As the current holders of the 2016 Restaurant of the Year Award organised by Seafish UK and The Caterer, business has been booming for chef-patron Alex Aitken and his team at the Jetty in Christchurch, Dorset.
The restaurant sits within the grounds of Christchurch Harbour hotel & spa, which is owned by Harbour Hotels, where Aitken is consultant to the food and beverage side of the business. Prior to joining Harbour Hotels, Aitken spent 25 years cooking within the New Forest in Hampshire, including a spell as co-owner of the Parkhill hotel in Lyndhurst (now Lime Wood) and most notably at Le Poussin, where he gained a Michelin star in 1995.
His success has continued at Harbour Hotels, where he has overseen the roll-out of a growing portfolio of Jetty restaurants, working alongside group owner and chairman Nicolas Roach.
"When I started here in Christchurch, the restaurant was called Rhodes South [under the management of chef Gary Rhodes], but unfortunately it wasn't making much money; only turning over £700,000 per annum. I'm thankful to be able to say we've completely reversed this. In 2015, our fifth full year of trading, the Jetty turned over £2m and made £0.5m in profit," says Aitken.
He oversees the food strategy and consultancy across the entire Harbour Hotels group, which now includes the Kings Arms, a Georgian boutique townhouse property, also in Christchurch; the Harbour hotels with Jetty restaurants in Sidmouth, St Ives, Salcombe, Chichester and Bristol, and standalone Jetty restaurants in Brighton and Guildford.
The group has also bought the rights to rebuild the old Tides hotel in South Sands bay in Salcombe. The restaurants serve fresh fish and seafood, landed locally daily, along with other local produce including fillet steak, venison and suckling pig.
Winning the Restaurant of the Year award for the care taken to serve responsibly sourced fish meant a lot to the experienced chef - as a competition that is judged and decided by his peers and industry experts.
"This is the perfect accolade for us to win, especially with the association and backing from Seafish UK and The Caterer," says Aitken.
The annual competition is not restricted to seafood restaurants but it does call for entrants to demonstrate excellence in the cooking and serving of fish and shellfish, plus evidence of fish and shellfish knowledge among staff - both front and back of house.
As an ex-trawler man, Aitken's expert knowledge of seafood stretches back to before he became a chef, so he's well placed when it comes to sourcing produce for the restaurant.
The Jetty buys its seafood from line and trammel net fishermen (static non-trawling nets) as often as possible.
"We try to be as sustainable as possible," says Aitken. "We have strict buying guidelines that our suppliers have to understand. For instance we would never sell a trawled langoustine - they have to be pot-caught. We often buy off the day boats in Mudeford - it's great to be able to use fresh fish, but we use frozen-at-sea fish too, and good quality farmed fish, as this takes the pressure off the wild species."
The quay at Mudeford is full of crab and lobster pots, ensuring the restaurant is able to satisfy its desire to serve local shellfish.
Fish on the menu includes plaice and bream as well as regular favourites such as the Jetty bouillabaisse, made using a selection of fish "from the quay" and shellfish, served with rouille, Parmesan and croutons; or Jetty fruits de mer with smoked salmon, oyster, octopus, squid, scallop, mussels, crab and rapeseed mayonnaise with half an Isle of Wight lobster on the side - subject to availability.
"We serve a wide variety of fish and are lucky enough to be able to be flexible with the menu - it could include cod, hake, brill, turbot, sea bass, lemon sole, red mullet, skate, huss [also known as rock salmon], monkfish and gurnard, which we explain to our customers is known as sea robin," says Aitken.
Meat dishes include Szechuan chicken and prawn stir-fry; roasted suckling pig scented with marjoram and served with a sausage, prawn and bean stew; venison and celeriac charlotte; and veal Milanese served with truffle ravioli - all sourced locally.
Aitken has a reputation for creating local dishes with regional ingredients, with a wealth of produce available in the New Forest and along the south coast. He recalls Jonathan Meades of The Times describing him 'as the most local regional chef he had ever met', back when he first started championing foraged ingredients in 1983.
"I've always been a champion of wild food, venison, rabbit and fish. Our strategy is quite simply local and seasonal. We are part of the community here and work closely with Johnny Batchelor, a local fisherman and fish and chip shop owner - we might even sponsor his new trawler," he says.
