Mitch Tonks - Food Writer, Restauranteur, Chef & Fishmonger

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th June 2011
Mitch Tonks is the owner of The Seahorse, a restaurant on the banks of the River Dart in Dartmouth. He also owns RockFish Grill & Seafood Market in Clifton, Bristol and the RockFish fish and chip restaurants and takeaways in Dartmouth, Torquay and Plymouth. Mitch was an accountant before he switched to fishmongering, opening the Green Street Seafood Café in Bath in 1995. A fishmonger with an informal restaurant upstairs, it was such a hit with the locals and national food critics that it became the FishWorks chain of restaurants and cookery schools, rolling out through London and the South West. Mitch’s first job as a chef happened when he was offered the chance to cook for the wedding of Gary Jones, the head chef of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. He parted with the FishWorks chain three years ago in order to open his three restaurants: the Seahorse in Dartmouth in 2008 and the RockFish grill in 2009, and the RockFish fish and chip chain. Mitch’s speciality is fish and seafood, which he cooks as simply as possible in order to let the ingredients speak for themselves. He co-presented the television show ‘Mitch and Matt’s Big Fish’, with Matt Dawson in 2008 and has written five cookery books. Tell us about your operation, both the Seahorse and Rockfish, the number of covers, number of services How long have you been here what are the goals for the business?   The Seahorse has 40 covers and offers quality seafood, we specialise in cooking over the charcoal fire so monkfish roasted with herbs and garlic, sea bream "˜al cartoccio' cooked in a bag with chilli and herbs as well as local specialities like cuttlefish, brill, scallops and South Devon crab as well as some prime cuts of local meet like South Devon rib of beef. We're open here from Tuesday evening until Sunday lunchtime. At RockFish Seafood & Chips we have 65 covers, it's about more casual dining than the Seahorse, really good local fish fried with chips and traditional dishes like cockles, scampi, prawns, crab and sardines all served in stylish boxes - we're open 7 days a week and it's pretty full on! At RockFish Grill & Seafood Market in Clifton in Bristol again we have 45 covers and specialise again in fish and meats cooked over the fire.  We've also got a buzzing fishmongers with a great range and a very skilled fishmonger to help customers.  We're open Tuesday lunch to Sunday lunch. Sunday roasts are becoming a really special afternoon at The Seahorse and RockFish in Bristol - a range of roasted meats and fish cooked over the fire, cooked to perfection! Who are your main cliental for both Seahorse and Rock Fish Our customers are people who enjoy really good food cooked well, I wouldn't say they differ much, we welcome families in all our restaurants but probably get more of them in RockFish Seafood & Chips.  In Bristol we are really a neighbourhood restaurant and well supported by very loyal local people who come back time and time again. How many people do you employ? 40+ .  In RockFish in Dartmouth we tend to take on more people during the summer season as it gets very busy topping 450 covers a day! Can we expect a Rockfish in every town, sometime soon? I've been down that route before so not in a rush to do it again.  For now I'm enjoying the three restaurants we have.  Of course there are always new ideas about what might be next and lots of people trying to persuade me to open up in their town - very flattering! How would you describe the food you serve? The freshest seafood on the planet prepared simply - that's it. Who's been the biggest influence on your career to date and why? My cookery books and other food writers really - particularly Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Simon Hopkinson.  I have a huge amount of books and they provide endless inspiration and stories about food, another great pleasure for me. What dish on your menu at The Seahorse best describes your cooking style and why? Spaghetti con frutti de mare - I love Italian preparations of seafood and this dish has the texture of the pasta combined with the richness of the sauce and the freshness of seafood, it is truly wonderful and like anything the ingredients are king. How important is it for Chefs to source a sustainable product and why, and do high profile chefs such as you and Nathan (Outlaw) and Mark (Hix) have a responsibility to lead by example  It is vital that chefs source responsibly.  If Nathan, Mark and I are leading the way it can only be good.  I believe all chefs want to do the right thing though, it's just that its hard sometimes when it feels like there is an overwhelming amount of information on what is right and wrong out there.  People like the Seafish industry and Seafood Choices are really helping make things simple and clear.  There are a lot of good, good people in this industry wanting to do the right thing. Is there a danger that we could create a sustainability band wagon, and we see less conscientious operators using the terms "line caught" and alike on all menus even when it's not. Sadly I think there already is a bandwagon.  There simply isn't enough line caught fish to go around and yet it is mentioned absolutely everywhere so something doesn't seem quite right and I have heard of the odd case of trawler caught fish being sold as line caught.  How can customers or fishmongers for that matter really tell the difference as the fish is often prepared when it arrives.  The only way to be sure of provenance is to work closely with the source of the fish and we are very fortunate to be able to do this in Brixham. Talk us through your Iphone app, how successful has that been, and why did you decide to create one. Well, my assistant and my web designer suggested it - there isn't another dedicated seafood app out there.  It was great fun to make and has had some cracking reviews from chef friends and customers alike. It has recipes, step by step guides and some videos on things like "˜how to prepare a crab' the sort of thing where a video is invaluable.  We've just launched a cut down free version so you can get a taster of how it looks first.  I've got another day of filming coming up so there will be another batch of recipes going out there soon too. How important is social media to your business you're a great tweeter, is it just pleasure or was there a business decision behind it? My wonderful assistant and PR guru Laura persuaded me that I needed to use Twitter and I must admit I was pretty reluctant to begin with but I am a real convert, I love it.  It is amazing to connect with so many foodie people, chefs and customers and locals, the possibilities are endless.  But for us I really think it has to be real - we tweet from the restaurants about menus and so on because people love them and respond but I use it to keep in contact - it's particularly good sharing pictures.  I also asked for suggestions for restaurants on a recent trip to Sicily and got loads of replies, brilliant! I understand your currently writing another book? Can you give us an outline of the book. The last book was a bit of a bible and covers everything about species, seasonality, tasting notes and history, a book I hope will stand the test of time!  This book is more about really simple fish recipes, a book that I hope will get dog-eared from use in the kitchen, its not cheffy, it's just going to be packed with ideas and recipes that I hope will get people trying something a bit different and realising how easy it is - I always aim to de-mystify fish cookery and keep things accessible - well that's the aim anyway! Where will Mitch Tonks be in five years time? I'll be the same happy guy doing what I love I hope.  I'm lucky I love what I do, I enjoy fishing, I enjoying cooking fish, I enjoy offering hospitality to my guests.  If this is all that I do - that's cool with me. Thanks for your time.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th June 2011

Mitch Tonks - Food Writer, Restauranteur, Chef & Fishmonger