Both sides benefit when you align on the basis of your principles and your approach rather than your products, says Will Beckett
Hawksmoor has been working with Mitch Tonks since 2013, when we set ourselves a decidedly odd ambition for a steak place: to be the best fish restaurant in London. That ambition sparked a memory of a small restaurant in Dartmouth owned by Mitch called the Seahorse, a whole charcoal-roasted monkfish tail, and John Squire playing through the speakers. We realised we'd found the seafood twin of our own restaurant.
It was that meal at the Seahorse that convinced us that a steakhouse aiming to be the best fish restaurant in London wasn't as oxymoronic as it sounds. The principles were the same: find the best product you can – be it beef or seafood – and cook it simply and carefully over fire.
But by that point it had taken us six years to get our heads around beef, and we knew seafood was a whole new minefield. Sustainability guidelines change almost daily, so how do you train meat-minded chefs in the more delicate art of seafood, and, crucially, find the best raw ingredients?
Ever since our mistake-ridden making-it-up-as-we-go-along early days we had a simple rule: for everything we're not very good at (a depressingly long list), find someone who is. So we called Mitch, who hooked us up with his fishermen friends and helped us create a supply chain every bit as unique as the one we'd built for steak.
We worked together for weeks on species and recipes, but always with one eye on a problem that he was unfamiliar with – scale. We'd bought a large restaurant with an iconic past – it had been Bruno Loubet's L'Odeon, which, along with places like Quaglino's and the Atlantic, were bastions of the 90s culture of big, brash and brilliant.
Somewhere in those early weeks were the foundations of our relationship ever since – a commitment to trying to do something fantastic at scale, and a desire to keep learning from each other to reach that goal.
In 2016 our roles were reversed. We had gone away with the Hawksmoor senior chef team and Mitch for a couple of days' ‘work' at Tom Adams' brilliant Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall – cooking, eating and drinking, walking, talking and reading. Mitch started talking to me about his dreams for his own company Rockfish, now expanded from that first restaurant in Dartmouth to include five more exceptional seafood restaurants in South Devon. Knowing how much Hawksmoor had benefitted from the advice and experience of our non-executive directors Karen Jones and Paul Campbell, he wanted to bolster the group of people around him. He wasn't asking me, but I jumped in and offered anyway.
Not only are the people in Rockfish unbelievably passionate about the fishing industry and about changing how people experience seafood in the UK, but they make a massive difference in their communities, opening incredible restaurants and trying to be a great employer in places like Brixham, Exmouth and Weymouth: places that have yet to see a PizzaExpress open up.
Mitch and his team are trying to do what Hawksmoor is attempting – to build something genuinely special; not compromising on quality, ethics or human touch while trying to build a bigger business. Hopefully we can learn a bit from each other's experience and have fun (and a few more epic lunches) along the way.
Will Beckett is the founder of Hawksmoor and non-executive director of Rockfish
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