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Networking: Mitch Tonks
Chef, restaurateur, fishmonger, food writer Brixham, England
By James Wright
July 01, 2012
A passion for seafood and the oceans has served Mitch Tonks quite well. It’s what’s helped him build a name for himself and his three seafood restaurants in southwestern England: The Seahorse and RockFish Seafood & Chips in Dartmouth and RockFish Grill & Seafood Market in Bristol. It also propelled him to become an ambassador for Norway seafood, which he proudly serves in those respected establishments. And his unending fascination with fish is what saved him from an unfulfilling career as an accountant almost two decades ago. That’s right, one of the United Kingdom’s best-known seafood chefs used to be a number cruncher. And yes, he hated it.
Tonks, 45, is a champion of seafood sustainability who’s also becoming a mentor to young chefs, including his 22-year-old son, Ben, who joined the kitchen at Seahorse last year (Tonks and his wife are proud parents of five children, ages 11 to 25). Additionally, the winners of the recent U.K. Young Seafood Chef of the Year competition, held at the Grimsby Institute and sponsored by Young’s Seafood Ltd., were given a surprise: an all-expenses-paid trip to Dartmouth to dine at The Seahorse and then a breakfast in Brixham the next morning to talk shop with Tonks. While he didn’t necessarily have a mentor himself, he welcomes opportunities to meet and influence up-and-coming culinary stars. Might the next sultan of the spatula be his progeny?
Describe your career-change process.
I was 27, living in Bath, working in London. I was fed up with traveling and the career. And I’d always loved seafood and cooking. I was driving home from work one day and I decided I wouldn’t go back. I soon started up a fishmonger shop in Bath, and it was very successful. I decided to open some space for a restaurant and serve the foods I like to cook.
Your newest cookbook is titled “Fish Easy,” but many people think cooking fish is anything but.
I think people approach fish with a prejudice that it is difficult. It is alien to some because they’re used to cooking meat. But once you get into it you realize it’s nice and simple, and quick. This book has lots of simple things in it.
How did you become an ambassador for Norwegian seafood?
I use a lot of Norwegian fish and I went to Norway looking for a source of line-caught cod and haddock. I was blown away by the quality of the fish. While I was there, the Norwegians picked up on my passion for fish. They were looking into making a foray in the U.K. market and asked me if I would work with them and help communicate their message.
But you prefer local fish first?
Yes, we live in Dartmouth and some of the best fish in the world is at our doorstep. But we’re a big cod-and-haddock-eating nation, so that’s why we use the Norwegian product. We don’t have a big source here.
How do you engage diners in the discussion about sustainability?
Most people come in and shy away from the issue. People think they can’t eat cod. It’s just been poor communication, because there is a positive message to tell. We’re obsessed with this stuff. We communicate in the restaurant that we use [Marine Stewardship Council]-certified fish: whitefish, Australian prawns, herring and queen scallops from the Isle of Man.
Which underutilized species do you like or will catch on with others?
Gurnard and pollock have become popular, but there aren’t really enough of those either. Gurnard is a fish we’ve been advising people to eat but we don’t know much about it. My advice is to eat a little bit of everything, often.
What’s your answer when people tell you that fish is too expensive?
I say it’s a wild-caught, hunted product; it’s not grown in a field; it’s not manufactured. It’s become somewhat of a luxury. But why wouldn’t you pay more for [good] food? It’s about to become part of you. We need to value it more. All that goes into catching fish is quite significant, really.