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 – 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