Mitch Tonks

14th June 2018

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Maria Bell

14th June 2018

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Maria Bell

Waiting to meet Mitch Tonks outside his restaurant The Seahorse in Dartmouth, we spy some local fishermen mending their nets. Shivering in the dull grey drizzle so typical of the English coast, we chat to them about today’s catch. On deck are huge orange sacks stuffed full of gnarled whelks. When we ask the fisherman if they know our interviewee, Mitch Tonks, they grunt that they do. He’s one of the “good ones” they say, cryptically.

Where fish is concerned, he is certainly one of the “good ones”. An award-winning restaurateur, author and chef, Mitch is one of the country’s leading authorities on cooking with seafood. The owner of the restaurant group, Rockfish, as well as his “pet” restaurant, The Seahorse, he is the author of six books, all of which to a greater or lesser extent deal with fish.

Raised in Weston-super-Mare, Mitch started out as a fishmonger before extending his repertoire. In other parts of Europe (particularly around the Mediterranean) it is common to see a restaurant with a glass display of iced, freshly caught fish, decorated with lemon wedges and lettuce leaves. You can check the freshness of your fish and often choose how you would like it cooked. In England this was almost unheard of, until Mitch opened his first restaurant FishWorks1. This took the idea even further, turning the display case into an entire fish shop, with a restaurant above, where your chosen fish was cooked fresh and served to you.

More than 20 years on from opening that first fish shop in Bath, Mitch shows no signs of slowing down. In person he is charming, energetic and jovial. His enthusiasm for food and fish is contagious. As we follow him, chattering all the while, between The Seahorse and Rockfish next door, we see his empire at work. The staff at his restaurants are mostly “lifers”, and it’s easy to see why; there is not much ego here, only daily grappas and bonhomie.

Mitch is on site as much as possible, buying the fish in the mornings and supervising dinners in the evenings. He is, however, planning a sailing trip round the fishing ports of Spain, Portugal and Italy, during which he will write his next book, a sort of memoir with recipes. Tucked away at last in the Venetian style private dining room at The Seahorse, he talks jellied eels, our national fish-cooking anxiety and his morning grappa routine over a lunch of golden fried artichokes and crisp roasted hake – more on which below.

Continued below...

Briefly talk me through your career.

I grew up loving food, with a grandmother who was a brilliant cook. We never had any money so we didn’t eat gourmet food, just simple classics. I never thought about food as a career. I failed at school and did various odd jobs, anything to earn a living. Then when I was about 27 the foodie revolution started kicking off in England. I remember seeing Henrietta Green’s Food Lovers’ Guide to Britain and being really inspired by that. I was working in a strange job in London at the time and living in Bath. I just thought one day, I’m not going to go into work anymore. And I didn’t. I wanted to open a fish shop.

How did you go about it?

I went down to Cornwall to visit a man at Porthleven fisheries, somewhere that had been listed in the book. Fishmongers at the time were pretty poor – dirty and smelly with guys in stained white coats, just selling cod and haddock. I wanted to do it better. So I opened up my first shop in Bath in 1996. We sold fish from all over the world, fresh anchovies, tuna and things that people would never have seen in England before, as well as all the local stuff up from Brixham. Then a few years later I got itchy feet.

I had all these customers coming in saying they didn’t know how to cook it. And there was no one cooking this kind of fish in restaurants either. I was cooking red mullet at home with olive oil, bowls of cockles, and thinking nothing of it. So I thought maybe I should do this. So I taught myself to cook from Jane Grigson’s books, and then opened up a restaurant above the fish shop [the original FishWorks]. It was an amazing place. People still talk about it fondly.

Yes I used to love going there when I was growing up.

It was a bit of an institutional place. When we had a few of them and things were really busy, about 10 years ago, I remember saying to my partner Matt, one day let’s open a restaurant just for us, and so we did, and here we are now, 10 years later.

Fishmongers at the time were dirty and smelly with guys in stained white coats, just selling cod and haddock. I wanted to do it better

The Seahorse?

Yes. We opened this place wanting it to be classic, like a sort of Harry’s Bar by the sea. I wanted to have somewhere that was immune to trends and time. Just a lovely restaurant where you knew you could always eat really good food. It’s a sort of Italian restaurant really, but we don’t tell anyone that, as it comes with its own baggage. And we like to have a certain freedom, using ingredients from all over Europe. At the beginning I just wanted to cook, but as the years have gone by I’ve grown older and stepped away from the kitchen a bit. We’ve taken on some great chefs, and they see this place as their home and their future. They share with me the love of the restaurant. Most of them stay for years. It’s a real community.

And the fish you serve here?

All of the fish caught on the boats round here goes to be sold at the central market in Brixham. We get lots of ours from there. Then we have our own fisherman, Sid, a line fisherman who fishes mostly bass. He goes out on his own on a tiny little boat. People always say, “What’s different about the fish at The Seahorse, why is it so good?” and the answer is simply that it’s so fresh. The fish is landed and then cooked within a few hours, maximum. It hasn’t travelled in lorries up the motorway or been iced for days. It’s so fresh there’s something almost spiritual about it. Like with freshly picked peas, the more seconds you wait to eat them the less intense the flavour is. There’s an area in Spain where one pea season is just two weeks. They eat them with the local ham and they’re the most pea-est peas you’ve ever tasted.

