Food for thought: Mitch Tonks

An award-wining fishmonger, writer, chef, founder of the FishWorks restaurants and restaurateur of The Seahorse in Dartmouth, Mitch was an accountant. He opened a fishmongers in Bath in 1995, armed with little knowledge, and has gone from strength to strength – just look at him now!

Food for thought: Mitch Tonks

As well as having restaurants and seafood cookery schools in London and the south-west, FishWorks is committed to sourcing fish from sustainable fisheries. South West Fisheries, in Brixham where Mitch lives, is the most diverse, properly managed fishery in the UK.

Mitch is one of the fish industry’s most vocal advocates of sustainability and is committed to encouraging the British public to eat more varieties of fish from sustainable sources. He works with Young’s Seafood, and supports the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in its commitment to ‘boat to plate’ traceability systems.
 
Mitch now divides his time between supporting the FishWorks team, writing cookery books and appearing on television shows, such as the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen and UKTV's Food Market Kitchen. He also owns The Seahorse restaurant in Dartmouth.

So, Mitch from accountancy to cookery – that's quite a leap. Can you explain why, and then the transition that followed?
I could never see myself commuting to work everyday and sitting in an office day in day out and I used to find it impossible to get really fresh fish where I lived in Bath. So I just took the plunge one day and gave up the accountancy to open a fish shop. Everyone thought I was mad and perhaps it was a bit mad to begin with but people loved it and just couldn’t get enough.  Its just gone on from there really.  

Why fish, particularly? Did you grow up by the sea?
I grew up in Weston-Super-Mare and spent my early life by the water, fishing in it, swimming in it and waterskiing. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother who was a great cook; jellied eels and traditional recipes with lots of fresh fish featured heavily and I suppose I’ve always loved that.

A lot of people, even accomplished amateur cooks, are wary of handling and cooking with fish and seafood – what are your top tips?
This is why we started our cookery schools at FishWorks, because people asked me in the fishmongers: ‘What do I do with this fish, how do I cook it?’  We aim to de-mystify cooking with fish and encourage people to try it.  I would also say get to know your fishmonger; this is the best way to start, they have great knowledge and good advice and know what is good and in season. As with all good cooking freshness is key, you don’t need to make complicated and rich sauces because you want the freshness of the fish to be the star. A great way to get started with cooking fish is to take a whole fish, a sea bass or bream for example, make a couple of slashes in the flesh and stuff with rosemary or thyme, sprinkle with sea salt and olive oil and bake in a hot oven for 20 minutes. It doesn’t get much easier and its pretty impressive.  

Your empire is growing; what advice can you give to people starting out in a highly competitive industry?
People are key; good people and a great team ethic make things work, make things happen (the opposite can be true of the not so good people!) I’ve worked with some amazing people over the years and their enthusiasm and commitment to what I’m trying to achieve has helped to make things happen.

Do you have a favourite fish or seafood that you enjoy working with?
I think grilled red mullet cooked over smouldering driftwood in Greece with a handful of wild thyme or oregano, good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. I think red mullet has the most perfect texture – quite firm – and the skin has a delicious flavour. The flesh represents perfect seafood to me. I love the simplicity of this sort of dish, eating in by the sea with my feet in water, on the beach, swigging some good ice-cold wine.  

Is there a difference between cooking with seawater and freshwater fish?
Seawater fish is my thing really, you can’t beat that amazing flavour and freshness. I do love eels though but other than that I don’t have a great deal of experience with freshwater fish.

Mitch's top tip for wannabe restaurateurs: Keep focused on what you want to do. Try to add a little magic to what you do, it makes everyone feel special and go the extra mile.

You own The Seahorse in Dartmouth. Do you have a connection with the town?
I’ve been holidaying there since I was six years old so it's always been a bit special. After living in Bath for a number of years I couldn’t wait to go back and live by the sea. When FishWorks bought Channel Fisheries in Brixham it felt like the right time to make the move. I now live in Brixham which is just the other side of the river from Dartmouth. Brixham and Dartmouth are quite different – Brixham lands the UK's biggest daily catch of fish and has a great tradition for fishing and Dartmouth is close by and a beautiful place on the river. We have a great many friends in the area and thought it was a perfect place to open up the new restaurant The Seahorse is a seafood and meat grill; our speciality is to cook local produce over a charcoal fire and since opening we’ve already built up a great local following.

What other UK costal towns would you recommend for fish restaurants?
The Crab House Café in Weymouth and the Oyster Shack in Salcombe are great. Of course, FishWorks in Christchurch (Dorset) and The Seahorse would be my favourites!

You feel strongly about sustainability – how do you manage the balance between running busy seafood restaurants and being sensitive to the environment?
This is a great bandwagon issue at the moment but living amongst fishermen and fishing community for last 18 months (and I’ve been working with them since 1995) I think I try to get a balanced view and act appropriately. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Young’s Seafood for three years and they lead the way in sustainability issues and I’ve learnt a lot from them. I’m also well supported by Phil McMullen from Seafish whose work constantly strives to ensure we move towards a sustainable future.

Do you think that the UK has a strong tradition of eating food sourced from the sea? Is it our island mentality and do you think we've lost touch with this?
Yes, I think we’ve lost touch a bit in the UK but this changes all the time. In Brixham we’re opening a big fishmongers, cookery school and restaurant right down at the fish market as part of the redevelopment which will be open in 2010; we want to put that connection right back in between the fishing community and the consumers. I hope this sort of move is one of many that will help revive and celebrate the fish and seafood we catch in the UK, which just happens to be some of the best in the world.

In recent years, we've exported a lot of our sea catches to Spain and France; what's your opinion on this?
The Spanish and French really love their fresh seafood and are prepared to pay for plenty of it too. I think in the UK we are appreciating more and more the fresh fish from our waters and I think maybe the balance will change a bit over the years; if we demand more in the UK then more will stay here.

How do you feel about joining the ranks of celebrity chefdom? Do you think celebrity chefs are a positive influence on modern-day home-cooking and in creating food awareness?
I’ve always been keen to be seen as a fishmonger, restaurateur and food writer as much as anything and unsure on word celebrity which is a tag applied to you rather than something you say about yourself!  But I think that TV and cookbooks and mags like delicious have gone a great way to encourage people to really enjoy cooking and eating a wider range and this all helps with issues like sustainability and understanding it too. 

I’m keen to help educating people and inspire them to cook more fish and explore further some of the misconceptions that surround fish, it is something that I’ve written about in my new book (which will be published by Pavillion in spring).

What are your future plans?
I’m so busy as director of FishWorks and Channel Fisheries, cooking at The Seahorse and working with Young’s on some really exciting new stuff (they are championing a return to the traditional fishmonger van with a really modern approach – its called the Seafood Kitchen) that planning is something I find hard to fit in at the moment! But I’ve always got a million ideas on the go and just need more time to get them off the ground!

 

 

 


Try Mitch's recipes

How to make fish stew

How to make fish stew

We love the way Mitch Tonks of FishWorks – and restaurateur of the charming seafood restaurant, The Seahorse, in Dartmouth – makes fish stew.

Grilled squid with cumin

Grilled squid with cumin

This deceptively simple recipe uses a fantastic cumin marinade for a Middle Eastern twist, and only takes minutes to cook.

 


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