Celebrated chef Mark Hix gives coast Editor Alex Fisher a lesson in mackerel fishing and reveals why he is expanding his coastal businesses. Photographs: Paul Ryan-Goff
'Not enough people give something back,’ says renowned restaurateur Mark Hix, as he passes me a fishing rod. ‘I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in my career, and now I can help others who want to work in the restaurant business.’ We are on Smokey Jo, Mark’s well-loved 1970’s Chris Craft, which he keeps moored in Lyme Regis Harbour; the sun is shining, the sea a glorious cerulean blue, and we are going mackerel fishing.
Like many of our most celebrated chefs, Mark had a short stint at catering college before working his way up to Chef Director at Caprice Holdings (which included The Ivy), and then, after 17 years, opening his own restaurants to huge acclaim. His current establishments include the HIX Oyster & Chop House in Smithfield, three chicken and steak concept restaurants called ‘Tramshed’, and the HIX Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, where I am looking forward to eating tonight. Now, having established himself as one of our most innovative and prestigious restaurateurs, Mark is coming full circle and is putting his energy into the same catering college he attended.
‘I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was a teenager,’ Mark continues, as he shows me how to cast my line. ‘The fact that I ended up at catering college – not because I knew I wanted to cook, but more because I didn’t know what else to do – turned out great for me, and I’d like to help other young people find the sense of direction and inspiration I found.’
THE HIX ACADEMY
Mark studied catering in Weymouth, on the Dorset coast, just a few miles from where he grew up, and he has returned to this coastal college to launch the first HIX Academy. ‘It’s a true partnership between education and industry,’ he explains. ‘The idea is to give young people an experience of professional life, within a college environment.
With that in mind, we have an on-site restaurant, which is open to the public, so students can get an idea of what catering is like in the real world.’ The apprenticeships, which began last year and are open to school-leavers over the age of 16, include cookery, service and hospitality. ‘The aim is for students to leave college with the skills they need to get a job, and keep that job.’
Julia Cohen, who runs the HIX Academy, says, ‘It’s wonderful to have such a prestigious name associated with the college. Mark has fantastic links with local industry and so our students now work with local employers throughout the course. We’ve already had a visit from Ofsted, who gave us a glowing report and said it was one of the best examples of employer-led training in the country.’
As well as serving the British and locally sourced food that Mark’s restaurants are famous for, the Academy restaurant will also serve international dishes, guaranteeing that students learn a broad range of cooking styles. ‘We have a team of chef lecturers who oversee the restaurant, and they have all spent time in Mark’s London kitchens,’ Julia continues. ‘Mark also sends his team into the college kitchens, so anyone coming to the restaurant really will get a HIX experience.’
SUPPORTING THE ARTS
Alongside his reputation for contemporary British food, Mark is also a keen supporter of contemporary British art and exhibits the work of household names such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin in his London eateries. Henry Hudson, whose extraordinary paintings in plasticine have gained him an international reputation, has joined us on the mackerel fishing trip. He is currently working on a painting for Mark’s London restaurant while also preparing for a major exhibition at Sotheby’s. ‘It’s fantastic to have the patronage of someone like Mark,’ Henry says.
‘He is incredibly generous and has a real appreciation of creativity and innovation across the arts.’ As with all his eateries, Mark displays original works of art at the HIX Academy Restaurant, and ran a competition among local students to find new artists he could showcase at the Academy. Delighted winner Alison Chisholm was also given the opportunity to display her work in one of Mark’s London restaurants.
Henry, like myself, has not done a great deal of fishing, however, under Mark’s guidance we both manage to quickly catch a few mackerel. I have to attribute this to Mark’s knowledge, rather than any skill of mine, as Mark has been fishing in these waters since he was a boy. ‘I grew up by the sea around here, so fishing was just something that we did,’ he says. ‘It was only when I left for London that I really began to appreciate what I had down here, and I wanted to remake that connection.’
Mark bought a small second home with stunning views a few miles outside Lyme Regis, and manages to visit every few weeks. ‘I like balancing my busy city life with a simpler life down in Dorset. I don’t want to give up either. I love being by the sea, fishing, cooking simple food that I have caught myself, but I also love the buzz of being in a busy town. It’s great to be able to combine both.’
FRESH LOCAL FOOD
Mark uses his Dorset home, which he has decorated in a relaxed style with vintage finds he picked up at junk shops and auctions, for intimate cookery evenings, where small groups of guests can have a cooking demonstration and eat the results. Visitors to the town can also enjoy fresh local seafood at the HIX Oyster & Fish House, which benefits from stunning, uninterrupted views across Lyme Regis harbour and out to sea.
Despite all of his other business interests, Mark remains hands-on with the menu. ‘All the recipes on the menu are mine, and although I can’t be there all the time, I’m still very involved. I always like to focus on the freshest local ingredients, and so, what we have a down here is fish. It’s fantastic to be able to serve lobster that you know has come out of the sea only a few hours ago.’
Mark keeps a few lobster pots in the waters around the restaurant, and when we have filled a bucket with mackerel, he guides the boat to their location and begins to haul up the pots: there are lobsters and large crabs in each. ‘I have a tank back at the house where I can keep these,’ he reveals. ‘This is tonight’s supper.’
Last year, Mark added his first hotel to the ever-growing HIX empire. ‘People have been coming to Lyme Regis to eat at my restaurant for years, so I wanted to offer them somewhere to stay as well.’ The HIX Townhouse is just a short walk from the restaurant in Lyme Regis and offers eight uniquely decorated rooms. ‘I did most of the interior decoration myself,’ Mark adds. ‘I’ve got an eclectic taste, so all the rooms look completely different. For me, the hotel is another reason to be here, to return to the coast where I grew up, to be by the sea.’
WHERE TO EAT
HIX Oyster & Fish House
This relaxed eatery has glorious views over Lyme Regis Harbour from the veranda and inside the restaurant. Specialising in local seafood, the menu includes Lyme Bay mackerel tartare and a wonderful fish house pie. Kids are welcome, and you can drop in for morning and afternoon tea. For more information visit hixoysterandfishhouse.co.uk.
Mark Hix's Kitchen Table
Mark runs intimate cooking demonstrations, which include a four-course meal, at his Dorset home. These run from 11.30am-2.30pm and must be booked in advance. For more information, email [email protected].
WHERE TO STAY
Rooms in this elegant Georgian building are individually decorated. Prices start at £120 per night, per room, based on a two-night stay. For more information, call 01297 442499 or visit hixtownhouse.co.uk.