Chef and restaurateur, Alex Hely-Hutchinson joins us for the latest instalment of The Chef’s Table.
Inspired by Nordic cooking and the Danish concept of hygge, Alex Hely-Hutchinson creates dishes which are perfectly simple, healthy, and satisfying.
Hely-Hutchinson started out selling porridge from a pop-up stall at a London Underground station, later opening her first bricks-and-mortar café and restaurant, 26 Grains in Neal’s Yard in 2015. Having put grains on London’s culinary map, she placed her focus on opening a second restaurant, launching produce-focused Stoney Street in Borough Market in 2019.
Here, Hely-Hutchinson shares some of her favourite food memories and go-to recipes, plus her shortlist of great London restaurants.
How did you first get into cooking?
I’ve always been fascinated by food. The social aspect, the discovery, creativity… I first got into cooking when the house we moved into had an Aga. A stove permanently ready to be cooked on. I would grab ingredients from the fridge and add them to the pan, experimenting how quickly they cooked, how they tasted together. Everything was disgusting and smelled terrible! I then started working in pubs at 17 and they always needed extra help in the kitchen and I started to get involved.
What are some of your childhood food memories?
Gosh, so many. I lived in America until I was seven, so everything from fresh bagels to parmesan on pizza, and pancakes at the diner. We then moved to the UK and my grandparents lived in France and we’d spend all our summers there so the soft cheeses, orangina, croissants, and quiches [stand out]. I loved the wondery of food at a young age and I feel there is still so much to discover.
Who, what, or where most influenced your cooking?
I wouldn’t say it was a particular person, but I’d say my time in Copenhagen definitely reconnected me with the sense of discovery and food. I lived there while I was studying and everything from the use of herbs to foraged ingredients and baking was so much more progressive than anything I’d experienced before.
The food that makes you happiest and why?
What an impossible question. There can’t be a single answer. Pasta with butter and sage; porridge with cream and sugar; winter bitter leaves with oranges, fresh tomatoes in summer; honey-dew melon at the peak of its season; all cheeses; strawberries; rhubarb; oysters; grilled fresh fish; ice cream… I’m afraid I can’t answer that.
Favourite cooking gadget?
Other than good kitchen knives, I’d probably say a microplane – for zesting citrus, grating cheese and bottarga.
I love old cookery books with vague methods and their use of ingredients. I’ll always pick them up if I see them secondhand. Otherwise, I love all of Simon Hopkinson’s books, simple, delicious ideas.
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
Where are the best places to shop for produce in London?
Borough Market close to our Stoney Street restaurant.
How does travel influence your cooking?
Gosh, it influences it so much. I’m amazed at how different cuisines approach different ingredients and I’m endlessly fascinated by the flavours created and methods used.
Where are your favourite places to dine in London?
Brawn, Bright, Spring, Koya, Bao, Duck Soup, and River Cafe.
What do you always avoid ordering on a menu?
The burrata dish.
By contrast, must-order items on the 26 Grains menu include…
Sprout tops with horseradish creme fraiche for breakfast, fennel spiced chicken and polenta, 5 grain porridge with seasonal compote, bergamot soda; I love our menu at the moment.
Why do you think it’s important to gather round the table to eat?
Life pulls us in all sorts of different crazy directions, but we have one thing in common – that we have to eat. So it’s an opportunity to put differences aside and come and celebrate one another and the food you’re eating.
What is your go-to meal at home when you’re low on time?
Spaghetti aglio e olio.
Do you find cooking therapeutic?
I used to find it very therapeutic, a time away from screens, you have to commit to the time to see it through to the end, [and] you get to eat something delicious at the end. However, I’d say since starting a family and cooking twice as many meals a day I can find it difficult to find every experience of cooking therapeutic. What I would say is that once a week, I’ll set my eyes on a recipe, one I’ve not done before, and the feeling of discovery, learning, and creativity is so rewarding; that’s when I find cooking therapeutic.
Advice for women thinking about starting up a business in the food or restaurant industry?
Of course you can do it; don’t second guess, don’t doubt yourself, you are more than capable. If you don’t know something, as long as you have the right attitude, you can learn it. Go for it, if that’s what you want.