When Alex Hely-Hutchinson relocated to university in Copenhagen to study economics a career in the hospitality industry was not on the menu.
“I never went there for the food,” she says, “but I was completely overwhelmed by the quality of life, the simplicity of cooking, and how seasonal ingredients were championed at every meal. It was effortless.”
Moved to bring a bit of Scandi-simplicity to London and inspired by a nostalgic love of porridge, she began selling breakfast at Old Street station. Not just any old oats, Alex’s porridge blew commuters away with creative combinations and unusual flavours. Events and pop-ups followed before she was offered the chance to make roots in Covent Garden’s Neal’s Yard, back in 2015.
“I felt we were missing a space in London that served honest, delicious food without the fuss of exotic ingredients or fancy twists,” she says. “Plus, Neal’s Yard is heaven. It’s been elevated loads over the years; the landlord is very specific about who it leases to, and is dedicated to giving startups an opportunity.”
A delightful space, small but perfectly formed 26 Grains is reflective of Alex’s dedication to simple, wholesome foods, serving an extensive breakfast menu, lunch and as of June, dinner too.
“We’re tiny so we can’t serve a full blown à la carte menu. Instead we offer a three-course set with a seasonal changing starter – something light and fresh – and then a homemade pasta and sorbet or ice cream for pudding.”
Recent dishes include peaches and burrata to start, followed by an aubergine ragout and a cereal milk ice cream to finish, all made with the finest seasonal ingredients and costing a very reasonable £18 for two courses or £21 for the full menu. Washed down with the organic Italian wine list, it’s terrifically good value.
Menus are designed collaboratively amongst the team, based on what they are craving that week, married with the cream of the season’s crop.
“What we focus on more than anything is quality,” says Alex. “Amazing produce is effortless and tastes fabulous; we work with incredible suppliers who give us the very best, from cheese and bread to salads and fruit. It’s common sense for us to create this way – a peach in the height of summer needs nothing more to taste divine.”
A self-taught cook, Alex is frank about her journey into the kitchen, and grateful to the London restaurants that have opened their doors to her.
“It was very naïve of me to open a restaurant fresh from university, but ignorance is bliss when it comes to the hospitality industry! I’m curious by nature and have done week and day stages with chefs to see how they operate. Fortunately, I believe that with the right attitude you really can do anything you set your mind to.”
Her formula clearly works. 26 Grains is set to open its second site this September, somewhere in south London. A chance to expand on the success of the original format in double the space, the new site will also provide more scope to practice and further 26 Grains’ sustainable philosophy, selling keep cups, potentially some ceramics and grain blends for home-baking.
“Sustainability is a huge issue for all of us in the food industry,” says Alex, “primarily because your business is inefficient if you have wastage. We make as much as possible to order and repurpose anything we can. As Doug McMaster of zero waste restaurant Silo in Brighton says, ‘waste is a lack of imagination and creativity’. I think he’s absolutely right.”