House call: Mitch Tonks
by Melissa Stewart
12 March 2019
We pay a visit to Mitch Tonks’ seafront home, and find it’s very much a celebration of food and family
As soon as you step foot inside Mitch Tonks’ home in Brixham you are struck by a sense of warmth and family. This is no chic chef’s casa with bare, sleek stainless-steel worktops and designer chairs, but a proper, living, breathing family home. Situated on Brixham seafront, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Fish Market and, handily, Rockfish Brixham, it embodies everything that personifies Mitch – the sea, food and family.
Mitch’s wife Penelope – or, as he affectionately calls her, Nellie – welcomes us with a cup of tea, while their two dogs, Olive (a French bulldog) and Charlie (a labrador) scramble around our feet. A log burner in the corner creates a warm, toasty vibe as we gaze out enviously at the stunning views across Brixham harbour. Mitch, Nellie and their five kids have called Brixham home for the past 12 years, having moved from Bath with the growth of Mitch’s business. It makes perfect sense; Brixham is one of the busiest fishing ports in the UK, and it’s here that Mitch has built his reputation as one of the finest seafood chefs in the country – and a champion of the South West coastline’s bountiful catch.
“One of the great things about Brixham is the sense of community. I can walk around the harbour in the morning and, before I’ve got to Rockfish, I’ve said hello to 20 people,” he says. “People who work in the fishing industry, older people in the community… they’re all really friendly. I take my dog out in the morning, go to the local pub on a Sunday, and everybody knows each other. It’s a nice place. The scenery around Brixham is also second to none. We’ve got Churston Cove and Fishcombe, where we go swimming in the sea and paddle boarding in the evening.”
Mitch’s house is split across three levels, with the main hub of the home on the lower level, which houses an open plan kitchen and living space, with floor to ceiling glass doors, which open out to a gorgeous seating area overlooking the harbour.
“When we first moved here, this was a modern house with three separate rooms on the bottom level – a kitchen, living area and toilet. We ripped down all the walls and created one space. It makes complete sense, as it means we can all be together,” he says.
For Mitch and Nellie, the home is very much a place where they can bring their family and friends together to celebrate and entertain, with food very much at the heart of it all. As well as the main kitchen, the centrepiece of which is a solid wood dining table, there’s also an additional cooking space out the back, which Mitch affectionately calls his ‘family kitchen’. Originally a courtyard, it is now an extension of the main kitchen, adorned with vibrant Moroccan-style tiles, shelves filled with all matter of weird and wonderful ingredients, and Mitch’s pride and joy: an Ox grill.
“It’s where we prepare food and talk and get involved,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy, and loved watching people cook over fire, and wanted to recreate that here.
“We had this courtyard, which didn’t get much sun and that we tried to grow vegetables in – but unsuccessfully – so we covered it over. We knocked the windows in, we knocked the doors in, and made it part of the main room.
“We can grill over an open fire, and I can go in there and get lost making bread or whatever, and develop new recipes. We have a carving board built into the main kitchen worktop, so we can take what we’ve cooked into the kitchen and carve it for the table.”
My eyes scan the shelves of various bottles, boxes and tins of oils, vinegars, spices and herbs that the Tonks family have accumulated on their travels, from a mammoth supply of Italian tomatoes and various tins of Ibizan herbs to an impressive roll of Japanese knives.
“I try to travel once a month. I recently came back from Japan, and I go to Italy next week,” he says. “I like to visit fish markets and restaurants and, even if it’s somewhere I’ve been before, I always pick up ideas and inspiration. It provides the building blocks of your business. When I come back, I share with the team the different cooking techniques and things I’ve learnt.”
Luckily for Mitch, his family also shares his enthusiasm for different types of cuisine. “We recently came back from a holiday in Thailand, and have been making lots of Thai dishes since,” he says. “There are some really good Asian supermarkets around here, so we can get all the necessary stuff. We also like Mediterranean food, and eat fish three or four times a week. I like a bit of fish in the morning.
We’re early risers, and by 7am we’ll have eaten some fish from the market and maybe had a glass of brandy, and then it’s off to work. We’re the luckiest guys in the world.”
Mitch’s house really does feel like a hub of creativity. While he's experimenting with different flavours and recipes, Nellie, who is an artist, is constantly curating their living space – from painting walls and putting up pictures to adding soft furnishings. Given the house’s proximity to the water, and the family’s love of the sea, there’s a nod to the nautical – found, for instance, in the natural wood surfaces and the bulkhead light fittings, but it doesn’t feel forced or cheesy. Rather, the home is a reflection of the people who live in it; a real symbiosis of people and place. This is illustrated by the sheer volume of cookbooks to be found in the house. “I love reading about food. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep at night, I’ll end up browsing on Amazon and I can’t help but order more books,” smiles Mitch.
Indeed, the family office, which is situated directly above the main living space, has a whole wall dedicated to books. For any avid bookworm, this is the absolute dream. A favourite is Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli. It’s a collection of essays, musings and recipes, sumptuously written, where the author’s respect and love for his ingredients shines through.
Mitch points us to a letter Bertolli has written to his son about producing a balsamic vinegar for him to enjoy when he grows up; it is raw, moving and real. You can see why Mitch loves it.
Indeed, he could almost have written it himself. It personifies his style of cooking – rather than pursue accolades, his ethos is about creating family-run restaurants, where recipes and ideas are handed down through the generations.
“Take The Seahorse, for example,” he says. “We set it up so that it will still be there in 100 years’ time. We’ve established a rhythm there and sense of family, a way of life, and of course in Europe that’s how it is in old-fashioned restaurants. We want to do the same at Rockfish, too. We want to build restaurants that have a point to them – that people love to work at and become institutions in the area. Not just something that you build a lot of and you find someone to buy them and sail off into the sunset. We invest a great deal in people.
“My son, Ben, is a great chef, and has recently returned from London to work at The Seahorse with our head chef, Jake Bridgwood, and my sister looks after the HR and has workedwith me for a number of years. I love the idea that we have family members in the business. Mat [Prowse, Mitch’s business partner], his wife, daughter and son all work in the business too. It builds a real sense of trust and provenance.”
Mitch follows the Italian philosophy of gastronomy, where cooking and eating are ingrained in the fabric of family life. It’s long, it’s lasting and it’s pleasurable. It’s also about creating memories. This is summed up at the end of our visit, when I spot some rather quirky lamps made from old red wine bottles. I comment on how clever an idea it is. Mitch nods, and says: “It’s something my kids like to do, they make lamps out of memorable bottles of wine.”
He goes on to tell us a story about his father, who sadly passed away last year. He’d been keen to dine at Hawksmoor, the London steak and seafood restaurant, where Mitch is a consultant. Too ill to travel, the chefs at the Hawksmoor made the trip to Brixham to Mitch’s home and made a meal for the family. They shared a bottle of Chateau Cantemerle and had a day filled with love, laughter and exquisite food. His father passed away the next day. The wine bottle is now one of the lamps. It’s a moving memory, but also a happy one. For the Tonks family, food, love and family are endlessly intertwined, and that shines through in their seafront Brixham home.