What a pleasure it is to have chef Mitch Tonks as our latest Q&A guest!
Mitch has become one of the most respected and knowledgeable seafood people in the country and an acclaimed restaurateur, chef and author in the process.
His Seahorse restaurant has won the Observer’s ‘Best UK Restaurant’ gong; his Rockfish seafood restaurant & takeaway chain has twice claimed ‘Best Independent Restaurant’ at the National Fish & Chip Awards, also winning the Good Catch sustainability award twice. Of his books, one of them – Fresh – scooped ‘Best Fish Book’ at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
As a child in his grandmother’s kitchen, Mitch recalls buckets of eels arriving at her back door, fished from the Rynes by the local children. The eels would win an hour’s reprieve swimming around in her sink before being chucked, boiled and jellied. Mitch would run errands, returning home from the fishmonger with shrimps, which he’d help to peel and prepare sandwiches with, which they would then devour together.
These simple shared pleasures were the first small steps of a food journey that would take Mitch to culinary experiences all around the world. But home would always be the coastline of the south-west of England.
He is a champion of sustainability, ambassador for the Marine Stewardship Council in the UK and driven by a strong belief that the South West coast is Britain’s Seafood Coast and produces some of the finest seafood in the world.
Foodservice News Editor, Becky Martin asks Mitch the major business questions of the moment, and then gets a little more personal.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
1. What are the greatest changes you’ve seen across the restaurant industry over your years in the business?
I think the biggest changes have really been in the last few years post Brexit and into the Covid years, traditional business models have been challenged with labour and skill shortages. Underlying this has been progress in technology which has enabled businesses to be more efficient which has facilitated growth opportunities.
2. How are the rising energy costs and food costs affecting your restaurants and how are you able to mitigate them? Using local suppliers, growing your own veg, fruit, herbs etc?
We are lucky to own our supply chain. Our biggest purchase is seafood and we have been able to mitigate some inflation by switching out of species like cod and into more local ones, tactically buying and freezing when species are abundant and in season.
Beyond this nothing is the same price it used to be and I don’t believe there is a lot businesses can do to recoup except pass it on but with consumers being squeezed too it is a fine balance.
3. What trends do you find exciting/interesting in food and beverages? Are there particular chefs you keep a close eye on?
I don't really watch trends, by nature they come and go, I tend to keep my eyes on established chefs and operators. People like JKS are great innovators and launch great venues, chefs like Nieves Barigan and Neil Borthwick are in a way cementing the 'trend' of solid cooking and hospitality is at the heart of any good restaurant, without both you can’t survive.
. What have been the proudest achievements so far in your career?
Seeing the team around me grow and how they have built on the vision for our business. I am also immensely proud of the young team at The Seahorse, my son Ben, his partner Bronte and Jake, who have taken on the running of the restaurant in Dartmouth.
5. What plans are there in place for your restaurants in the coming year and beyond?
We have three new sites either in the design or construction stages. Our online seafood market continues grow and we have some exciting developments to grow that business, as well as building our network of small scale fishermen that land directly to us.
6. What are your hopes for the restaurant industry by the end of this year and in the next 5 years?
Operationally I hope we can rebuild the skills we have lost over the years, I want to see a thriving industry that provides training and quality jobs for people.
I also want the government to see that hospitality is at the heart of the social fabric of our country, our venues are places for enjoyment, relaxation, debate and celebration, they keep us together and, in turn, support suppliers, farmers, fishermen, newspapers.
A successful hospitality industry supports so much but at 20% VAT the business model just doesn’t work, we need a fairer platform to be able to compete with other industries, and we need to generate cash to further invest in people and growth, If we dont get this form of relief I believe we could stifle more than just the economic. of hospitality.
THE GET-TO-KNOW-YOU QUESTIONS
1. What is your favourite on-the-go snack, lunch, and beverage in the week?
Crab Sticks and malt vinegar or a pot of prawns from the shellfish stall on the harbour - I like a cheeky cold beer as an on-the-go beverage.
2. Beyond your laptop and phone, what items are you never without during the week in and out of the kitchen?
3. What do you do to wind down after a busy work day?
I cook or read and enjoy a good glass of wine.
4. What’s your most loved restaurant or café and pub or bar to frequent?
I love the French House in Dean Street
5. What book or/and TV/Netflix etc programme currently has you gripped?
Im not a TV watcher I prefer to read
6. What have you learnt most about yourself in the last 12 months?
Sleep is good for you, Ive never been good at it, 4 hours seemed plenty for me but Im surprised at how good I feel after 7!
Thanks so much for this, Mitch. We look forward to sharing more about the three new venues and your other plans when they come to fruition.