Isobel Whelan-Little is an Aussie chef who enjoys cooking over live fire with exceptional produce. She's currently head chef at Swillhouse Hospitality in Sydney, but before this, she completed a long stint at BRAT in London – a venue loved by locals. Upon her return to Australia she reflected on her upbringing in rural Australia focusing on the original farm to table concept. Sustainable, local and produce-driven is what best describes her cookery style.
Tell us about your childhood in rural Australia.
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 served me fruit with roast pork, which, as a child, seemed utterly bizarre. Fruit with my meat? A story that my parents love to tell now that I am a chef. It is thanks to them and the upbringing they gave me, that I am the chef I am today, which is something I am immensely proud of. A big thanks to Rod and Cath!
What does sustainable cooking mean to you?
Sourcing as local as possible, speaking with your growers daily and asking them what they need you to use up! At LP's Quality Meats, I would often buy whatever Block11 (a local producer based in Central West NSW and The Hawkesbury) couldn’t sell at the markets, whether it was trays of green tomatoes or boxes of kumquats! These are great and cost-effective ways to make yourself more sustainable. It's also a nice challenge to be able to utilise odd pieces of fruit and veggies!
You spent time working at London’s BRAT – a local favourite. How do you bring your own touch to a restaurant that already has such a strong following?
I was part of the original opening team of Brat in London. It had a following, but nothing like it does now. Tomos Parry and Super 8 have created a wonderful restaurant concept. While it was very much their restaurant, there was a sense of ownership I felt during my time there. We worked everything out from scratch – the grill set up, technique and times, how the pass would run and the recipes. I was very fortunate to work alongside both Tomos and Super 8. It really cemented my style and my own brief for how I wanted to cook moving forward.
Cooking over fire is among your passions. What makes it so special?
It’s definitely hard to navigate, it's not just like you can turn the heat on and off and adjust it as needed. While you can make those adjustments, it takes time and energy; it can't be done with a switch. When you burn the outside of a peach, its flavours change. Everything becomes more complex; the char becomes almost candied and caramelized. It's those subtle techniques that, in my opinion, make it a very special way of cooking.
Tell us about High Steaks, one of the Dining Gallery experiences you’ll shape at Tasting Australia.
I'm excited to work alongside Jake Kellie and Matt Moran. They’re both industry legends. We've been exchanging ideas for the dinner menu, and it's shaping up to be quite extravagant. While it's still a work in progress, we are featuring Mayura Station Wagyu, so anticipate something lavish. It's also my first Taste of Australia so I’m excited to come and put my best foot forward!
Anywhere you’re especially keen to dine while visiting Adelaide?
Arkhe, it’s been on my list since it opened. I’ve already made a booking! I’m also looking forward to getting around the food markets in Adelaide, and seeing restaurants I’ve watched from afar including LOC Bottle Bar and Africola.