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Alumni Stories: Alice Staple

Alice Staple, an alumna of Leiths School of Food and Wine, is executive chef of five-year-old Maremma restaurant in Brixton. Its sister bar, Il Maremmano, an ‘apericena’ bar, recently celebrated its first birthday.

Going back, what took you to Leiths?

“I’d done business studies at Bristol Poly and thought I was going to embark on law but when I started the conversion course, I decided that was much too much like hard work, so I went to the City for six years and was a Lloyd’s broker. I enjoyed it but knew I wasn’t going to do it for the rest of my life. I was wondering what to do and my mum said, ‘what do you like doing?’. I liked cooking and I liked travelling so she said, ‘Why don’t you go to Leiths and do a Diploma?’. I’d managed to save a bit of money so I was able to do it. I absolutely loved Leiths. It was like going back to school. It was wonderful. When you enjoy cooking and you enjoy eating, what’s not to like, to be honest?”

What did you do after Leiths?

“Having worked for these huge corporations, I knew I didn’t want to work for a huge company. I started working for a few caterers, like deWintons and a few of the bigger caterers, then things started building on the freelance side. I’ve been very good over the years at literally taking everything that’s come my way; you never know who’s going to be at the next cocktail party. I had an introduction to the Australian Embassy at one; that was amazing because that got me on their list of caterers. What I love is that you meet so many different people and every job is different. 99.9% of my clients have been absolutely lovely and charming and I can barely think of a bad experience.”

“Alison [Cavaliero, then of Leiths List, now of Leiths Academy] got me in with Tricia Guild from Designers Guild. She took me on to come out every summer to cook for five weeks at her house on the Tuscan-Umbrian border. I was very much a friend and a part of the family so I had the most wonderful experience. That’s really what propelled me into Italian food. Tricia, who’s so visual, was a real inspiration vis à vis plating and presentation. She’s an extremely good cook herself and is very influenced by The River Café which is all the food I love.”

You could have carried on working privately. Why did you move into restaurants?

“I got as far as I could with the private catering without going massive and doing huge weddings, and I thought: ‘I fancy a restaurant’. My husband is very foodie, so he said ‘OK, let’s do a restaurant!’. We had a community kitchen in Battersea for a few years, so we started off slowly doing supper clubs, getting a feel for the reaction. Then my husband found a site which had been an old Jamaican rum bar in Brixton. We opened in May 2019. Unfortunately, I’d been extremely ill – I had a brain haemorrhage – and I’d just come out of hospital when we were opening. I’m fine now but it was all a bit touch and go at one point. I thought I’d go into service, but it took me about six months to be properly working again. We had a great team behind us to open, so by the point I was ready to start, for me to go in as a newbie, not having restaurant experience at all, was going to upset the apple cart. So I’ve always been the executive chef. The menus are absolutely 100 percent mine; I do the recipe testing and the presentation, but I’ve never been on the rota so to speak. I actually think it has worked best for the team, and I think there’s a healthy level of hierarchy and respect.”

You also now have a bar. How is that going?

“We opened the bar around the corner a year ago now. That’s more my husband Dickie’s baby and the restaurant’s mine. It’s slightly out of Brixton and it’s quite an intimate space with a garden, so what we’ve found is that people want to take the space for the evening. The youngsters of south London are having their 30th or 40th birthdays and having 35 to 50 of their closest friends there for cocktails, platters of charcuterie, little pizzas, all that sort of thing. The outside catering side of it has really grown from people going to the restaurant, so I’ll oversee those events, as a Maremma Catering X Alice Staple Catering collaboration type of thing which is working really well.”

What other plans do you have?

“I want Maremma to become well known for doing rustic, regional, Italian food in London. The ‘regional’ is very important. Maremma is a very specific area in Tuscany, about an hour south of Pisa; real cowboy country. When you go out to eat there, you’ll have your tortelli maremmani, spinach and ricotta tortelli, which is always on the menu; you’ll always have your wild boar ragù; you’ll always have your fritto misto if you’re eating on the coast; you’ll always have your spaghetti vongole. It’s quite fun being in London because you can put it on one menu, rather than thinking you can’t serve it because you’re not on the coast, or up in the hills. The wines are very specific to the area; we spent about two years researching producers. I’m really adamant about sticking to and becoming really well known for supporting all these small producers in Maremma. The cheese, charcuterie, oil and wine come over; and at our house we have figs and we grow tomatoes so in the summer I’ll jar them and preserve as much as much as we can from what we grow. I would love to open the bar in the West End, in Soho; I do feel it would just completely take off. It would be nice to open a Maremma in the Maremma. We’re just outside a beautiful old medieval village but there’s nothing in the village. I’d love to open Maremma in the village.”

maremmarestaurant.co.uk