The chef formerly known as Alastair Little

If it's food prepared by the legendary London chef you're after, don't go to the restaurant that bears his name. Caroline Stacey finds the godfather of modern British cooking cutting ham at a west London deli, and discovers that Little really has gone a long way

Sunday 15 June 2003 00:00 BST

Do the hosts of Notting Hill realise they can have their dinner cooked by the chef known as the godfather of modern British cooking for a fraction of the cost of eating in a restaurant? In a neighbourhood where food shops are just a focaccia's throw apart, Tavola, a delicatessen and traiteur, has an advantage that's becoming less and less secret as more customers succumb to the sublime chicken liver pâté with vin santo, roast rabbit with white wine and tarragon, or faro salad. Meanwhile in Soho, after 18 years with his name on it, Alastair Little's restaurant is still there. Only now, it has nothing to do with him.

How Little came to be cooking almost anonymously in a local deli, while Alastair Little the restaurant continues serving his style of food but without him, marks the point at which the mix of his personal and professional life curdled. It was a dispute with his ex-partner, Kirsten Pedersen, that meant Little had to give up his name over a year ago. And it's why Little has been so reticent, and his presence in Westbourne Grove - back in business with his new wife Sharon - only slowly revealed. "When we opened Tavola there was no fanfare. It stood on its merits," Sharon explains. "It was quite a while before people cottoned on." One of their first customers congratulated her on securing the services of a famous chef.

Little, astonishingly, is over 50. He was always slight, stooped and wispy bearded. Now a little grizzled - the beard would fit well above a schoolteacher's crumpled jacket - he's only doing what he loves and does best: cooking.

When it opened in 1985, Little's Soho restaurant was one of the first eponymous eateries in the country. This was less, it always seemed, out of egotism than an uncompromising refusal to embellish. "A two-edged sword," is all Little will admit that particular decision turned out to be. There were no tablecloths, paper napkins, bare floorboards. You could see into the kitchen - and this was before Terence Conran did away with the walls between chefs and customers. Credit cards weren't accepted. The menu changed twice a day as Little shopped. Early on there was a basement sushi bar. This mix of the austere and the ahead-of-its-time, threw into relief the outstanding cooking. And the prices. But enough people were prepared to * pay for some of the most vivid dishes around, for the restaurant to weather two recessions - in the early and late 1990s - and to outlast many cheaper and more pretentious restaurants.

A year after opening the Soho restaurant with Pedersen, with whom he has two children, the couple opened a second Alastair Little off Ladbroke Grove. The Times's restaurant critic Jonathan Meades encapsulated popular opinion when, at the time, he described the restaurant as feeling "altogether right".

It was at the beginning of the Italian renaissance from trattoria to genuine Tuscan, and Little was in there just ahead of the River Cafe. Working from Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook, and before he'd even tasted the real thing, Little was smitten by Italy. Elizabeth David had had the same effect on him and he'd also had the advantage of having grown up with good food. His mother, he reckons, must have been the only housewife in east Lancashire serving gazpacho in 1965.

Little is self-taught as well as unusually well-educated. A chef with a degree - he studied social anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge - is about as common as a footballer with A levels. An early advocate of ethical food, he acknowledged sources and suppliers. He was exceptional, though he now demurs: "Twenty years ago, with a bit of common sense, it wasn't hard to stand out. There's no doubt the standard of food is far higher today. It's very hard to stand out now."

When it first opened, eclectic was the description applied to Little's grab-bag of culinary traditions, tricks and trends. Throughout the 1990s, the restaurant moved between the "Anglo-French", "Modern European" and "Celebrated Chefs" sections of the Time Out Eating & Drinking Guide. "Always a bit mongrel," is how Little looks back on it. "Too many influences. Sushi - why bother?" he wonders now. "I just got a bug for Japanese food, but you're usually better going to a Japanese place."

Unlike some chefs, he didn't churn his books out at an implausible rate and nor are any of them ghost-written - if they're not completely his own work, his collaborator Richard Whittington gets equal billing. He didn't court Jamie Oliver-like popularity. Soho Cooking, his most recent book, with recipes from his own and surrounding restaurants in the area, reads almost like an autobiography, distilled through the cultural and culinary history of a neighbourhood that shaped both Little's own and Britain's gastronomy.

Despite dismissing some of his past enthusiasms, and downplaying his role, at the time Little's impact on what we eat was considered as important as the Roux brothers and Marco Pierre White. Ten years on, he reflects: "There are food fashions and I was a food fashion that made some sense at the time. There were good reasons for it, then what myself and a few others were doing got traduced. Rocket with everything, oil with everything, the sun-dried thing. I was one of those people who started doing carpaccio of strange things. Saltimbocca of monkfish was one of mine," he confesses.

