Mitch Tonks: Pearls of Wisdom

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Accountant-turned-chef Mitch Tonks is an ambassador for seafood in the UK, operating three fish restaurants
Accountant-turned-chef Mitch Tonks is an ambassador for seafood in the UK, operating three fish restaurants
The seafood maestro and co-owner of The Seahorse in Dartmouth has just opened a second site of his casual seafood brand, Rockfish Seafood and Chips, in Plymouth.

Rockfish isn’t a chippie,​ we serve things like soft shell crab rolls and chowder. The new restaurant in Plymouth has 250 covers in total – 120 covers in the restaurant, 50 in the takeaway and an outside area for another 80. I hope it’s going to be an incredible destination.

The UK is not served by branded seafood restaurants​. People see going to eat crab as an occasion, which it needn’t be.

I’ve always loved being by the seaand as a young boy was fascinated by the fishmongers.​ But I never saw a fishmonger over here that was as good as the ones in Europe, so I decided to do my own.

The key to a restaurant’s success is putting smiles on people’s faces and going the extra mile.​ We live and breathe our restaurants. We care about the people who come through the doors.

I used to be an accountant but I was fed up with what I was doing.​ I had read books by Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David and they inspired me to do something different.

At my first fishmongers [in Bath] people would come in and ask why there were no good seafood restaurants in the town.​ When I opened the restaurant most places were still doing classical things with seafood, but I wanted to cook simple dishes such as grilled red mullet with olive oil. It was a different way of doing things back then.

We are a white fish nation.​ We eat a lot of cod and haddock but most of the prime fish goes to fancy restaurants or abroad. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m working with Hawksmoor ​[at its site in London’s Piccadilly] because we’ve been friends for a long time. They wanted to serve seafood but didn’t know anything about fish so I said I’d help them get off the ground.

We plan to take Rockfish Seafood and Chips further.​ We have located several other towns where we think it will work and we want to roll it out across the south-west. I don’t think companies have approached fish and chips in this way before.

I have been inspired by the European restaurants​ in places like Portugal, Italy and Spain. There is a lot of ceremony and celebration of the product.

I’m a self-taught chef.​ I didn’t know what I was doing at the start so I just got myself busy. I opened the shop and attacked it with passion and vision.

Sustainability is a very serious issue​ – however, a lot is being done about it. We only use fish from certified MSC fisheries or local ones that we know are managed well. We do serve cod and haddock, but they are from Norway because we don’t have a huge amount of them on the south coast.

To have two restaurants side by side in one town [Dartmouth]​ and for them both to have won awards gives me a warm glow [The Seahorse was named Best UK Restaurant in the Observer Food Magazine awards in 2012, Rockfish Seafood & Chips won Seafish’s Best UK Independent Fish & Chips restaurant 2013].

There should be more fish restaurants in London​. I don’t think the city has got many good ones in the main.

I’ve learnt some very hard and expensive lessons on the way,​ but that’s what makes you what you are.

Fishworks [the chain Tonks founded in 1994 and which floated in 2005] was built to become a limited company.​ It had to expand to hit profits. The management didn’t have the brand at heart and thought they could just roll it out like a commodity. If it was still a private company we would have been able to fix it. It’s still going though, with three London sites.

At The Seahorse I’m behind the stoves three of four times a week​ – I’m still incredibly involved in the restaurant.

I’d tell any young chef to get as much experience as they can​. They also need to recognise that food isn’t the only thing to care about. A restaurant has so many elements that need to come together. That’s why Caprice Holdings does so well – they are fantastic at creating the right environment.

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