Champions of the coast: Mitch Tonks and Mat Prowse
PUBLISHED: 11:58 23 January 2017 | UPDATED: 12:21 23 January 2017
Catherine Courtenay shares lunch with Devon's seafood duo
Mitch Tonks is clearly struggling with a horrendous cold. His arrival for our meeting at his Seahorse restaurant in Dartmouth was also delayed due to road closures and frustrating diversions. He has every excuse to bow out or postpone the interview, but he remains a gracious and welcoming host, genuinely happy to chat over lunch, alongside his business partner, Mat Prowse.
I suspect it’s also because he’s truly relaxed when at the Seahorse. Both Mitch and Mat are at home in their Italian-inspired seafood restaurant, which now extends to an enticing, wood panelled bar out the back. It was their first venture when they arrived in Devon nine years ago and remains close to their hearts - they both still work here, Mitch even keeping his hand in waiting on tables.
They also went on to build the Rockfish fish and chips chain, which saw its latest opening in Exmouth before Christmas; but, “there’ll only ever be one Seahorse” they say on several occasions throughout the interview.
“You could pick this place up and put it somewhere else, but it wouldn’t be the same; it’s the history, the people who’ve worked here, eaten in here,” explains Mat.
Restaurateur, chef, author and TV presenter, Somerset-born Mitch has a passion for seafood that originated from holiday visits to Dartmouth. Cooking since a child (he still remembers making cheese puffs from the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook he got for his eighth birthday), success first came with a fish shop and restaurant in Bath. Now recognised as a champion for the South West’s rich seafood heritage, his boundless energy and zest for new ideas has led him on to ever ambitious projects, his latest being England’s Seafood Coast, a plan to make the coastline from Dorset to Cornwall the UK’s destination for seafood dining. “We’ve got the best seafood in the world but no one is shouting about it,” he says.
This energy, even evident through the coughs and sneezes, is shared by Mat. Ever since the early years, when Mat was head chef at The Olive Tree in Bath, the two friends have travelled a food trail together, every spare moment spent in food markets and restaurants in London, Italy, Spain… They admit to not being quite up to the 3am impulse trek as much as they were back then, but they still wave goodbye to long-suffering wives and families and embark on food themed adventures together.
It’s obviously when they get all their ideas, I note, as Mitch starts showing me photos on his phone of their latest foreign trip. “I’d love to do that here…” he enthuses, scrolling through pictures of boats taking tourists on mussel sightseeing trips.
With plans to expand the Rockfish chain to other coastal destinations, including North Devon, they are ambitious, but at heart there is a simple aim: to get families eating a range of well cooked, local seafood and to serve it to them on the day it’s landed.
“It began about six years ago during the Dartmouth food festival,” says Mat. “We bought a load of whiting and just fried it. We bought it and sold it that day and people were amazed.”
In a way, says Mitch, it’s about going back to roots. Chippies began by selling fish, simply cooked. They evolved into fast food outlets selling all kinds of fried items, but initially it was about a simple way to serve fresh fish.
Rockfish isn’t a return to the past though, it cleverly fulfils a universal love of fish and chips with more adventurous options; for example, each venue specialises in the local catch, like crab in Dartmouth and cuttlefish in Brixham.
Taking Rockfish into the heart of fishing communities like Brixham and Exmouth, rather than busy city centres, is perhaps not an easy option, but it’s important for them to be by the sea and close to the catch; as Mitch says: “Why wouldn’t you have a restaurant next to a fish market?” In fact they seem to relish taking on a challenge, like last year creating a complete gluten free version of the entire Rockfish menu in every restaurant.
The aim of all this passion and attention to detail? In answer, and buoyed up by a hearty lunch and Lemsip, Mitch recounts a visit he made many years ago to a factory making supermarket meals.
“It was incredibly clean and sterile, no natural light, there was a faint smell in the air of chlorine but one thing was missing: no one was smiling. I might be sounding a bit spiritual, but if I was making a meal I’d want to be really happy about it and I’d want people to be really happy eating it. I’m sure it affects us.”
With that, we finish our lunch, and guess what? There’s a big smile on my face.