It is now over a year since Little "stopped being involved" with the restaurants. Was it hard to leave? "Of the two, Frith Street was harder because I'd been there so long," he says. "I never got that attached to the local one," he says of the Ladbroke Grove branch which has now closed. Does he miss the pace of a restaurant? He shakes his head emphatically. "I liked the prep and dealing with producers. Service was long, hard and tedious. This is a totally different kind of pressure." In a restaurant "you fill the plates and send the food out". In a shop the chef can't improvise. "People expect it to be the same every time. They notice if their stuffed pepper is bigger or smaller." Nor do people walk into a restaurant, look around and leave without buying. As well as what Little cooks they wanted to sell what no one else does. "Otherwise it's the identi-deli."

Little's career began in the 1970s - in a wine bar cooking six hams a week; so much saltimbocca, sushi and Schezuan-style pigeon later, Little is again cooking baked gammon three times times a week. "I plonk it on the bar and just start carving. You get a chance to put all your history together. I'd forgotten how to cook ham. I had to look it up in the Joy of Cooking," he says.

In Tavola, the dishes arranged in earthenware bowls on uneven rustic tables are "as simple as possible". They couldn't look any more appealing. To go with the artisan pasta he buys direct from Italy are tubs of ragu bolognese and a sugo di coniglio cacciatore or a gloopy green pesto. Finding the pasta has been one of the many pleasures of setting up Tavola with Sharon. "There are only 100 small pasta makers left in Italy. They're all mad, and mostly in the south." Little ordered some in October and it arrived in March. "Factors such as humidity affect the length of time it takes to dry. It's twice the price of any mass-produced pasta. But it is really worth having."

Much of the stock and repertoire at Tavola is informed by the 12 summers Little has spent teaching cookery at La Cacciata, a farm near Orvieto in Umbria. This year he's taking a break. "I used to look on it as a holiday, even though it was hard work. Though there were some benefits: I met Sharon." That was eight years ago, they've been married for three.

Sharon, who worked in banking, had long been planning a shop based on the chef's pantry at home, the way he had in his cupboards key ingredients for producing a fine and simple supper. That must be some pantry he had. They found an empty former bookies next to one of the remaining caffs in Notting Hill. "Sharon put all her savings in. She provided the whole damn thing," Little reveals, "for which I'm profoundly grateful. I would have been very unhappy working in someone else's kitchen." As far as division of labour goes: "I do the cooking and that's about it."

Finding suppliers, discovering through trial and error what to cook for people to eat at home - risotto didn't work - has been a learning curve, he says. "I was rather blasé. But though I can bore people rigid with the history of Parma ham, I couldn't wrap it or slice it."

Although you might call his circumstances reduced and his profile lowered, Little's life is clearly enriched. And it's not as though he ever played the celebrity chef up to the hilt. He claims not to have enjoyed working in television, on shows including Ready Steady Cook and Masterchef. Antony Worrall Thompson? Envious? "He's made his choice. I was fed up to the back teeth with chefs on TV, chefs everywhere." And don't expect the Tavola cookbook just yet. He's not giving away recipes. "There are proprietorial issues," says Sharon. "They're the shop's. If you're cooking for people to take home, why give them the recipes," Little agrees, with the determination of someone learning to become harder-headed.

His experience may have been bruising. But is Little's the hard-luck story some have suggested? Hardly. He's downshifted, he's doing what many 50-year-olds dream of. Equally literate contemporaries such as Simon Hopkinson and Rowley Leigh don't rattle the pots and pans every night. Shaun Hill, whose Merchant House restaurant in Ludlow was recently listed as one of the best in the world, is another doing things on his own terms.

In a profession still pumped up with braggadocio, inhuman hours, perfectionism and relentless pressure, the Little partnership has allowed this older and wiser chef to do what he does best. "Opening the shop means I've become a cook again and that's marvellous. You've no idea what a joy it is to go home at 8pm."

His unflagging interest in food, his knowledge and enthusiasm are as infectious as ever. When Meades reviewed Alastair Little off Ladbroke Grove, the critic said, "Little's name alone will ensure people will travel for it." It's not where the name is but where the chef himself is cooking that should have people travelling to Westbourne Grove.

Tavola is at 155 Westbourne Grove, London W11, tel: 020 7229 0571

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