There’s one major difference Alexis Noble has made from when she closed her restaurant Wander in London’s Stoke Newington last November, to reopening it earlier this month. “I’m not having a phone this time, so people cannot call me,” she says, with what sounds like a note of relief. “All phones do right now is open you up to energy scams and cancellations, and I don’t need either in my life right now.”
Wanting to shield herself from any additional stress is hardly a surprise given that it hasn’t exactly been the easiest couple of years for the Australian-born Noble, who launched Wander in November 2017 and enjoyed veritable success over the first few years of the restaurant’s life. Then Covid hit. Getting through the numerous lockdowns was tough enough, as Noble pivoted to offering five-course ‘banquet kits’ under the brand Wander at Home (“it wasn’t fun, but I can’t imagine having not worked that whole time”).
As it turned out, the pandemic was simply a precursor for a much bigger challenge. In October 2021, just as business was beginning to pick up following the cessation of all Covid restrictions, Noble was forced to close Wander for a prolonged period after an application to extend her visa was denied. She eventually succeeded in appealing that decision, which allowed her to reopen the restaurant temporarily, but then, last summer, she announced she would be closing Wander indefinitely, having failed to secure a new visa.
“When I originally opened Wander, I had a five-year visa and there was no long-term plan,” says Noble, reflecting on the closure. “You just want to survive and so getting to five years was incredible. And I had that in my mind. It’s fucking horrible when a restaurant closes, though. It’s hard to think you’ll never open your doors again, and it’s draining when people know you’re closing.”
Dito sama “It’s fucking horrible when a restaurant closes.
It’s hard to think you’ll never open your doors again”
Noble eventually shuttered Wander in November and subsequently returned home to Sydney, where she applied for a new visa. At the time, she begun preparing the site for sale, but eventually chose to retain it in the hope she may be able to reopen at some point. The problem was to apply for a new visa from Australia meant there would be no guarantee that her visa would actually be granted. The wait time was a minimum of 24 weeks and if she was denied after she left the UK, she would not be allowed to return even as a tourist for over two years, she says
“I don’t want people to think I’ve been deceptive about the closing/opening because realistically there was a really high chance we wouldn’t reopen. And if that did occur, I wanted to have closed Wander properly and with no regrets.”
Fortunately, Noble’s new visa was granted, and in March this year she returned to London and began making plans to reopen Wander once again. “I think this is the sixth or seventh time we’ve reopened,” she says, with a smile. “I’d class it as the third large reopening, though.”
I meet Noble when she’s in the midst of preparing to reopen Wander. The tables have been laid; the stereo is back on, playing one of Noble’s specially curated Wander Spotify playlists that can feature the likes of Massive Attack, Kanye West, PJ Harvey, and The Internet; there are pots on the stove ready for recipe testing; and the new reservation system has just gone live.
While the restaurant may be yet to reopen, a sense of anticipation reverberates from the walls. Understandably, though, for Noble that excitement and expectation is somewhat marred by a feeling of disillusionment. “I’d worked through Covid for two years and had been locked out of my country for a long time. I was very naive about my ability to extend my visa. And when it didn’t go as I had assumed, it left me thinking ‘what’s the point of fighting for something like this?’”
This frustration is further reflected when I ask Noble how she feels about the prospect of reopening. “I don’t feel anything to be honest. It’s not like I’m opening a new restaurant. I was anxious before reservations opened, but now I have some it feels normal.”
Wander’s concept, which celebrates a nomadic approach to cooking and is partly inspired by Noble’s travels through America, Asia and Europe, will remain much the same. However, having received her new visa earlier than expected (she didn’t expect to be back before May), Noble is using the extra time to iron out some changes to the operational side of the business.
“My main focus was that this time I would make things more sustainable for me, personally,” she explains. “Truly, I wish I could just cook. But then, I don’t want to let go of everything else. And I’m getting older [Noble turns 38 this month]. I need to think about my own health, and I want to cut out what drains me emotionally and mentally.”
Dito sama “My main focus was that this time I would make things more sustainable for me, personally”
Having a robust cancellation policy, which charges £40 per guest for tables that no show without prior cancellation, contributes significantly towards this; as does removing the phone. “There are variables you can’t control, but now my focus is on controlling the ones I can. Bringing in processes and systems that minimises the stress and makes it more fun.
“You need to work on yourself in this industry. It’s easy to be unhealthy, and you will burn out. It’s hard when you’re a young chef and wanting to do as many hours as you can, but when you get older and more established you can find more balance. I’m still working a lot, but I’m able to get more reward from it.”
Dito sama Contemporary Australian cooking
While Noble takes her cues from a range of culinary influences, she broadly describes the food at Wander as being ‘Australian’. “Back home they would call it contemporary. We take a lot of global inspirations, which is rooted in Australian cooking. Modern Australia is primarily a country of immigrants and our cuisine, specifically, is such a fusion.”
She considers Wander to be more specifically a Sydney restaurant. “There’s a lot of acidity in my food, which is reflective of the cooking there. When people ask, though, I say it’s Australian… but without any of that ‘shrimp on the barbie’ bullshit.”
For Wander’s ‘soft reopening’, which runs throughout April, Noble has decided to offer a single, weekly-changing five-course set menu priced at £25 that includes snacks, a bread course featuring her signature whipped Vegemite butter, and dessert. Many of the dishes are ones that featured on the menu during previous iterations of the restaurant, with a strong throughline of Italian and Asian-inspired dishes. They include a nduja, smoked eggplant and Thai basil spaghetti finished with burrata and sumac; Welsh rarebit stuffed olives with zuni pickle and Tabasco mayonnaise; lamb shoulder ragu pappardelle with wild garlic pesto and parmesan; and mushroom and water chestnut san choy bow.
