Cateys 2022: Restaurateur of the Year – Group: Mitch Tonks, Rockfish

05 July 2022 by
Cateys 2022: Restaurateur of the Year – Group: Mitch Tonks, Rockfish

Mitch Tonks, founder of Rockfish, wins the Restaurateur of the Year – Group Award, sponsored by Entegra Europe

It would be a difficult task to find someone in the industry more passionate and knowledgeable about seafood than Mitch Tonks. After starting out as a fishmonger in Bath 25 years ago, he opened the first Rockfish restaurant in Dartmouth in 2010 at a time when there were not many restaurants on the south coast doing justice to the local seafood.

Twelve years later Rockfish has grown to nine restaurants across Dorset and Devon and continues to drive Tonks' mission to demystify seafood. This has seen the chef run Devon Crab Festivals and support the Dartmouth food festival, invest in Rockfish's own fishing boat, Rockfisher, work with local colleges and open a fresh fish counter in Brixham, next to the port.

Tonks is dedicated to supporting his local community and in 2020 co-founded the Devon Environment Foundation, which has since raised over £125,000 for grassroots social enterprises. This year, through the fund, he launched the Litter Free Sea project, which encourages people to get involved with clearing plastic pollution from Brixham harbour.

During the pandemic Tonks retained all staff and even acquired two major suppliers who were badly affected. Rockfish teams also helped food banks and caring organisations during this time. After seeing the major impact of lockdown on local farmers and fisherman, Tonks set up weekly food markets run by volunteer employees, connecting producers directly with customers.

Another initiative was to sell seafood directly to the public from the small Rockfisher trawler. This kickstarted other initiatives in ports around the region and helped shift more people to buying directly from fishermen.

During the pandemic Tonks was called upon to talk directly to the prime minister about the issues facing restaurants and hospitality and continues to speak to government about developing the domestic market for seafood in post-Brexit Britain. His passion for sustainable seafood has also seen him chosen as ambassador to the Marine Stewardship Council in the UK.

Since lockdown restrictions have eased, Rockfish has kept growing. Three more restaurant openings are planned for 2022 and 2023 and in January Tonks launched Seafood at Home, which delivers Brixham seafood within hours of it being landed, within recyclable and returnable packaging.

Tonks has remained a positive and inspirational business leader and is respected throughout the industry for his kindness and generosity. The judges said he was a worthy winner of this award and a most modest but important ambassador for the hospitality industry.

What the judges said

"Mitch is passionate about sustainability and creativity. Rockfish delivers fresh, high-quality seafood by friendly, knowledgeable, happy teams." – Robin Rowland

"Mitch has had an incredible impact on the livelihoods of fishermen across the south west, while running fantastic restaurants and supporting the wider hospitality sector. He is an outstanding winner of this award." – Noel Mahony

The shortlist

  • Gavin Adair, Rosa's Thai Café
  • Jyotin, Karam and Sunaina Sethi, JKS Restaurants
  • Mitch Tonks, Rockfish

The judges

  • David Loewi, chairman, chief executive and chief operating officer, D&D London
  • Noel Mahony, chief executive, BaxterStorey
  • Kate Nicholls, chief executive, UKHospitality
  • Robin Rowland, chief executive, TriSpan
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