Mark Hix – Celebrated chef, restaurateur and food writer
Celebrated chef, restaurateur and food writer Mark Hix is known for his original take on British gastronomy. After 17 years as Chef Director at Caprice Holdings, he opened his first restaurant in 2008 – the distinguished HIX Oyster & Chop House in Farringdon. Following the success of Chop House Mark opened HIX Mayfair, HIX Soho and his chicken and steak concept restaurants Tramshed in Shoreditch, and Hixter Bankside. In autumn of 2015 Mark opened his first stand-alone bar in The Old Vic theatre, offering a late-night venue in Waterloo.
When did you open your first restaurant and what would you do differently today?
The first restaurant I opened on my own was the Rivington Grill in Shoreditch, it was one of the few restaurants in the area then.
London is becoming harder and harder to set up a new restaurant in, landlords are not very considerate towards the tenants, they double the rents and make it almost impossible to trade. In the countryside you can get better rents.
What do you think diners are really looking for when they visit one of your restaurants?
They are looking for simplicity, seasonality and some unusual things you might not see on other menus.
How would you describe your style of cooking and philosophy behind it?
Cooking is very simple I have a hard and fast rule of no more than three ingredients on the plate. I stick to British produce.
You’re from Dorset and still have roots there as well as a restaurant how does this inform your style of cooking?
Going back to my roots fishing as a kid I was just eating simple things back then, nothing complicated.
Do you still get time to go fishing?
Yes. Fishing is my escape. It’s the one thing I do and a little bit of shooting.
Are you working on a cookbook? What is the theme?
I have a book planned in the pipeline, I can’t disclose what it’s about, but it will be rather unexpected! My last one was less of a recipe book and more of a series of fishing tales.
How did you start out as a chef, which college did you attend and what brought you into the profession?
At school I didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do, as boys we had a choice of metalwork or cooking, I hate metalwork so three of us decided to do domestic science thinking we’d be in a classroom full of girls and all the girls decided to do metalwork so it was us three boys and the teacher. I left school and went to catering college on the recommendation of my dad’s friend, there I had an inspiring lecturer in Weymouth.
You spent a long time at Caprice holdings looking after some famous restaurants how different is your approach to your own establishments?
No different. The same philosophy.
What was the greatest lesson you learned in your first year as a chef?
Oh blimey! I learnt to keep my head down and work as hard as I could.
Did you ever want to give up, if so, what made you continue to the heights you’ve reached now?
No, I think it’s one of those things that when you find something you love you just keep at it.
What are the most misunderstood aspects of the job of chef/proprietor?
Well, there’s more to it than cooking. There’s the bar, the floor, the back of house, the reservations team. Once you become a proprietor/owner it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from it being able to see everything.
What insight would you pass on to the young generation of chefs?
Work hard, learn as much as you can as soon as you can don’t hop around jobs too often, otherwise you don’t learn anything or you learn lots of mistakes.
What are the changing elements in your cuisine?
British producers are getting better. Growing stuff we want to use. And I suppose gone are the days when you had to rely on imports to put a menu together, I’ve not done that in years, it’s not necessary.
Can you suggest any simple recipes or techniques that could improve home anyone’s?
Vegetable cutting – get handy with a knife and organisation, so that you’re not running around at the last minute.
Who are your suppliers and why do you use them? Is it price, choice, availability?
Suppliers are never based on price. There are a lot of chefs who for them it’s the first question, for me it’s ‘what does it taste like?’ and the price comes second. If you buy shit stuff cheaply you’re not going to have many happy customers.
It’s a straightforward one really, you buy something whatever it is whether it’s a carrot or a piece of steak based on quality and what it tastes like. The second question you ask is how much would that cost me?
What does being a chef mean to you? What could you pass on to the next generation?
It’s a way of life. The minute you stop enjoying it is the time to hang up your jacket and throw the keys in the river. I think you’re working wherever you are, whether you’re on holiday, down the market or down the pub. It’s one of the jobs where you have an interest that influences you whatever you do.
