A grumble down under – the irascible chef

A grumble down under – the irascible chef

Alastair Little The Godfather of Modern British Cooking
Alastair Little is one of Britain’s most celebrated chefs and has been dubbed “the Godfather of modern British cookery”.

At his irascible best, Alastair Little fulminates on Australia’s overweening smugness regarding the quality of its food.

Traditional whole roast grouse, baked gammon, slip sole, seared Cornish mackerel, fennel and orange salad, turbot with hollandaise, roast black leg chicken, Scottish girolles and Madeira sauce, Brixham brill with samphire and bouillabaisse sauce, menu descriptions with punctuation…

All recent posts on the Noble Rot Instagram account, all calculated to whip up a frenzy of homesickness in this ex pat now settled in Australia.

Surely the wonderful array of produce available here in Sydney will more than make up for all these, much missed, delicacies.

I am afraid not, not even close.

Australians seem to live on beef, oysters, prawns, Thai takeaway and Brussel sprouts, all accompanied by enormous piles of splendid looking but sadly bland salads.

There is no game, as I understand it, to be had. No flat fish except flaccid flounders and farmed turbot. No bacon worth eating. Unsmoked gammon does not exist here. Offal is virtually non-existent. Easily available fresh fruit and vegetables are at best British supermarket standard. Do not even start me on Australian salamis. There are virtually no wild mushrooms.

Yet, there is an overweening and completely unjustified sense of smugness about the quality of their produce and what they do with it.

This is obviously an unbalanced and bilious assessment of my predicament and there are many consolations to be had as the standard of food across all formats, the basics, are of an equal, or more often better quality than their equivalents in the UK.

Milk, cheese, eggs, pork, lamb, beef and shellfish start at ‘good’ and go rapidly up to ‘exceptional.’

The curmudgeonly assessment above is new to me and precipitated by several recent, ‘Pom Bashing;, ill-informed or just plain wrong interviews and articles in the media. One was propounding an evolutionary league table to the world’s great cuisines; top of the table were the ‘fully realised’ cuisines, vital and integral to the societies they developed in. China, Japan, France, Italy Vietnam, Thailand the Indian sub-continent were held as examples. Then there were the cuisines about to break through into this top rank by virtue of developing a strong, diverse and quantifiable identity. Two examples were given; the USA (really?)and Australia. Then there were the cuisines barely out of the dark ages the UK being the prime example given.

This is complete bollocks; London is twenty years ahead of Sydney in the maturity of its food, everything here with the exception of aboriginal ‘tucker’ originated somewhere else and a great deal of this innovation has come from London.

London in the nineteen eighties was invaded by thousands of dynamic young Australian chefs who came, worked, learnt, went home and put into practice what they saw.

Kensington Place was virtually a production line for the future of Australian cooking.

It could be argued that London is not representative of British cooking, true, but the other UK cities are catching up or catching on and I can safely assert that the same dire standards of food to be found in Wolverhampton will be more than matched by the equivalent food in Wogga Wogga, New South Wales.

In fact Australia, as the most urbanised country on the planet has a greater disparity of food quality between Town and Country than Britain and I know of what I speak, having cooked in rural and metropolitan environments in both countries.

The availability to me here and now in Sydney of truly top quality fruit, vegetables, poultry and seafood is not even comparable to London back when I was opening my Frith Street restaurant in 1985.

No fishermen, looking like Billy Idol’s love child, turn up now at my kitchen door with a van of still flapping fish, no maniacal salad growers like Frances Smith send their deaf husband to deliver the most astonishing array of salads and the Italian ambassador’s son here does not bring me Buffalo Mozzarella still warm as his counterpart in London used to do thirty odd years ago.

Back to Instagram posts and to rub salt into my wounds; my ex head chef, James Rix of the Fox an Hounds, Hunsdon, posted a picture of a delivery to him showing an array of vegetable crates with greengages, datterini tomatoes, borlotti beans, small ripe figs, muscat grapes, girolles and heritage tomatoes, all of them imported from France and Italy probably by my old greengrocer and all of them the produce of mainstream, commercial horticulture or in the case of the mushrooms a broker.

These are products available in large quantities and throughout their native countries and by virtue of the EU, in Britain. Obviously Brexit will put paid to that if those figs have to wait in a lorry for a couple of days at Dover then be subject to an import duty. Australia has all of the above produce bar the girolles, but all are commercially grown for appearance, durability, profitability and last but very much least for taste.

The climate here is similar to the great fruit growing regions of Provence, why can we not have fruit of a similar quality instead of bog standard ‘supermarket grade’ produce. I literally cannot countenance a pear, peach or nectarine here and to get a servable tomato for my menu, I buy a week ahead and ripen them myself with a considerable amount of wastage.

Having so thoroughly slagged off my adopted country’s food, I hope to be able to redress the balance by telling you some of the many good things about Aussie food in another letter from down under.

No worries mates.

This article first appeared in Noble Rot magazine, Issue 21


By Alastair Little

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One response to “A grumble down under – the irascible chef

  1. Good to hear you grumbling Alastair. There is some lovely food around the trendy/smug but beautiful hinterland of Byron Bay and some excellent farmers markets…the coffee malarky is extremely annoying (how long does it actually take to get an espresso…? about 10 times longer than in Rome that’s for sure). Food in America is decades behind UK…particularly in the Southern States, although Charleston is a fabulous exception (for restaurants anyway). Atlanta, which sees itself as a foodie paradise (ew), has (as far as I can make out) one great restaurant, Miller Union, and everything else serves nursery food (but that’s a cultural thing). But good ingredients? impossible. Dekalb world farmers market being the exception for incredible vegetables, herbs and all kinds of unknown roots and leafy things. Apart from that, the generally appalling animal husbandry makes for a vegetarian sojourn. So now I’m the grumbler. Apart from the food I hope you and Sharon are happy and well.

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