Mark Hix reveals to Neil Gerrard the thinking behind his unique Hix Academy training project to equip Weymouth College with a fully functioning Hix restaurant.
There's only one thing Mark Hix needs to test a chef's readiness for life in the big wide world of restaurants, and that's a bag of shallots.
"The first thing I do when I walk into a college is to get some small shallots because I remember when I first worked in London they would give you a bag of them and you would have to chop them finely the first time," he explains. "And if you didn't, then they would scoop them into the stock pot and give you another bag. So when I go to colleges now, I get students chopping shallots, and 99% of the time they don't know how to do it."
It's perhaps one of the reasons the chef and restaurateur - who has a collection of seven restaurants, with an eighth soon to open on London's Bankside - has decided to put his name to a unique new training project at Weymouth College.
When it opens in September this year, the Hix Academy won't just be any ordinary college eaterie. It will run as a fully functioning Hix restaurant and Mark's Bar, technically constituting Hix's ninth restaurant, and will open outside normal college hours - in the evenings as well as the weekends.
The aim is to give students at the college experience in working in a real, modern restaurant environment. "When you walk into the restaurant it will be completely different to all the other college courses," Hix tells Caterer. "It will focus a lot on what chefs and bartenders especially, as well as front of house, need to know to work in a modern business today."
Hix is clearly a big believer in the college system but recognises that for a variety of reasons - not least as a result of reduced funding - colleges struggle to produce young hospitality professionals either in the number or at the calibre required.
Yet it was a system that stood him in good stead. It was at Weymouth that Hix followed a two-year catering course before embarking on his own highly successful career - not that he knew that that was where it would lead him at the time, of course.
"The reason I went to college was not because I wanted to cook; it was because I didn't know what to do when I left school," he says.
"I think that part of the reason for us doing the Hix Academy is to get more students going through a college and maybe even quicker because you might have a student who has done a year and then thinks about going into the industry whereas some students might take two years. But everyone in our business is responsible for the future of our employees."
Of course, Hix isn't just talking in general terms about assuring the future of hospitality employees; the ultimate hope is that many of these Weymouth students will graduate from the academy to work in other Hix businesses. "I'd like to think that if we can't employ at least 10 of them a year, then we will have failed," he says. "And I would hope that all of those students go and work in decent restaurants after they have finished."
The academy itself is likely to be a one-off, though. Although the college is footing the bill for the project, the level of investment in terms of time and expertise means that it is something that Hix is probably not able to replicate elsewhere - nor, by the sound of it, would he necessarily want to.
But he does hope that other chefs will get more involved in colleges and give more back, and doesn't feel at the moment that many of them do enough. "A lot of chefs don't really have the interest or foresight," he says. "It is a shame in some ways but for me it is something that is going to enhance our industry."
A few more projects like this, and perhaps young chefs would have rather more confidence chopping those fiddly little shallots.
MARK HIX'S RESTAURANTS: FACTGS AND FIGURES
•Hix Academy, Cranford Avenue, Weymouth, Dorset (expected to open September 2014)
•Hix Oyster & Chop House, 36-37 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross St, London
•Hix Oyster & Fish House, Cobb Road, Lyme Regis, Dorset
•Hix Soho/Mark's Bar, 66-70 Brewer Street, London
•HIX at Selfridge's, 400 Oxford St, London
•Hixter (right), 9a Devonshire Square, London
•Hixter, Metal Box Factory, 16 Great Guildford Street, London (expected to open July 2014)
•Tramshed/Cock 'n' Bull Gallery, 32 Rivington St, London
•HIX Mayfair, Brown's Hotel, Albemarle Street/Dover Street, London
Forecast annual turnover £14m net of VAT and service (Group, 2013)
Forecast pre-tax profit £1.84m (Group, 2013)
Best performing site Tramshed - £82,000 per week net
HOW IT WILL WORK
Restaurant 70 covers
Bar Mark's Bar
Facilities In-house smokery, herb garden
Opening September 2014
The look and feel of Hix Academy, which will be housed within Weymouth College's existing building on the site of its current college restaurant, will mirror that of Hix's London sites such as Hix Soho, and Hixter in London's Devonshire Square.
The menu will feature the type of British fare that Hix is known for, using locally sourced food, but unlike most of his operations, the academy will have more of a focus on other international dishes, in recognition of the fact that the students will need a rounded education in all sorts of different food styles.
Meanwhile, the bar will offer far more than a typical college operation normally would. "When you go to catering college, the nearest thing you normally get to a cocktail is a gin and tonic. We want to try and give the students a full grounding in the type of drinks that people want to drink today," Hix says. "That means a full repertoire of mixology skills, from knowing what a negroni or a martini is, to how to shake a cocktail properly, to how to open wine, how to decant wine and so on."
The Hix team is expected to devote a considerable amount of time and expertise to the project. Hix, who often takes the trip back to Lyme Regis at weekends, plans to drop in regularly himself, but other members of the team will also get involved. Meanwhile, there are plans to reward staff within the other Hix businesses with the chance of going down to the college to work with the students if they perform particularly well.
When it comes to artwork - something that Hix's restaurants are well known for - the plan is to source the best pieces from Weymouth College's own art students, while the chef-restaurateur is hoping to draw on some of his contacts in the chef world to come in and do guest nights at the academy, working with the students to give them yet more valuable experience.
The process is already under way to select a chef-patron who will have overall responsibility for running the business - and it will be expected to wash its own face in order for the college to keep the project running in the longer term, not least in order to help educate the students in the business of running a successful restaurant.
"I think the whole point of it is that it has to be profitable," says Hix. "If you are running a restaurant then you don't want it to be making a loss after six months."
Liz Myles, principal of Weymouth College, says: "We're thrilled to be working with Mark and have exciting plans to bring a new restaurant to Weymouth that will train the region's future generation of talented restaurateurs, chefs and front-of-house staff.
"This is much more than a name-only partnership. Mark is heavily involved in every aspect of the project, from the course structure to the menu, right through to the restaurant design, so students can expect to learn from the very best. The involvement of Mark and his team alongside passionate college teaching staff will inspire students to achieve excellence."