What spices, tools and techniques do you use that might be little known around the world?
I collect cooking gadgets. When I do a kitchen table session at home I often put something on the table and get them to guess what it is, whether it’s a wasabi grater made of shark’s skin or whatever.
What’s your take on fusion food?
Take if off! Depending on how well you do it, there’s very few people who can do it well, a lot of people try to do it.
Modern British food is your staple, how do you see it developing in your restaurants?
Well, what is modern British food? I look at menus and I see foie gras or asparagus in January and that it not a British menu. So actually claiming to be modern British and actually doing it are two different things. I would say modern British is cooking good ingredients really simply.
What are you looking for in a new chef working for you, do you have a training programme?
The first thing we get them to do is chop a shallot or onion and look at their knife skills. You can tell a lot from that you know. The way they hold the knife, their precision their organisation on the chopping board.
How do you receive honest feedback when developing new dishes?
I always taste the dish before it goes on the menu, we never experiment on the customers. New dishes might be something we’ve done before but with a new twist. I have a WhatsApp group among the head chefs so that cuts down on a lot of time. I send them pictures of how I want things to look and they send pictures back to get the OK.
Where in the world would you most like to work as a chef?
Asia or India. I take a lot of interest in the food from those parts of the world. Whenever I cook a dinner party at home it tends to have an Asian twist. So I’d like to further my experience in that kind of food.
What would you say is the most valuable asset of the kitchen?
Probably a good head chef with a good team. Someone that understands your head.
What’s the most exciting new ingredient you’ve used recently?
Kale hearts, they are like flowering brussel sprouts, very practical, no waste. I came across them at the Padstow Food Festival. With chilly and ginger Asian dressing, they’re delicious!
What are your thoughts on food education in schools?
It doesn’t exist basically. I quite often go to my daughters school with a basket of food to show them what food is. Food education has almost ceased. It’s something we do three times a day, food is a big part of our lives so why they can’t teach kids how to eat or buy properly?
Your restaurants have always included a lot of modern art, do you think this attracts a certain type of diner?
I think it does. I do it for the customer sometimes, it’s part of the décor, I design my own restaurants and normally comes part and parcel, a commissioned work from an artist. I think from the artist’s point of view more people will see their work then necessarily in a gallery. So it works for everyone.
What are you upcoming goals for you and your team?
You have to be constantly reinventing yourself in a certain way, changing what you do, without completely changing yourself by keeping on top of things.
There is a trend towards a plant-based diet, a healthier approach, we don’t need to eat meat every day. People are eating less meat in the restaurant.
There are lots of vegans and vegetarians showing interest in food but we’ve always had vegan and vegetarian food on the menu, it’s easy to do, people make a fuss about it. You can just stare at your menu and you’ve got 15 vegetarian meals you can come up with, staying on top of that sort of stuff.
Who are your top three suppliers?
Peter Hanon – he supplies all the beef. We have exclusivity, he’s in Moira ?? in Northern Ireland
In Dorset there are a lot of fish suppliers, individual fishermen who do different things for us. And then we work with a couple of small farms, one in Sutton, South London supplying a lot of vegetables. There’s somewhere similar in Dorset called Trill Farm. And our poultry comes from Goosenargh in Preston, Lancashire.
Thank you Mark.
Mark’s first solo restaurant, HIX Oyster and Chop House was opened in 2008, a stone’s throw from Smithfield, London’s historic meat market. The marble oyster bar, wooden floors and tiled walls at HIX Oyster & Chop House create a laid-back room in the heart of historic Smithfield. The menu reflects Mark Hix’s signature British style with seasonal and regularly changing dishes featuring oysters from around the British Isles, and a selection of meats meat and steaks on the bone. Parties of up to 32 covers can feast on oysters, steaks and chops in semi-private areas illuminated by Rupert Newman’s lightbox and the iconic neon by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. Do you want to be a part of? Check it out here.