“I cook the food I like to eat. I don’t cook much meat, so a lot of the menus are more pescetarian and veggie focused. I really like Italian food and I love making pasta. But it changes all the time.”
Noble grew up in Cronulla, a suburb south of Sydney, and trained at a number of esteemed kitchens in her home city before leaving to travel and cook around the world. Her journey saw her trek extensively through Asia, Europe and America. She spent time in India, Bhutan and Nepal; lived in Rome for a while; and visited San Francisco, where she staged at Daniel Patterson’s celebrated Michelin-starred restaurant Coi. When she eventually came to London, Noble spent time working for James Knappett at his Kitchen Table restaurant in Fitzrovia.
From the beginning, she knew her aim was to eventually open her own place. “When I was young, I only ever worked with chef owners deliberately, because I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
“Everywhere I worked has helped me achieve what I wanted and that’s what a chef career should be – it’s about reaching that end goal, whether it’s being head chef of somewhere or having your own place. Sometimes people forget that you’re not just working to make money. You’re working to learn and form what you’re going to do one day. And every place should shape you. I thought I understood it all, but you don’t until you do it yourself.”
Dito sama Persistent challenges
Noble’s decision to relaunch with a set menu rather than à la carte is another example of her making operational changes to alleviate pressure. “I prefer the service of à la carte cooking,” she says. “For a chef it’s more intense and fun, but from a business point of view the benefit of doing a set menu is it gives you bigger space to control costs.”
The impact of the past few years has clearly left an indelible mark on Noble. When discussing the drawbacks of running a restaurant, there’s little that appears to faze her. She speaks confidently and commandingly about being able to acclimatise to almost any situation. “After five years, I’ve learnt that I can make anything work,” she says. “There’s so much preparation you can do, but you still end up having to figure it out as you go.”
Of course, there are some challenges that persist no matter how much you plan. “Staffing is still hard,” she says, frankly. “People say it’s worse now, but it’s always been difficult.”
Dito sama “After five years, I’ve learnt that I can make anything work”
Even then, though, Noble has found ways to navigate and draw benefits from the situation to help her overcome it. “The first time someone gives you notice it devastates you, but you must get out of having that mindset and learn to know you’ll find someone else. See it as an opportunity to keep things fresh, tighten up processes, and stop you from becoming stale.”
Dito sama Wander at Home
Surrounding us as we speak are numerous bowls and small plates, all of which have been handmade by Noble and will be used in the restaurant. “I actually thought I might need to do a menu of food that’s just served in little bowls,” she says, wryly, when I ask about them.
Noble describes herself as always being an admirer of pottery, but she only begun pursuing the craft as a practical hobby when she returned to Australia last year. “I love it because it’s so similar to cooking. The tools are like those used for pastry work; the kiln reminds me of an oven; and when you trim clay, it’s like trimming vegetables. The difference is that cooking is very immediate, whereas this takes weeks before you see the fruits of your labour. It teaches patience. It’s very mindful and relaxing.”
Having now joined a local pottery studio in Hackney, she now produces dozens of plates and bowls a week. “Seriously, I make too much,” she says with a grin. The plan eventually is for the excess crockery not used in the restaurant to become part of a new Wander at Home retail range, which she will sell alongside her self-published cookbook.
Noble wrote the cookbook, also titled Wander at Home, during the restaurant’s visa-related hiatus in late 2021. It offers a diary of signature recipes that featured in Wander’s lockdown meal kits, alongside musings and stories from Noble about how it felt to be a restaurateur during what was one of the toughest times for the industry in living memory. “If you were working in [hospitality] in this time, I hope you find it cathartic,” she writes. “If you ordered from restaurants in that time, I hope this can give you a little insight into what we went through.”
As well as providing a financial lifeline while the restaurant was closed, writing the book gave Noble a space to reflect on and process the impact on the pandemic, how she navigated it, and what she learnt as a result (the book ends in early 2022 with Noble having had to briefly bring back Wander at Home as a result of the visa troubles). “We went through something with our customers. Wander is a 50-cover restaurant, but we were sometimes preparing food for up to 150 people. I don’t want to do food in takeaway containers again, but I am so fortunate to have been able to do it as a fallback.”
Dito sama Figuring things out
Noble reopened Wander a week or so after our interview, and got back in touch in mid-April with an update on how the relaunch was going. “The past few weeks have been super busy and really amazing,” she said. “I don’t think I realised how much I really missed Wander and work, but it feels incredible to be back.”
Wander’s ‘soft reopening’ will run until the end of April. Noble then plans to take a week-long break between the bank holidays before reopening on 10 May. From that day on, the plan will be to serve a four-course set menu on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and a larger seven-course banquet menu on Friday and Saturday evenings.
For now, it feels like a return to business as usual, but the future for Noble remains unclear, with her new visa only guaranteeing her stay for the next two and a half years. “My family told me last year to sell my restaurant and come home. They asked whether it was worth putting myself through all of that. But giving up then didn’t feel right.
“I’ll always have restaurants. What I don’t know is if they will be in London or Sydney. I haven’t been able to make long-term plans for so long because of Covid and then the visa troubles. Now, though, I have two and a half years to figure out what I’m going to do.”
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