Meet the Chef: Isobel Little

Photography by Nic Gossage
Interview by Harriet Davidson

Hand-raised duck, beetroot from the ground outside the kitchen door, trading flowers with the local restaurant for meals — it’s hard to imagine a more perfect childhood for someone who would go on to a career cooking in much-celebrated restaurants, both in Australia and overseas.

Sitting on a park bench in London, chef Isobel Little speaks to us about her story. The chef tells of an upbringing that deeply engrained in her a strong connection to food and the ground it comes from, and how her connection to produce and farmers today influences her cooking; of the importance of music and banter in the kitchen, to what inspires, drives and recharges, and what’s next in her culinary story.

Most recently, Isobel has been at the helm of Sydney’s much-loved restaurant, LP’s Quality Meat. The restaurant, also a small goods producer, that had built its devoted following over the last six years, and became a staple in Sydney’s dining scene, recently announced it was closing its doors. We caught Isobel in the restaurant’s final week of service before she jumped on a plane to head to London.

To have Isobel step away from the fire and the pass and take the time to speak to us about the big things, like the sustainability of a career as a chef, to the smaller things, like snacking on days off, is a true privilege. Along with these thoughts and stories, Isobel has shared a recipe for her tartare with the Journal. Enjoy this glimpse into a delicious life in food. We can’t wait to see what’s next in Isobel’s story.

On an upbringing that lead to life as a chef…

My background into cooking is largely thanks to my parents, who are both really great cooks, but also gave me a childhood that I’ve now come to realise laid some solid groundwork in my relationship to food and cooking. I grew up in rural NSW, in a small town called Gloucester, where I yearned for boxed fish and chips but instead, had hand-raised duck and beetroot from the ground outside our kitchen door. We didn’t have a lot of money so we grew and raised a lot of our food. We also traded flowers with a local restaurant in the town for meals — they would serve me fruit with roast pork, which as a child, was utterly bizarre to me. Fruit with my meat? A story that my parents love to tell now that I cook for a living. It is absolutely thanks to them, and the upbringing they gave me, that I am the chef I am today; something I am immensely proud of. So thanks team Rod and Cath!

On what’s played the largest role in Isobel’s culinary education…

I left school and started my cooking apprenticeship when I was pretty young — 16! Back then TAFE was full of hard-arse teachers who made you polish your boots and iron your neckerchief. I learnt the basics that I believe to be fundamental from the apprenticeship, but it was probably years later when I stepped into a kitchen in London and got my arse handed to me that opened up a whole new world of knowledge.

You can learn a lot on the job, but it’s a fast-paced environment so sometimes it goes in one ear and out the other — for this reason I highly recommend reading, reading, reading. We also have access to a lot of programs now, whether it be Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown, or the Chef’s Table series — a favourite of mine is the Nancy Silverton episode. We are really lucky with how much knowledge is readily available.

On what drives day-in and day-out…

It's my livelihood, it’s the career path I’ve chosen and someone is paying my wage. It can be grueling — I’ve definitely been that broken person on the bus falling asleep. I have a really strong ethos that when we come to work, we bring the good vibes only — it’s a safe space where we leave everything else at the door and fill our days with music and banter. These are two things that drive me, they are key to getting me through the day, and through those big shifts. Oh, and no coffee after 11am.

On unwinding, recharging and the importance of a morning routine…

Morning routines are pretty special to me. It’s the time in the day that I get to spend with my partner. We have coffee in bed, she’ll do yoga and I’ll potter or do some peloton (this weird exercise bike I got in lock down that’s been pretty great). I usually pack her lunch—something I love doing — before leaving the house together. She is probably my biggest critic. Evenings after work are pretty uneventful. A shower, a look in the fridge and then to bed.

Days off are a different story — I’ll head for a swim (I love the Bronte baths), a touch of life admin and then usually head for a beer at the Old Fitz with some books to relax into the afternoon sun with. We’re having dinner wars at home at the moment — the classic “who's cooking?” so we’ve been pretty cheeky and are eating out quite a bit. We live opposite Potts Point’s Bistro 916 so it’s very easy to wander over there!

Isobel wears an IN BED 100% Linen Apron in Navy Stripe.

On what inspires in menu and dish development…

Conversation. I think it’s crucial to talk to everyone about ideas—it keeps everyone on their toes, and really, it’s just enjoyable. Produce and availability are probably my biggest drives. At the end of the day it’s my job to bring everything together on the plate but I couldn’t do that without the testing or the talking.

