Isobel Whelan-Little has been a Swillhousian for a year. Hired as the head – and opening – chef for The Caterpillar Club, she’s just taken a step up to become executive chef, bringing Alberto’s Lounge under her wing too.

The Cat Club’s popularity is obvious from the ever-present lines up Pitt Street, but Italian restaurant Alberto’s has been heaving with good vibes since it opened in 2018. The kitchens are chalk and cheese, and leading both is a challenge. “Alberto’s is a small, almost family-orientated place. Caterpillar’s a bit more of a machine,” she tells Broadsheet.

A machine with a secret tiki bar and room for 200. Alberto’s seats 60 and has a micro kitchen team of four chefs and a kitchen hand.

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Whelan-Little chats about her new role, shares the best time to visit each venue and divulges the best thing she ate this week.

Congratulations on your new gig! Tell me about it.
It’s an exec role for Swillhouse, overseeing Alberto’s, our neighbourhood Italian restaurant, and The Caterpillar Club, which at the moment is one of the busiest bars in Sydney – it’s wild.

I would say it is the busiest spot in Sydney.
Yeah, I cannot remember the last time I lined up to go into a club or bar. Every time I walk past it I’m just like “far out”. It’s my first step up into an executive chef role, so lots of learning and everything that goes with that.

How is the new role different from your previous one with Swillhouse?
It’s overseeing two venues, which immediately makes it a lot more work. You’re doing two different venues, two different rosters, managing two different sets of people – chefs and their expectations, customers and their expectations. Trying to be in two places at once is pretty interesting.

And Caterpillar Club is so new. I’m sure every week you’re learning something.
I don’t want to call it “my baby” because that sounds a bit lame, but it is – it’s the first restaurant I did with Swillhouse. They trusted me with the menu and a brief, and I built the team up. It’s hard to step away from that and come into something like Alberto’s that’s been here for years as a really well-run, oiled machine.

Are you on the pans at all?
Yeah! At Alberto’s I’m on the pans every shift I do. I was joking to my wife yesterday that my hands are all covered in scars and burns again, and I was just like, “I haven’t had these for a really long time”. I feel like I’m back! It’s really hot in Alberto’s – I think a lot of us do it for the adrenaline rush. And you feel that when you’re doing 120 covers in that tiny space.

When I worked with Luke [Powell] at LP’s [Quality Meats], the biggest thing he would do is clean with the rest of the team. It was really momentous, a chef of his calibre being like, “Hey guys, we’re just ‘gonna pull apart all the fridges and scrub them down”. So I try and bring that ethic into each space that we work. If I’m scrubbing the walls, everyone else should be really proud to scrub those as well. It trickles down.

When’s the ideal time to head to Caterpillar Club?
Before the line starts: 4.45pm. Between five and six, the energy is very palpable. Everyone’s just finished work, the line to get in is large. And at the moment when it’s been so hot, as soon as you walk down those stairs and you’re hit with the air conditioning, it’s a crisp blast of chill. We’re doing live music almost every day now, but I really liked the DJs in the beginning of the night, playing funk and old hip-hop.

And what do you order when you’re there?
The tuna melt and the fish fingers with yoghurt tartare. They’re the two things that are iconic to my childhood. When I was talking to [Swillhouse co-founder] Anton [Forte] about the menu, he was like “I’d love to see a tuna melt on there”. And I was like: “That is an epic idea.” The fish fingers are all fish, no filler: blue eye cod. We’re steaming and brining it, picking it all down. And it looks like one from a box, which is wild. They’re the best sellers, too. And the burger! It’s decadent.

And what about Alberto’s?
Prime time at Alberto’s is later. For the last sitting, when the place is a little bit quieter. Right now, I’m really into this Florentina pasta, which is a classic tomato pasta with a lot of garlic, some chilli, burrata on top and parmesan. There’s going to be a new menu soon, too. With a new vibe – add on a few pastas, make it less heavy. Just a couple of things done really well. And burrata. Sydney has this infatuation with burrata – I don’t know what it is. They love it.

What do you have planned for the venues’ future?
Caterpillar Club will have a bit of a menu shift too. We’ve just added a few things: a steak, and caviar and waffles.

What’s your favourite thing about dining in Sydney?
We’re spoilt for choice. You can have high end, a snack in your hand on the way to work, a really cosy spot like Bar Vinny. Too much choice, one would say!

And your go-to venues?
I love Bella Brutta. The pizza is insane. I really love Grape Garden, the Sichuan place in Potts Point. Cafe Paci is consistently in my top five recommendations. Bar Vinny – I think what they do there is exceptional. And a classic: Fratelli Paradiso.

What’s the best thing you ate this week?
This is ‘gonna sound so lame. This week, at home, I made this really delicious smoothie. It was so good. It was fresh banana, raspberries, almond, natural yoghurt and a little bit of honey. On cow milk. With a few ice cubes. I’m a cow girl through and through – I can’t do nut milk. I’ve tried a couple times.