hung out with the gay male crowd," she says. "And it was substantial. In my last year, I finally met another lesbian. All the boys were just coming out. I'd say 'yeah?'" at which her voice drops to a dead, faintly bored note. "They never met anyone for whom it was normal to be gay."

It is perfectly normal to be gay in catering, particularly in London where a strong network of gay women work in or own the city's most fashionable restaurants. "We do well in catering for two reasons," says Peston. "One: friends help friends. Two, the hours are tough. Most straight women cannot raise families and spend their mealtimes in the office." Are women chefs different? "My view of running a good kitchen is an organisational thing. People should have a life outside work. And you should be nice to them while they are there. Generalising freely here, women are probably better at doing that."

But it was food, not sexual politics, that drew her to cooking. "It is corny to say this, because everyone does, but my mother was a great cook. And my grandmother. My pleasure in life was either going out to eat, or eating in. The hard part to learn was the catering thing - how you know when to cook this, that and the other. Timing." Where she reckons too many chefs go wrong is that they don't read and they don't eat, and never develop a personal taste from which to work as cooks. "My least favourite stuff to eat tends to be meat," she says. "I find it rather dull. Actually, stews I really like. Salads, of course. Fish. In restaurants, I always eat fish, because the chances of getting fresh fish are higher than trying to buy it and cook it at home."

Peston went on sabbatical in late 1992; by the time she returned, though Alastair Little the media personality appeared to be thriving, the restaurant staff resembled nothing so much as the cast of Lifeboat: someone was going to be thrown overboard. The Soho lunch trade died when advertising agency after agency retrenched or went under. No sooner was this weathered than any number of cut-price competitors, imitating Little and Peston's food, opened nearby in properties secured cheaply off receivers. Little and his business partners, Mercedes Andre-Vega and Kirsten Pedersen, reacted by again whittling down overheads, trimming staff, cutting prices so the average spend dropped from pounds 40 to pounds 30. By May, 1993, they had the choice of sacking three medium earners, or Peston. They gritted their teeth and, in May 1993, Peston went.

"This was, with hindsight, a ghastly mistake," Little says. He speaks from a mobile phone. He is in the bath following physiotherapy. Several months ago, he broke his foot. This is only one mishap in a string of disasters that have plagued him since the split with Peston. After she left, his luck might as well have been scripted by Fay Weldon. His marriage to Kirsten Pedersen broke up. Absorbed with writing cookbooks and running an Italian cookery school, he has, he admits, neglected the restaurant. I was the first of three formerly admiring critics who turned savage. Last autumn, The Good Food Guide, which had rated Little's restaurant as one of the best dozen places in the country, demoted it to a mark better suited to a respectable wine bar. The low mark persists in the new guide released a fortnight ago. The final straw was a stinging review in the Sunday Times. Two months ago, Little went hobbling back to Peston. The message: please come back.

Contrition such as this is rare and delicious, but when Peston hesitated, it was not to savour his humiliation. She had a lot on her mind. "Before and after I left Alastair, I was offered an awful lot of places," she says. "I don't think I knew what I wanted to do. I didn't want to cook anyone else's food. In retrospect, I don't think I had begun to deal with the redundancy. It had knocked me for six. That was my kitchen, then suddenly it wasn't."

Shock had given way to indignation when, shortly after the redundancy, Little's first book, Keep it Simple, was serialised by the Independent on Sunday. Again she had been sidelined. In the book itself, she saw their food. some of it her food, credited to him. "The only dish I actually get credit for is the Chinese-style pigeon," she says. But not her terrines. Her saltimbocca of red mullet. Her creme brulee. She wrote an irate letter; when the IoS published it, the tabloids descended. At this, Peston fled the restaurant world. "They were looking for a feud. They wanted me to say Alastair was a shit, and somehow a bad cook. And I think Alastair is fabulous and a great cook. Not to say he wasn't wrong, but I had already made that kind of clear." By early the following year, when Keep it Simple won a Glenfiddich Award, a sort of foodie Booker, she was working for the International Wages for Housework Campaign out of the King's Cross Women's Centre.

When, on 1 September, 1994, she did not show up for a meeting, colleagues from the centre were looking for her within half an hour. When they found her bicycle missing from her flat, they thought to check the hospitals, and found Peston in an intensive care unit at University College Hospital in Bloomsbury. Cycling to the meeting, she had been hit by a car on the Euston Road. "I've still no idea what happened," she says. 'The driver never claimed responsibility." She woke up several days later. She was blind for weeks, deaf in the right ear and paralysed on her right-hand side. "Initially my reaction was, oh, I'm glad I didn't die," she says. "I was really glad to be alive. And obsessed with the idea of cooking. But after a while, I was lost. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I hit major crisis. After a while, it was just waiting to be dead, frankly."

She has spent the last year in and out of specialist hospitals. When I first met her last January, she wore a hearing aid, moved gingerly and complained of incipient amnesia. "I read a recipe," she said, "and only have a kind of vague sense of deja vu." Yet then and there, when I asked her how she makes a salade nicoise, she gave a superior recipe to Little's, where the fish is poached, not seared.

Perplexed by the amnesia, her doctors referred her to a neuro-psychiatrist. By the time Little limped back to her a month and a half ago, she was still pleading forgetfulness: "The thing is, all hell broke loose after my injury," says Little. "She was thrown in at the deep end." Nothing jogged her memory like the sight of a lesser cook running the kitchen. Within days she had taken over.

Now that she is back at the stove, Little lunches there daily, swollen foot still in a sock, cane rested on chair. Lest they lose her a second time, he wants to make her a partner. Certainly, to judge by a recent meal, the food is back on top form. Her immaculate salads are back, be they substantial plates of roast vegetables or the freshest of leaves, tomatoes, soft boiled eggs with an anchovy dressing. There is cod, simply served with a light motzah meal crust, a half of lemon, blazing hot chips and gherkin-rich tartar sauce. Grey-legged partridge is served with meltingly sweet cabbage. Lime sorbet is done with a rough texture, and to the sharpest, pluckery turn. Italian biscotti lend a hazelnutty edge to chocolate ice- cream.

Peston is clearly enjoying herself but says she is not sure about the partnership. "I don't know," she says, rubbing her forearm where a persistent numbness makes her vulnerable to burns. "There are still physical problems." However, Little is optimistic. "Juliet applies intellect to dishes in an almost ferocious way. If it goes on like this, then she will get credit. Recognition from one's peers is an important part of one's picture of oneself."

Quite. Little and Peston, estd 1995. Wouldn't that have a nice ring?

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