food writer, CEO
Mitch Tonks is founder and CEO of the seafood restaurant group Rockfish, a unique seafood restaurant business which catches, processes and serves local seafood at 9 coastal locations in the South-West. He also founded and runs the award-winning Seahorse restaurant in Dartmouth and has written 7 cookbooks.
Over his 25-year career in seafood as a fishmonger, chef, restaurateur and CEO he has been a leading, respected and credible voice for seafood, a champion of British fishing and fishermen and the Southwest fish market in Brixham. His mission is to get more people enjoy British seafood in the UK, reducing exports, reducing imports, reducing waste and showing people how great our island’s seafood is. Alongside this he firmly champions of the art of being a restaurateur, of hospitality, and believes in the power of restaurant spaces in our communities, being able to hold on to human values, shared conversation, and shared food in a rapidly changing digital world.
In January 2022 Mitch launched the Rockfish online seafood market, an innovative way to buy British seafood direct from the quayside for next day delivery to people’s homes across the UK. Managing each aspect of the process from quayside to door makes this unique. Seafood can be ordered as it lands and sent with a range of sauces and sides crafted by the Rockfish chefs as well as supporting some artisan producers of specialist seafood.
His passion for local sustainable seafood also led to a range of tinned British fish including mussels, cuttlefish, mackerel and sardines. The full range can be bought from the online seafood market, as well as being available wholesale.
Mitch has tirelessly campaigned to raise the profile of British seafood and sustainable fishing practices and for a number of years has been the UK ambassador for the Marine Stewardship Council. He created the vision for and pioneered the “England’s Seafood Coast“ campaign promoting our coastline as an international destination for seafood, this is underpinned by his unwavering belief that our seafood is the best in the world. This campaign has been co-opted by Visit England and continues.
In 2020 he co-founded the Devon Environment Foundation, and in that short time over £200,000 has been raised and funded grassroots social enterprises. He has funded and championed a “Brixham Litter free sea project”, an innovative programme pioneering sea booms large scale sea bin sculptures in Brixham to remove plastics under the stewardship of Rockfish employees.
Looking out across the waters of the Bristol Channel would be Mitch Tonks’ first significant connection with the sea. He grew up with his mother in Weston-super-Mare. Just a few doors down the road lived his grandmother. It was in his grandmother’s kitchen that his earliest food memories would form. He 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 for his grandmother. He’d return 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 and the place where his fervour for seafood in particular would shape and resonate most profoundly.
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. And his achievements and influence have been further recognised with a nomination for Ernst & Young’s ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’, inclusion in The Caterer’s prized ‘Top 100 Most Influential Foodies’ list, in the Telegraph’s top 50 Food Power List and appointment as the UK ambassador for the Marine Stewardship Council.
Such accolades are an acknowledgement for a philosophy that is genuine and refreshing in a world where Michelin stars and viral social media campaigns so often steal the limelight: keep it simple and do something as well as you can possibly do it.
Each new day at The Seahorse, the Dartmouth quayside restaurant begins as though it was his first. Acutely aware that the restaurant is only as good as the weather and climate and the food they source, Mitch has handed the reins of running the restaurant to the next generation, keeping the strong family-run business ethos alive. Ben Tonks, Mitch’s son and Jake Bridgwood run the restaurant alongside general manager Bronte Story. It’s rare in this industry for a restaurant to stay in the family and it gives a real security for the future. The team uphold the values; sourcing and handling their ingredients with care and respect and a trusted front-of-house team welcome each new customer into the restaurant with the warmth afforded to an old friend.
And so it is with each of the other restaurants under his stewardship – Rockfishes in Dartmouth, Torquay, Plymouth, Brixham, Exmouth, Exeter, Weymouth and Poole Quay. In Brixham, the restaurant stands proudly amongst the bustle and noise of the fish market, allowing the Rockfish chefs to see and hear the catch of the day, every day. In 2020 he opened a retail fish market 50m away from where the fish is landed. In 2019 he invested in a fishing boat, Rockfisher, whose catch is landed for the business every week. Rockfish are due to open 3 new restaurants in iconic seaside locations in Sidmouth, Topsham and Salcombe and are looking forward to becoming part of these fabulous coastal communities.