Richard Stride is another local fisherman Aitken works with, who baits off nearby reef Christchurch Ledge, line catching. "Sometimes I buy his entire catch even though we'll have more than we need. We will sell it, because our customers understand our philosophy and we can share the catch between the Jetty, the Upper Deck restaurant in the Christchurch Harbour hotel and the Kings Arms in town. We cure it too - so nothing goes to waste.
"We also have some great fishmongers down in Brighton and Newhaven who are fantastic and understand our philosophy."
As one of the prizes for winning Restaurant of the Year, Aitken and two of his colleagues are visiting Brixham Fish Market in Devon for a tour of the market and its facilities, as well as a fishing trip. The chef, who cites nurturing and developing chefs as one of his key job functions, is eager to make the trip.
"We pride ourselves on attracting and retaining excellent staff who are proud of the product and service we provide. We have daily briefings before lunch and dinner service so that everyone is on the same page and they all know their species. We teach in a fun way and hold regular 'Catch it, Cook it, Eat it' sessions for our customers.
"We have a good reputation for developing our staff and now that the brand is expanding, the opportunities will be even greater."
With a new central menu development and training site now open in Christchurch, Aitkens is going to have his hands full. He believes in listening to his customers and watching what comes back on the plates after a service, learning all the time and making adjustments to stay successful. His strategy seems to have paid off.
Restaurant of the Year competition 2017
The Restaurant of the Year competition, now in its third year, is organised by Seafish UK and The Caterer. It was launched to highlight the best use and knowledge of seafood, especially under-used products.
The competition is open to all restaurants in the UK, excluding the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which include fish and shellfish on their menus.
Restaurants do not have to have a standalone fish menu or exclusively offer fish and shellfish to be considered.
Applicants are asked to focus on examples of excellent customer service, innovative ideas to drive sales of fish and shellfish, outstanding fish and shellfish promotional activity and evidence of varied species of fish and shellfish alongside sustainable policies and practices.
Last year's judging panel included Xavier Rousset, wine consultant and owner of Blandford Comptoir in London; AA group area manager Giovanna Grossi; Jose Souto, author and chef lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College; and Callum Richardson, owner of the Bay Fish & Chips in Stonehaven Aberdeenshire and winner of the 2013 National Fish & Chip Awards organised by Seafish UK.
Initial shortlisting for 2017 will take place in June with the top 10 selected restaurants visited during August and September by a mystery shopper (a Seafish-appointed auditor) in order to create a top five, which will be revealed in September, with the overall winner announced in October.
Three representatives from the winning restaurant will be invited on an all-expenses-paid study trip to Brixham, Devon, to learn about the catching, processing and supply of seafood, and will meet a range of key industry players and experience some of the world's freshest and finest seafood.
The winning restaurant will also receive a bespoke trophy and an individually designed seafood masterclass at Billingsgate Seafood Training School with a guest chef. There will also be a range of other prizes, including vouchers to be redeemed against cookery equipment and signed copies of cookery books.
Seafish, the authority on seafood in the UK, is a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) set up to improve efficiency and raise standards across the seafood industry.
Funded by a levy on the first sale of seafood products in the UK, including imported seafood, the organisation has a mission to secure a profitable and sustainable future for the UK seafood industry.
Andy Gray, trade marketing manager for Seafish, explains: "As consumers in the UK, we tend to focus our seafood consumption on five main species - salmon, tuna, cod, haddock and prawns - and yet on any one day it is estimated that there is in excess of 100 different species of fish and shellfish available for consumers to purchase and enjoy in the UK; a veritable bounty from the seas.
"In foodservice consumers put their trust in a chef that he or she will expertly prepare and serve an excellent seafood dining experience. This can be encouraged by restaurants showcasing their range of seafood dishes on their menus."
Alex Aitken will be one of the judges of this year's competition. "This competition made us polish our performance," he says. "The process definitely keeps you on your toes. When I sit and judge - I will be looking for a restaurant at the top of their game."
The deadline for entries for Restaurant of the Year is 26 May 2017. For more information and to enter, visit http://seafish.org/seafoodrestaurantoftheyear