On the importance of developing and maintaining relationships with producers and farmers…

It’s huge. I am very minimal in my cooking— I let the produce do the work (well, most of it) so meeting and having relationships with farmers is really important not only for the day to day of the menu, but also for understanding how growing really works. I don’t have a green thumb, so gaining knowledge from these guys is paramount, largely to be able to gauge what’s in season.

On a brilliant producer…

I was really lucky to meet Will from Emilio’s, a butcher in Rozelle. We were sourcing amazing mutton with him from Lynden farm in the Blue Mountains — it was exceptional. We were getting in whole bodies and using different cuts each week. It was really special to be able to do this. A lot of customers who were a bit older were shocked to see mutton on the menu. The sheep are left alone to roam and eat whatever is on offer so it adds a beautiful depth of flavour, something you don’t get from stock feed.

On a shift in the industry towards the role of a chef being more balanced and sustainable…

As I write this I’m actually sitting in a park in London. I’ve been catching up with friends in the industry since I arrived a few days ago… let’s just say I think the industry still has a long way to go on becoming a sustainable work model. That shift is really dependant on my generation of chefs, and I think it’s a great reasonability to have. We can’t hero these huge work weeks any longer, ENJOY HAVING DAYS OFF. The role of a chef can’t be based on a model that is based around Master Chef and TV personalities. That’s what I find most destructive about this industry, but on the other hand we need to be able to play that game. The attention, glamorisation and interest in cooking and chefs has been a huge help in people taking hospitality as a serious career path. It's a fine line.

We can’t hero these huge work weeks any longer, enjoy having days off.

On LP’s closing…

It’s been emotional! The close was sudden for lots of people, including Tan and Luke — a big part of why I came home from London was to work with them. I’m so happy I’ve had that opportunity, and so thankful they put their trust in me. We created something really special in Chippendale, and we should be so proud. It’s a great feeling to have become such close friends with them both, and I’m not finished learning from either of them.

On what’s next…

I don’t know what’s next for me—I think I’m taking the opportunity to go freelance for the rest of the year and work in some places where I can absorb new skills and knowledge…. potentially open a small music and banter-oriented place.

On whether we as a country need to shift the way we shop, eat and engage with food…

Yes and no. Australians are pretty switched on when it comes to eating and sourcing for the most part. Yes, lots of people still want tomatoes and asparagus all year round, and on one hand I’m torn because farmers need to make a living so if they can use polytunnels and be able to grow fruit and vegetables all year around, shouldn’t they take that opportunity? I think it’s important to be open to second grade fruit and vegetables —the imperfect picks. It blows my mind that if a carrot isn’t straight and orange, people won’t buy it.

On snacking at home on days off…

I try not to put any pressure on myself when I’m home — I give myself the freedom to cook with whatever I want and have in the kitchen. I like cooking Asian-inspired food, and I’m no expert, but I do find it light and refreshing after a few days at work tasting lots of rich foods. We recently bought a rice cooker and it has honestly been life-changing — so usually rice, tuna, avocado something green and some seaweed sheets! Oh, and we always have pickles, smoked almonds, and olives in the pantry.

Isobel’s Aged beef tartare

Tartare is a great dish for entertaining. They’re often put in the hard-work basket but with a few simple ingredients, you can so easily recreate restaurant-grade tartare at home. Produce is key here; please don’t buy your meat from Coles for this, and anything with age is worth it. I really like the rump for tartare — you can ask your butcher to remove the sinew parts, or with a very sharp knife you can do it home. Fresh eggs are also key as they’re served raw. In the restaurant, we use an egg yolk emulsion that brings this dish to life but you can omit this for a touch of Kewpie mayo instead.

For the tartare

100g rump aged beef if possible (diced very small)
20g chopped parsley
30g chopped gherkin & capers
1 tsp maple syrup
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp fermented hot sauce
1 tbsp egg emulsion (if you don’t want to make an emulsion, Kewpie mayo is great here, too)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp finely chopped shallot or white onion
1 egg yolk (fresh eggs are crucial)
50g cheese for (Comté or Manchego work really well here)

To serve

Have everything chopped and ready to go—it makes it much easier to be able to simply assemble if your prep is done.

Place a mixing bowl over another bowl that’s filled with ice to keep the meat cold while you work.

Add ingredients into the bowl and mix well, creating an almost emulsion-like texture. Taste for seasoning, adjusting with salt if you need.

Spoon mixture into serving bowl and make an indentation with the back of a spoon for the egg yolk (take care cracking and handling the yolk, you want your guests to have the yolk cracking moment!).

Use a microplane to grate cheese over the top and serve with stale bread ends either lightly toasted or grilled.