It wasn’t that long ago that a Sydney cafe breakfast was very, um, predictable. Would you like scrambled eggs with a side of bacon? Some fancy ricotta pancakes? The best of the brekky spots were those that did freshly squeezed juice and could pull off an Eggs Benny with a hollandaise sauce that didn’t split on you. And as for the provenance of the ingredients…
This feels like ancient history now, but it’s not. The story is not quite this black-and-white, of course, but if I had to pick a single event that ushered in the dynamic produce-driven era that we’re in now, if I were to name the asteroid that blew up all the ‘big brekkies’ and made room for the seasonally-driven, vegetable powered dishes that thrive on cafe menus today, then I would name it after the cafe which landed with a bang in the middle of Illawarra Rd, Marrickville in 2012. Cornersmith.
The most vivid example of Cornersmith’s influence is not the fact that they’ve collected a trophy cabinet full of awards, or that they’ve managed within a few short years to expand into a second site as well as opening a picklery, a cooking school, and releasing two cookbooks. It’s this little quip by James, mid our conversation: “We actually get resumes with photos of people with cabbages on their heads. Or dudes with broad beans hanging off them. It’s a bit much.”
Alex Elliott-Howery and James Grant met back in 1999, back when James was pulling shots at vegetarian cafe Badde Manors in Glebe. This was in Glebe’s more edgy and bohemian days, and Badde Manors was at the centre of the action – a space where the eclectic local community mingled and uni students hatched protest plots. One day, Alex spotted James behind the machine. “I remember saying to a friend of mine “who is that handsome barista?” And the rest is history.”
Shortly after they met, James, then 27 years old, moved to London where he worked as a bartender. That same year, Alex moved to Austin, Texas, to study Fine Arts. Once they both got back to Sydney, James picked up some casual jobs and Alex opened a vintage clothes and record store called Pigeon Ground with a friend. Then Alex, who was 25 at the time, fell pregnant.
James: “We were like “let’s do this!”, and I was like, fuck, I need to get serious about my career and my life! I’d never worked full time before, I was still like a part-time party guy”.
James started working six days a week at Allpress Espresso, hired by Russell Beard (of Reuben Hills/Paramount). These were very early days in Sydney’s specialty coffee scene; the days of serious, dark and handsome baristas who treated coffee preparation with the care and attention of a cook in a fine diner. “It was really just Toby’s Estate, Campos and Allpress. I loved the learning [at Allpress]. I’d been at Badde Manors for 6 years and didn’t learn much at all.”
After Allpress, James worked briefly at Mecca Circular Quay, then for Russell Beard at The Source, then finally, he landed at Mecca King St. “I was on the till, working with Alex [Kum], Marcelo [owner of Cross Eatery], Paul De Luca, Reuben [of Sample]... it was a great crew.”
Meanwhile, baby two was born, and Alex, about to turn 30, found herself in a bit of a pickle: “I had no idea what I was doing. I was like “I have nothing. I can’t do anything!””. But Alex had not spent her time at home with the kids sitting idly.
“At that time when I was home with the babies I got obsessed with food and cooking and cooking from scratch and knowing where food was coming from. That’s when I started pickling and preserving – when I was home with the kids. I was trying to figure out where food comes from, how to connect with food in an urban area and how to feed the family well and not have any waste.”
“I would walk around with the kids and I’d see these laden fruit trees, so I’d knock on people’s doors and ask “can I pick your figs? Can I pick your cumquats?” And then I’d take them home and teach myself how to bottle and then take a jar back to whoever it was.”
Eventually, James and Alex decided they’d try and build a business together. Using James’ coffee-making chops and Alex’s expertise with pickling, preserving, and implementing sustainable food practices, they'd create a cafe run according to principles by which they were already living their lives: Minimal waste, local produce, ethically sourced ingredients, and a strong connection to the local community.
