Stacey Sheppard, from Taste Buds magazine, talks to celebrity chef Mitch Tonks from the Seahorse Restaurant in Dartmouth
Mitch Tonks opened the Seahorse in Dartmouth in April 2008, through his successful career had already grown from running one fishmonger’s in Bath to a chain of 13 restaurants and fishmongers’. The self-taught chef is a passionate supporter of the UK fishing industry and is heavily involved with the local fishing community in Brixham, where he lives.
He plans to open a second, informal restaurant in Dartmouth in June, plus another in Brixham’s redeveloped fish market.
How did you first discover your love of cooking and your interest in fish in particular?
I’m not really sure. I think it was something that was just in me and food was all around in our house. My mum gave me a cook book when I was young and I remember successfully making cheese puffs from it. I always loved fishing too so I think it was natural that I eventually wanted to cook fish.
You had a very radical career change when you abandoned accountancy to become a fishmonger. What prompted this change in direction?
My spiritual compass. We all have one. Some of us just choose not to follow it.
How would you describe your approach to food and cooking?
Relaxed, fun and very Mediterranean.
Why did you move to Devon and open your restaurant here?
I used to come here as a child. Dartmouth holds a lot of magic for me because of that. When I got involved in fish and met some of the people in the fishing industry here in Brixham, I realised I had found one of the best places in the world.
Tell us about the redevelopment of the fish market in Brixham.
Brixham is England’s biggest fishing port and the best fish in the world is landed there and that is a fact. My vision is to inspire, create a family seafood restaurant, a grill, a retail fishmonger, a takeaway and cookery school. I want fishermen to sell their own catch from the retail market and I want youngsters who are interested in food or want a career in food to come and learn to be a whole new generation of chefs and front of house staff. I want it to become a showcase for all that is brilliant about the fishing industry.
You are very active in the local community and take part in events such as Dartmouth Food Festival and Fishstock Brixham, you also run cookery schools and hold regular events at the Seahorse. How important is this work in the local community?
A restaurant serves to feed the local community and I am always grateful that people choose to come and eat with us. I have learned that it doesn’t take much of your time to make huge differences in other people’s lives and being part of the community means you should interact with it.
What are your favourite locally sourced ingredients and why?
My favourite local produce is quite simply the seafood: it really is amazing, it’s like the best kept food secret.
Many people are unsure of how to cook fish. What advice would you give them?
Let the fishmonger do all the preparation, keep everything simple and use just selected minimal flavours with it. Follow books by people like Elizabeth David, Mrs Beaton and Jane Grigson: their recipes are very hard to beat. There are great modern masters in communicating what seafood is all about too, like Rick Stein and Mark Hix.
Where do you most like to eat out locally and why?
My absolute favourite is the Riverford Field Kitchen. I love what they do and the fact you are sitting on the farm with vegetables growing around you. The Kitchen is run by a brilliant team. I love their relaxed style and I never tire of the simple flavour combinations they put together with fresh ingredients.
What is your signature dish?
I have a signature style maybe, which is just keeping everything simple and allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. One thing that people love to eat is our spaghetti with local seafood, which is something I cook at home and is easily my favourite dish.
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