The recipes in his books are the recipes of his restaurants, dating right back to his debut the Seafood Café Cookbook, written at the start of his restaurant career. The original Bath-based restaurant grew into an award-winning 13-site-strong chain. But these restaurant recipes belong to the home and to tradition, often inspired by his travels and by such legendary writers as Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, and always informed by the best of what the local land and sea have to offer, embracing simplicity, freshness and flavour over everything else. Home is the ethos that underpins every aspect of his restaurant business. He wants people to walk into a place and they feel like they belong there, a restaurant that knows everyone.
His seventh cookbook, The Rockfish Cookbook, is the absolute embodiment of this philosophy of simplicity and accessibility.
On TV he’s known for his ten-part fishing series with Matt Dawson and appearances on Saturday Kitchen and Market Kitchen and 2021’s Celebrity Masterchef – featuring as the seafood guru of course. He was a consultant for the menus on the distinguished Pullman trains run by Great Western Railway and also to a number of brilliant national restaurants, including Hawksmoor in London. 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.
In 2020 as a result of various lockdowns he spearheaded linking producers directly with customers by selling asparagus crops, fish from boats and fruit and veg directly to customers outside his restaurant with all proceeds going to the producer. With demand for fresh seafood so high he began offering seafood experience boxes direct from the port to people’s doors as a stop-gap. He has developed a world first range of tinned British seafood, something that has been a little out of fashion here but building great momentum as people look for more sustainable ways of eating. Many of these initiatives have become so successful a much bigger plan is afoot. With the UK’s exit from the European Union there is a huge need to connect consumers direct with the wonderful seafood that the UK produces as an island nation and that is a mission Mitch has never lost sight of.
He is committed to constantly giving back to the community that has given him so much. He has embarked on an academy scheme in partnership with South Devon College to help train the next generation of aspiring chefs and to supporting the local fishing industries. He has co-founded the Devon Environment Foundation, part of the international Conservation Collective which has already issued regeneration grants to local sustainable projects in excess of £200,000. On matters of UK fishing, sustainability and supply, his is one of the most erudite and credible voices out there.
Awards & testaments
Mitch has won many awards himself and for his restaurants, food and books over the years including:
- Nigella Lawson, said in 2021“Mitch Tonks is pretty much Mr Seafood in the UK”.
- “Tonks’ consideration of how to best preserve our oceans should be emulated by any restaurateur worth their weight in (sea) salt.” The Caterer
- MSC Chef of the year 2018
- Lifetime Achievement award – Herald Express Hospitality Awards 2018
- National Restaurant Awards – Seahorse in top 100 UK Restaurants for 10 years
- Seafish Awards – WINNERS of Best Multiple and Good Catch for 2017
- The Telegraph’s Top 50 Food Power List 2017
- Seafish Awards – WINNERS of Best Community Contribution & Best Multiple award 2015
- Seafish Awards – shortlisted for Best Multiple & the Good Catch award 2014
- Seahorse winner of Best Seafood Restaurant – Good Food Guide 2013
- Seahorse winner of Best Restaurant in UK – OFM 2012
- Seafish Awards – RockFish UK’s BEST Independent in National Fish & Chip awards 2012
- RockFish voted by The Times 2011 in top 30 UK Fish & Chip restaurants
- Tatler restaurateur of the year, 2006
- Top 100 most influential foodies by Caterer and Hotelkeeper 2006
- Fishmonger’s Cookbook: Winner of World Gourmand Award for Best Fish Book, 2005
- Presenter for BAFTA nominated BBC’s Get Cooking, 2007
- Nominated in London Restaurant Awards 2008 for Best Chain
- World Gourmand award for Best Seafood Book for Fresh, The Fishmonger’s Cookbook
- Andre Simon prize – shortlisted for The Seafood Cafe Cookbook
- Best Fish Restaurant, London ITV Restaurant Awards, 2005
- Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award finalist, 2005
- Seafood Café Cookbook, short-listed for André Simon award, 2002
- Best Seafood Restaurant for Bath FishWorks in Which Good Food Guide, 2000
- Best fishmonger award Food For Britain agency & Country Living Magazine, 2000