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S H A R I N G P L A T E S | Introducing Australian Chef Alexis Noble
“I always have pavlova on the menu,” says Alexis Noble. “It’s simple, it’s light, it’s fun. It’s an Australian dish (although Kiwis might tell you otherwise.) It’s not a cheffy dish, but it just makes people super-stoked, which is essentially what we are meant to do in this industry: make people happy.”
Alexis, who is from Sydney, serves her dessert on plates by the Australian designer, Lilly Perrott. Underneath each mound of seasonal fruit, organic cream, sugar, egg whites and air, diners will find one of four Australian mammals clutching a lolly or ice-cream. It’s a combination that elevates the dish from a pleasing dessert, to an experience steeped in nostalgia.
Alexis is the chef-proprietor of Wander, a restaurant in North London that is celebrating its first birthday this weekend. Although there is whipped vegemite butter on the menu, Alexis doesn’t describe her offering as strictly Australian, rather influenced by the dining experience in Sydney. “It’s hard to define, because Australia is such a new country, we’re not confined by a traditional cuisine,” she explains. There are Asian influences on the sharing-plates menu (steamed pork buns with housemade kimchi or sea bass sashimi with peach, macadamia and thai basil), but also evidence of the time Alexis spent cooking for a family in Rome (chestnut mezzaluna with sage, chestnut honey and miso yoghurt), and the time she staged in San Francisco for six months (peach leaf affogatto).
“I’ve moved around quite a bit,” says Alexis, “and until about a year ago, people probably thought that I’d ruined my career, that I should have stayed in Australia, but I was always planning this. Everything I’d done was with this in mind.” Alexis, who is just 33, has known the name of her restaurant for five years (it was inspired by the J R R Tolkien quote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”) When she returned to London for the second time in June last year, she came on an entrepreneur visa: the name, the branding and website were already finalised – all she needed was a physical space.
Before signing the lease on what was a tired Thai restaurant on Stoke Newington High Street, Alexis sat at the bus stop opposite her premises for two hours, getting a feel for the area. When it was time to travel home, she jumped on a bus and promptly got stuck in traffic. Scrolling through Instagram to pass the time, she noticed that the ceramic studio, Turning Earth, was holding a market nearby. Noble got off the bus and went to the sale, where she met three of the six makers who now produce tableware for the restaurant.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have much money, and I didn’t know if anyone would come to the restaurant, so I started out with just a few things from everyone – the basics I could get by with in service,” explains Noble. She now has enough tableware to serve up to 45 covers a night. As the restaurant has evolved, so have the working practices and techniques of the makers involved. Some have even started their own collaborations. “Sara Fonfria throws really well,” says Alexis “and Lucia Fraser trained as a painter, so she prefers the glazing side of things, so they’ve decided to collaborate and make ceramic water glasses for the restaurant.”
It’s a partnership that Alexis has enjoyed from the start: “I’m doing this on my own so even though we are doing very different things, we have these shared stresses and concerns. It’s really nice to work with other creatives in the same position. We’ve become great friends.”
The collection has had such a warm reception from customers, that Alexis has hosted two Wander x Ceramics markets in June and September and is hosting another to mark Wander’s first anniversary on the 4th November. “Everything they make is so different, there is no sense of competition, because everyone has such a unique style. Yet still, when you put them all together on a table, they look really lovely.” Alexis demonstrates, but laying down a selection of Lucia Fraser’s delicate Glacier plates, which are glazed in iridescent tones of pink and peach, alongside rustic, black clay bread dishes, edged in gold by Alex Smith (Wizardkiln) and hand-built Galaxy plates by Sine Icli (Ophelia), which have been renamed ‘mortadella’ plates because, in the candle-light, it’s hard to tell where meat ends, and plate begins. “I can’t see myself changing or adding another maker to the collection,” says Noble, who is clearly attached to each piece she has stacked upon the shelves surrounding the open kitchen.
“They get a real workout here,” she continues, “but we’ve hardly lost any since we opened. We don’t have a kitchen porter – it’s just me and one other chef in the kitchen – so we respect each piece. And even the floor staff know the makers, everyone respects them, and knows how long just one single piece takes to make.” The ceramics are integral to the identity of Wander, which itself is a pure expression of the owner. “I probably could have opened and run a restaurant when I was 25,” reflects Noble, “but it wouldn’t have been as good as this is. When you’re creating something, you need to have enough experiences, to have travelled, to have tried enough things to be able to to pull together something that is your own.”
Want to get involved? Wander are also fundraising at the moment. Check our their Crowdfunding page HERE.
Wander, 214 Stoke Newington High Street, London, N16 7HU; 020 7249 7283
Words by Nell Card