Mitch Tonks - Rock and sole star!
Mitch Tonks 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 takeaway restaurant chain has twice claimed ‘Best Independent Restaurant’ at the National Fish & Chip Awards.
Having just released his latest book 'Rockfish - The Cookbook' (which you can win by entering below), Mitch chats to us about his love of seafood, how Rockfish adapted during the pandemic, fish stocks and eating Surströmming.
Many thanks for taking the time out to chat to me, especially with everything that is going on at the moment. At the time of doing the interview you are re-opening the restaurants after Covid, have plans in place for a new Rockfish restaurant in Salcombe, and the release of a new book ‘Rockfish: The Cookbook’. 2020 must have been one of the most difficult years that you have had in business?
2020 was most certainly the most challenging year I've ever had in business I think it was because everybody was dealing with something they never had to before our journey started out with survival and making sure we could do that but gradually as the pandemic opened and we can see a way through we also saw opportunity to make up business better to redefine ourselves and come out the other side in a much better place so in a funny way we are one of the people that have benefited from the impact of it.
How did you, and your team, adapt during the pandemic and what have your learnt about yourself (or the business) during this time?
One of the things I realise during the pandemic was just how brilliant the team of people around me; where I work with four people Laura, Mat, Nick and Dave and we met every day on zoom which was also a new technology for us at the time. Each day we made different decisions and we did the day before in trying to hopscotch our way through. It made us better people and a more cohesive team - thinking together and our friendships together and we thought about the business from a new perspective. I think overall my big take-out from it is that I realise that we were capable of far more than we originally thought.
So where did our love of seafood begin?
My love Seafood was born at 57 Canberra Road on the Coronation Estate in Weston-super-Mare. We had a fishmongers close by called Max fisheries where my Nan would take me three or four times a week and we would buy shrimps crabs gurnards eels all sorts of species which would be skilfully but simply prepared at home for a tea and I haven't lost that love seafood ever since then.
Can you remember the first seafood dish you cooked?
I can't remember the first seafood dish I cooked but I can remember the first seafood I prepared was crab and my Nan would have me sitting opposite her picking crab into bowls and putting the shells into newspaper we would simply make sandwiches with the piles of meat and I find it fascinating experience.
Your new book ‘Rockfish: The Cookbook’ is a mouth-watering, love letter to seafood. What strikes me is the simplicity of each dish, and how you encourage readers to just ‘give it a go’. Is that the secret, can cookbooks be too technical?
Thank you, and yes, cookbooks can be rather daunting but the basic principle with seafood is to keep it simple. I think if you approach a seafood dish with that in mind you will always have success. Being clever with ingredients does not make you a great seafood cook. Showing restraint and choosing fresh fish is what it’s all about. There are some recipes, like the ones flavoured with Asian spices where you require quite a few spices in your cupboard, but once you have them the rest is easy.
"My love Seafood was born at 57 Canberra Road on the Coronation Estate in Weston-super-Mare. We had a fishmongers close by called Max fisheries where my Nan would take me three or four times a week and we would buy shrimps crabs gurnards eels all sorts of species which would be skilfully but simply prepared at home for a tea and I haven't lost that love seafood ever since then."
You’ve separated the book into Summer and Winter dishes, has this been designed with sustainability in mind?
The two sections are really designed around seasonality and the type of food that you may wish to cook at different types of the year. I also wanted to keep the book really simple. At the end of the day it's just a cookbook with a collection of recipes. People don't want to read too much they just want to look dip in and feel inspired to cook something.
With everything that has happened over the past couple of years, what is the current situation with fish stocks as I know this something which is very important to you and the restaurants?
Fish stocks are always under scrutiny and always monitored the fishing fleet here in Brixham where I live and where most of our fish comes from. It is one of the most progressive fisheries in the country, following science and best practice to achieve what is now a small scale sustainable fishery. Everything we do at Rockfish starts with sustainable fish. We are a business that is built on that very foundation and so working closely with fishermen and marine farmers is what we do as part of our daily business.
Have you rediscovered any new dishes, or ingredients during lockdown?
Yes, What I have discovered during lockdown is mail order! I love having food from producers that I never was able to buy from before sent to my home and one of those is Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall run by the most wonderful chap Tom Adams who is an absolute genius in the kitchen on the farm in the garden we buy bread meats and preserves from him everything is limited in small quantities in production but when we get it. It's like Christmas arriving! For me mail order food is the biggest thing in food during the pandemic. I just like dealing with people with great ethics and great product which is all now possible. We now send seafood experience boxes direct to people too and we’ve had some great feedback from customers, from other chefs and restaurateurs. It’s definitely a good thing to have as part of the mix of the way we eat going forward.
Have you ever tried Surströmming (the fermented Baltic Sea herring that gives off a pretty strong odour when opened), and if so, what is it like?
I have tried it, it's incredibly strong and pungent. When you eat it with chopped onion or use a little bit of it as a seasoning it can be a pretty good experience but when I first tried it I think I was knocked sideways by the strength of the flavour!
Finally, what will it feel like to finally reopen the doors for indoor diners and what do you have lined up at the Plymouth restaurant to make it extra special?
It will feel amazing to open our doors and welcome people to our restaurants again and I know all of my staff feel the same. We have all missed doing something we love which is taking care of other people. Plymouth has always been a restaurant that I have loved as part of the Rockfish family. I think your location is superb views for the decor amazing but I've always felt that we could do the restaurant more justice so during the pandemic we redesign the inside to make big space even cosier so the winter dining can also be a wonderful experience too. We changed the takeaway and turned it into a bar and fully revamped the deck area with soft seating a marquee a wonderful range of Salcombe Brewery beers and of course great seafood. We are also planning an entertainment program where we will have bands, magicians and alls sorts of great things going on and who knows when the nights drawing eventually after what we hope will be an amazing summer we make sure a few movies to and hopefully make that deck into a real go to area for the community in Plymouth.