INTERVIEW: Man of the Sea! We catch up with Chef and Entrepreneur Mitch Tonks

Sally Thomson was delighted to catch up with chef and entrepreneur – Mitch Tonks who she has known for over 25 years…

How are you doing?

We are doing great! We are looking forward to finally getting the restaurant open. I think we are going to have a nice bounce back, but what a strange time. I’m one of the people that has benefited and enjoyed it to be honest. Getting to my age and not really taking any time off, I’ve had lots of time to spend with the kids and rethink things to make things better.

I’d like to talk to you about your beautiful book the dishes look mouth-watering. My first question however, is how have you adapted to the lockdown?

I must say that the first 2 weeks were scary; I didn’t really know what was going to happen, I knew how much money was in the bank and how long that would last. I had some truly beautiful and humbling experiences where my children took care of me, cooked for me and said: “Dad, you just concentrate on work and we are going to look after you and cook for you.” My son Ben is a chef and works in The Seahorse and so does my daughter along with Ben’s partner who is now the general manager.

Fantastic, what a lovely family affair!

It is, and it was lovely being at home with them. When we started to think about survival, “I thought this is it we are going to survive this” We had 274 staff and I thought we are going to get through this and I’m going to take care of every single one of you and come out the other side. There was a lot to think about and we really took care of people. During the time we thought about, “How can we make this better” and we started pulling apart everything that was wrong and thought how can we make it better? These are things that we couldn’t do when we were open, so we did a whole lot of things like shortened inventory, better shift patterns, closed the restaurant for an hour in the afternoon, went down to a 4 day week in the winter, all the kind of stuff that we didn’t have the foresight to do previously.

When someone is so engrossed in managing a business it’s sometimes hard, this must have given you the opportunity to create a new vision?

I think it was a bit of that, but I’m always very outward looking with my business any way but I think one of the challenges was trying to get people to go along with it as they would be like we’re too busy or that’s not the way we do it. Everybody was great, and I think I realised that we were a lot more capable as I thought we were which was great and hugely uplifting, so I thought right I’m going to write a book. We wrote the book in November after a really good summer obviously we didn’t know that we were going to be in lockdown the first quarter. We were also working hard on getting the planning permission for our Salcombe restaurant which should be ready next year. Then we started sending out boxes to people like a seafood meal for 2 and we suddenly built up to several hundred boxes a week which was quite a considerable amount.

What we did was open a fishmongers in Brixham just before lockdown, so we ran it from there sending out all these boxes. I then started to reflect on my own behaviour at home, how it had changed and how I was buying my toilet roll, my chemicals, my meat and things stuff that I had never bought on mail order before and subscriptions and I was really enjoying it. I started to think about how much people had loved our boxes and how Sainsbury’s had closed their fish counter and I thought why can’t we set up a seafood at home business so we completed buying our fish supplier, we buy off the fish market everyday we have our own boat out there fishing so we bought that company and then we bought another company that makes sauces and things for us but also makes things for Fortman & Mason and the big fancy retailers. So, we are launching in July a really innovated seafood at home business where you will be able to buy amazingly fresh fish packaged brilliantly, nice and easy recipes available nationwide. Hopefully the reputation will be great, and people will trust us, they can see our fishing boats our restaurants and they will want to buy fish from us.

I know you are extremely busy but what do you do to relax?

I’m a sailor, a big reader so I love to read, and I love to cook and entertain at my house with the children. I’m a sailor so I love to plan voyages I can’t wait to get on the water, and we are sailing our boat up to the West Coast of Scotland. I’m leaving in 3 weeks and we are going to try and live a little bit up there and a little bit down here and just take some valuable time.

Lets talk about your book which looks wonderful. When you do your recipes what inspires you? Do you draw on your experience or do you like to create new dishes?

I think in this book I draw on my love of seafood which is really nice and my own experiences in the rock fish book there’s quite a lot of new dishes things that I mainly cook at home. What I really enjoyed about this book is there’s no boundaries. This is food that I love like Asian food Singapore Chilli Crab (pictured top right) and Crispy fried Chilli cuttlefish. It’s really great! 

I’ve never worked with fresh crab so maybe when I next come down you can show me what to do with it.

I can definitely do that, and you know when you eat a wonderful fresh crab it’s a mind-blowing experience.

You have some fabulous accolades both on your website and in the latest book 

To be honest it’s not one of the things I ever think about but they are very humbling. I think the thing I was most proud of was the fact I was a council house boy and didn’t really excel in education so when I got a doctorate from Plymouth University, I was very proud. I had to stand up and do a speech in front of the students and I never imagined that I would get to university and receive an honorary doctorate and it was my most personal proudest moment of recognition. 






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