A tribute to Valli Little.
to write about Valli’s time at delicious., I immediately began compiling a list of the people she’d worked with over the years who I knew would want to contribute to this piece. Editors, book publishers, chefs, home cooks, writers, food producers, photographers, stylists, recipe testers – all of whom had seen her talent, professionalism and dedication up close. Being the food director of a magazine, as Valli was for well over a decade at delicious., brings you into a close-knit circle of food professionals for long hours of researching, writing, shopping, testing, cooking, plating, styling and shooting. But as the list of names grew ever longer, I realised it was an impossible task to include everyone whose life she had touched, and decided simply to tell you how she made delicious. the success story it became.
Valli and I met a few months before the magazine was launched by Neale Whitaker at the end of 2001. It was immediately apparent that she had a rare talent for creating recipes that were low on effort but high on impact. At that time, food magazines were publishing recipes that ran over several columns (sometimes pages) and required exotic ingredients from several different specialty shops before you could even begin to cook. The beauty of delicious. was its keep-it-simple approach combined with Valli’s incredible ability to turn supermarket ingredients into restaurant-worthy dishes.
The first time I truly understood the depth of her expertise was when we were shooting our very first cookbook, Wicked. This was full of dessert recipes from well-known chefs. I watched day after day as she took a chef’s long, complicated (and to be frank, often unintelligible) instructions, which were usually based on them having a team of sous chefs and kitchen hands as well as access to all manner of produce and commercial equipment, and turned them into something a home cook could achieve, with sensational results. Readers loved her. Suddenly they were delighting friends and family with irresistible recipes that didn’t take a weekend to prepare. The magazine became synonymous with Valli’s inimitable style of food.
When we travelled around the country for cooking classes and events, audiences were spellbound by Valli’s tips, tricks and shortcuts, and her infinite food knowledge. Often on stage or cooking dinners with famous chefs such as Rick Stein and Curtis Stone, Valli more than held her own, creating a rapport with readers through her self-deprecating sense of humour and accessible, down-to-earth approach – partly the result of working full-time while bringing up her two boys, Toby and Henry, with her husband, Phil.
Her passion for food was unrivalled; it started at a young age in a family of restaurateurs and continued as she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London, worked as a caterer and went on to open her deli, Gastronomes, in Roseville, Sydney. She was always fascinated to learn new things and never stopped collecting cookbooks – she had more than 800. In fact, Phil said a new one arrived in the mail the week after she passed away. She used to read them like others read novels, in bed with a cup of properly made English tea.
We had so many fun times over the years: laughing about getting lost in the dark on the way to Maggie Beer’s house in the Barossa; attempting crazily ambitious shoots on beaches, farms and islands around the country and overseas; and hosting events with some of the world’s top chefs (some of whom were better behaved than others – there were Gordon Ramsay’s infamous reader dinners and the time Valli had to take over a demonstration from a certain star who was suffering the after-effects of a big night out).
What I remember more than anything, though, is her generosity: giving advice to fledgling food producers or business owners; supporting young writers and photographers; and always happy to answer weekend phone calls from colleagues (okay, mostly me) about recipes or cooking methods when they were halfway through preparing for a dinner party.
But, of course, Valli’s lasting legacy will be the thousands of recipes she has given us; the magazines and cookbooks on our shelves that we all turn to when we want to be assured of stress-free culinary success; and the warmth and conviviality of lingering meals with friends and family enjoying her simply delicious food. The Australian food industry has lost one of its best.