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 takeaway restaurant chain has twice claimed ‘Best Independent Restaurant’ at the National Fish & Chip Awards. 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’ and inclusion in The Caterer’s prized ‘Top 100 Most Influential Foodies’ list.
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 he co-owns and runs with his best friend Mat Prowse, begins as though it was their first. Acutely aware that they are only as good as the weather and climate and the food they source, they must rely on their kitchen team to treat those ingredients with care and respect and trust their front-of-house team to 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 and Brixham, and the Spiny Lobster in Bristol. 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.
The recipes in his books are the recipes of his restaurants, dating right back to his debut FishWorks Cookbook, named after the original Bath-based restaurant which 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 fifth cookbook is the absolute embodiment of this philosophy, featuring the people who produce, source and supply his restaurant, the cultures and traditions that pass recipes down from generation to generation and the simple wonders of the ingredients themselves. The Seahorse: The Restaurant and its Recipes was published in June 2015.
On TV he’s known for his ten-part fishing series with Matt Dawson and appearances on Saturday Kitchen and Market Kitchen. He is 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 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.
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. On matters of UK fishing, sustainability and supply, his is arguably one of the most erudite and credible voices out there.
Mitch has won many awards himself and for his restaurants, food and books over the years including:
- National Restaurant Awards – Seahorse number 22 in top 100 UK Restaurants
- 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 – shorlisted 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
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Other quotes about Mitch
While Mitch’s food is dazzlingly accomplished, the man himself is more genial host than blustering chef. He’s a friendly guy who wanders out to ask diners how they enjoyed their meal, and often drives them home at the end of the night in the restaurant’s boat, the Pearlfisher. Which is not something you’d get at Claridge’s – no matter how much you pay
Will Dunn, Delicious Magazine (November 2008)
instead of a happy-go-lucky seaside caff, it feels more like The Ivy by the Sea. The 40-seat interior borders on the sumptuous with its studded mustard leather banquettes, pressed white tablecloths, monogrammed plates and library-shelf wall of wine. The Seahorse is extremely likeable, for its sense of place and for showcasing the produce of land and sea with such single-minded style. I’ll certainly be tootling back as soon as I can.
Terry Durack, The Independent (August 2008)
He speaks passionately about the produce and his respect for fishermen is obvious. He talks with genuine admiration and affection about them – I’ve met a lot of people who’ve said ‘I love the sea’ but I’ve never met anyone who has said it with more proof or conviction than Mitch Tonks.
Rory Stormonth Darling, Country Magazine (Summer 2008)
Tonks has … created a gem of a restaurant. Its location is a great asset. [He] has created a room that will make everyone feel comfortable.
Nick Lander Financial Times (May 2008)
… the brave people who open new restaurants, and nurture them, and stick with them, always improving their product. Our Restaurateur of the Year pays tribute to these movers and shakers in the business… and the winner is the inspirational, the visionary, the indefatigable Mitchell Tonks.
Jeremy Wayne, editor Tatler (January 2006)
Mitchell Tonks’s FishWorks group has made the phrase ‘restaurant chain’ respectable again.
Olive Magazine (May 2005)
The menu is for fish lovers.. The secret of Mr Tonks’ success may have been to start with the premise that fresh fish is a precious commodity, and then to cook those fishes simply and serve them with pride. It seems that his customers are coming round to his point of view.
Charles Campion, Evening Standard (April 2005)
The past appears in terms of adding a welcome boost of energy and fortunes to the traditional fishmonger trade, a trade that has almost disappeared from our high streets. The present is represented by the fantastically well thought out menus in the restaurant, where dishes such as salted Cantabrian Sea anchovies, carabineros and hen crab rub shoulders with skate, cockles and fish fingers for the kids. All is beautifully presented and most certainly perfectly cooked. And the future comes in the guise of the cookery schools – an attempt to ensure fish stays firmly on the menu in British restaurants and, of course, homes.
Judges at the Tio Pepe ITV London Restaurant Awards (April 2005)
Mitch is one fishmonger with whom it’s a pleasure to strike up a relationship.
Jill Dupleix, The Times (Mar 2005)
Mitchell Tonks’ ground-breaking concept, combining fishmonger with fish café and cookery school, has yet to put a foot wrong.
Terry Durack, Independent on Sunday (Dec 2004)
Mitchell Tonks… 21st Century Fishmonger.
The Independent on Sunday (June 2004)
His book could convert even fish-phobes.
Press Association (July 2004)
I beg any of you who feel the same about the tiresome pretension of so much restaurant food to go and have a quasi-religious revelation yourselves… my one regret about giving this restaurant an imperial thumbs-up is that it’s hard enough to get a table there already
Matthew Norman, Sunday Telegraph Magazine (December 2003)
Mitchell Tonks has got books, TV shows, cooking schools, and has opened several other branches of FishWorks, the latest one planned for London. And his menus are so mouthwatering, his food so irresistible, I wish he’d open a branch in Paris.
Jacqueline Friedrich, New York Times (August 2003)
Seafood lovers will be aware that the Fish! and Livebait restaurants have been here before. But Tonks delivers with a sense of fun, style and comfort that they overlooked.
Nick Lander, Financial Times Magazine (July 2003)
Mitch … proved that if you get the fish spankingly fresh and cook it simply then you get the real reward: that heavenly taste of the sea.
Chandos Elletson, Restaurant Magazine (May 2003)
London hasn’t seen anything like this since Rick Stein was on our TVs
Fay Maschler, Evening Standard (April 2003)
FishWorks … is the nearest thing in the west to noshing in Nantes
Malcolm Gluck, Telegraph Weekend, (January 2003)
It’s like being on holiday in fish heaven. It’s fish bliss … I love this place to bits.
Jan Moir, Telegraph Weekend, (November 2001)