Alex: When I was picking people’s trees and dropping pickles off to them I was like, “there’s something in this”, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I felt like people wanted community. I couldn’t believe the connections I was making with people that I wouldn't normally talk to, so I guess I wanted to see if I could make that work in a business.”
The site for the first cafe, on a corner of Illawarra Rd in Marrickville, was on James’ morning commute to Mecca King St. James would drive past on his scooter and admire the quaint corner shop at the base of a red-brick townhouse. But it took a bit of imagination to see it as a cafe. Alex: “It was a thread shop. Threads and haberdasheries. He had been there for like 100 years and had probably about three spools of thread left. He was just waiting for someone to come and ask him [to take it over].
They followed a good hunch, signed the lease and got stuck into the arduous process of turning the ancient shop into a functioning cafe. This was no small task.
James: “There was a phone line, one light switch, and an outdoor tap. There was no plumbing, no electrical… I was there for 3 months building that shop, learning all the trades, being everyone’s shitkicker. I was on the jackhammer, did all the trenching for all the plumbing… but we had no money right? So we had to [do it like this].”
Marrickville looked very different back then. That stretch of Illawarra Rd was all pho restaurants and Asian grocers. But James saw the potential. “It was still the old Greeks playing chess outside all day… but we also knew that people were coming to Marrickville for the food, coming for the [Marrickville] markets or the Asian grocers… there are food lovers in this suburb.”
“But I remember sitting at the bus stop one day just before we were about to open, and there was the chemist dishing out methadone, the pho joints, a bunch of boarded up houses, and I’m watching this old Vietnamese guy ride past on this old bike with plastic bags hanging off every part. That was Marrickville! I remember looking at the cafe site and thinking “this could be a disaster!”.
Finally, opening day came. Scrawled proudly onto the wall in chalk was a list of all their suppliers; for bread, milk, eggs, coffee, veggies, all of it local. Also listed were names of enthusiastic locals who had dropped off the surplus produce from their garden in exchange for some pickles or coffees, or just to prevent it from going to waste. “Herbs from Tony”, or “Chokos from Haan’s Grandma’s”. The menu featured seasonal, simple, clean and delicious food. Sydney hadn’t seen anything like it. And as soon as they opened the doors, they got swamped.
Having coffee by Mecca made perfect sense to James, who by then was good friends with Paul and the Mecca crew. “There’s a trust that Mecca buys coffee with a conscience. And Paul has always had our back. He’s always been a huge supporter of ours. We’ve been with them from the very beginning.”
James and Alex’s kids are at the centre of this story. It was while raising the young ones that Alex realised the untapped potential of her local communities’ produce and the crazy amount of preventable food waste that was occurring all around her. And of course, having kids can be radicalizing. It makes you think more seriously about the future you’re leaving for your kids. “The world is fucked. The environment is fucked. I was like “we can’t open up another business that will fuck the world.”” The kids also shaped their relationship to Cornersmith, but in very different ways. For James, having kids was a call to arms: “when Alex fell pregnant with Maeve, I was like, “OK, I’m working.”I have a reason now to work 10 hours plus every day.” But it was different for Alex. “I often said to James, if we didnt have kids we would be here all the fucking time. We would have never handed anything over, we would never have that collaborative thing, handed the reins over to anybody else, we would just have done everything. But because I think for us and for a lot of people the family is such a high priority - it did allow me to go “you know what? Cornersmith is always going to be second, and that gives you a bit of freedom, I reckon.”
There is much more to this story. The picklery and cooking school. The gorgeous, expansive cafe in Annandale that’s entirely vegetarian. The cookbooks! But knowing Alex and James’ prodigious productivity, I don’t think it’ll be long before the memoir is out.
So for now we’d just like to tip our hats to our dear mates Alex and James and their amazing team. Cornersmith continues to nourish, amaze and inspire, and like a good ferment, they’ve spawned a whole new generation of right-minded, food conscious consumers and business owners. Bravo.