Great for a good bottle of wine and some oysters in a stunning location
Mitch on his favourite local restaurants and food shops

We saw some whelks being shipped somewhere…

Yes those are going off to Korea. There’s a huge and steady demand for them there. As well as those, 80 percent of the fish landed here ends up being sold to Italy, Spain and France, as they don’t have enough in their own waters.

Why do you think we’re so hesitant about cooking fish in this country, even when it’s local?

It’s strange. I think it’s a generational thing. During my grandparents’ time there was a high-street fish shop chain called Mac Fisheries. When they closed down there was just the supermarkets. Also it’s not a cultural thing in this country in the same way it is elsewhere in Europe. We still view it as a treat, whereas for them it’s ingrained in their culture to eat fish regularly.

I think lots of people are scared of cooking fish.

Yes I thinks that’s true too. Also the price. Europeans pay more for their food relative to us. I remember years ago when I had the fish shop, some very wealthy woman came in and asked for turbot. I weighed it up and told her the price, it was £60 or something. She was fuming with me: ’That’s more than fillet steak!’ – fillet steak being the benchmark of luxury. But turbot is an extraordinary thing, and it’s expensive, that’s just the way it is. The other day I bought a turbot for Hawksmoor at the market, it was 13kg, and I paid £500 quid for it. Beautiful fish.

Some local boys used to catch eels nearby and my grandmother would leave them in the sink overnight. Then in the morning she would say “Look, let’s chop their heads off and see how long they swim for.”

So was food important growing up?

Yes. I grew up as the child of a single mother in the 60s, which was hard. We didn’t have any money. My mother worked and I spent the day with my grandmother. She was a brilliant and resourceful cook. Nothing gourmet or fancy, just simple things. There was nothing to do because we had no money, so the kitchen became the entertainment, we got in there and made bread or Christmas puddings. Some local boys used to catch eels nearby and my grandmother would leave them in the sink overnight. Then in the morning she would say “Look, let’s chop their heads off and see how long they swim for.” She had a great marble slab, in a council house! Then she would jelly them. Food was what brought us together. I was fascinated by those boys and asked to go out fishing with them. We caught minnows, elvers and all sorts. That was where my love of fish came from.

Talk me through your daily eating habits

I normally start the day with coffee and boiled eggs. Then when I get to work I have another coffee and a shot of armagnac or grappa….

You have a grappa every morning?

Yep. It’s become a sort of tradition. We all have one at the restaurant. It began when I was first going to fish markets. We’d all find ourselves in the local bar drinking brandy by 9 o’clock. I often have one at The Seahorse and then pop over to Rockfish and end up having another. By 11 I’m quite pissed. I’m starting to worry about it a bit now…

On The Menu

Lunch with Mitch Tonks at The Sea Horse
Dartmouth, UK, March 2018

To eat:

Fried artichokes with chopped salsa verde »
Tagliolini Cacio e Pepe with Salted Ricotta »
Roast Hake and Braised Cavolo Nero »

To drink:

Negronis

You look alright to me..

Yes but it’s the inside that counts! Anyway I normally skip lunch and eat with my family at home for dinner. I try to only have one good meal a day. If I’ve been at the market then I’ll have fish for breakfast with some of the other guys. The lady at the café, Monica, will cook us up a nice bit of gurnard or whatever’s fresh. We’ll have that with some tartare sauce and damp bread and butter. With my family we’re trying to eat less meat at home. I’m a big meat eater so it’s hard, but I feel better. Also it really makes you look forward to it. Tomorrow night, for example, we’re having friends round for dinner and I’m going to grill a nice bit of beef. I’m already excited.

So tell me about our lunch…

These dishes are almost always on the menu at The Seahorse. I love fried artichokes – in fact artichokes in some guise are almost always on the menu, all year round. Then we serve them with a sort of chopped salsa verde. We don’t put mustard or anchovies or anything like that in it, or lots of chopped mint which makes it taste like grass mowings. In fact it’s more like a sort of salad. When tiny peas and broad beans are in season we might put some of them in too. We always have a fresh pasta dish on the menu. This cacio e pepe is a classic, and we added some smoked ricotta just for a little something extra. Then the hake; hake is a great local fish, really underrated. It’s always good. I love braised greens, and when we serve cuts of meat we often serve some braised greens in chicken stock on the side. I came up with the idea of braising them in shellfish stock and serving them with fish, which works really well. The langoustines are just some extra delightful mouthfuls.

The Seahorse is at 5 South Embankment, Dartmouth TQ6 9BH; www.seahorserestaurant.co.uk

For more about Mitch, go to www.mitchtonks.co.uk

Follow Mitch: Instagram | Twitter

 

  1. FishWorks grew into a chain but went bust in 2009 after Mitch floated it on the stock market. The chain still exists under different ownership and Mitch went on to start The Seahorse and Rockfish.

Posted 14th June 2018

In Interviews

 

Interview: Letitia Clark
Photographs: Maria Bell

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