It’s festival season and throughout Europe, top restaurateurs are swapping state-of-the-art kitchens for marquees to serve music lovers in bikini tops or Wellington boots, depending on their luck.
This year, the UK’s Wilderness festival will be held on August 6-9 on the farm of former Blur bassist, songwriter and acclaimed cheese-maker Alex James in Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire. Restaurateur Mark Hix will be in the thick of it.
He proudly serves James’s cheeses in his restaurants and is looking forward to the festival, where headliners include Bjork and our own Camille O’Sullivan.
Cocktails (made with local, seasonal fruit and herbs) have become a part of the Hix offering and, during the UK’s recent heatwave, they were a hot commodity on the terrace of his West Dorset restaurant.
It was there at Hix Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis that his friend, fellow chef and former Kinsale resident Keith Floyd had his last meal, dying from a heart attack at home that afternoon. For the next few days Hix had a menu offering Floyd’s Last Supper.
“My menu of oysters with potted shrimp followed by partridge was a tribute to him and Floyd would have loved it, but the media got up in arms over it. I got a full page in one of the newspapers. I didn’t complain about that!”
Hix makes publicity work for him. Opening on average one restaurant a year since 2008, he cooks dishes which celebrate local produce, using imagination and a sense of fun in the process. Behind it all is a quick brain, artistic flair and acute observational skills.
I met him in Ballymaloe’s Grainstore,when he visited earlier this summer. As he sat down, he scanned the room, the chairs and cushions. Hix was problem solving.
In Hix Soho, in the heart of London’s West End, his restaurant competes with a vast range of food offerings and needs to stay fresh.
“That’s just it, I have to keep listening and watching trends. I do things, like change the art around, to keep it interesting”.
He also added a cocktail bar. “We have nights until 4am now, a kind of New York Studio 54 vibe.” The place rocks Hix’s sense of fun and I can vouch for the food there, too.
His friends don’t go to Hix Soho restaurant if they need a quiet chat at lunchtime though. It’s too noisy.
“I need to absorb the sound, without spoiling the atmosphere, which people like. The first step I’ve taken is to add tablecloths. We’ll see how that goes.”
Hix has seven restaurants, mainly in London, with a stint on BBC’s The Great British Menu under his belt. His proud boast is that in the second series in Paris he won two courses compared to his “mate” Richard Corrigan’s one course — all fun to him.
He doesn’t want to be a TV star, it’s too time consuming and he has plenty to do. He spends little time cooking these days, spending more hours as a creative director instead.
He is interested in artwork, buildings, glasses, and collects vintage silver for the tables, sometimes having pieces copied. He is not adverse to making money either. He has a happy partnership with Ratnesh Bagdai, an accountant who worked with him in the The Ivy and Caprice Group. When they got together, Bagdai was on top of his game too and ready for some risk taking.
“I wanted to be in control of my life,” says Hix. “Between the two of us, we felt it wasn’t such a huge risk with the little capital we had.”
The Rivington Grill in Shoreditch was their first venture (sold since to their former employers), Hix Oyster and Chop House came next, then Hix Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, close to Hix’s home town. Provenance is important to Hix and his beef is produced in the North by Peter Hannan and sold exclusively in London to him and retailer Fortnum and Mason. The beef is aged in a room lined with Himalayan salt bricks to give it a distinctive flavour and reduce surface spoilage, resulting in less waste. It is delicious.
“When I started, you got excited when a restaurant opened,” says Hix. “Now, a different one opens every day and, unfortunately, one closes too. It’s amazing how many places start without forecasting turnover.” One of his good property buys was a failed sushi restaurant that had had a £3m makeover. He got it for £200,000. Topping the sushi bar with fashionable and hardwearing zinc, he uses the existing valuable marble surface to keep glasses cold for cocktails.
“I like reviving that connection with foods of the past. Oysters were street food at one time,” says Hix. “That’s why you would see beef and oyster pie on menus; beef was far more expensive and had to be supplemented.”In Cork, this was echoed in the Oyster Tavern in Market Lane.
Hix believes that, sometimes, there is too much attention paid to presentation. “I say: ‘No more than three things on a plate at a time.’ Sometimes, it’s just steak. When you order from a menu, you should get what it says. Simplicity is the key.”
Standards are also kept high by employing the right people. “Constant staff change threatens quality.”
To that end, he treats staff well and has opened a catering college, training 60 at a time to cook and to make drinks for his cocktail bars. He sends students to oyster farms, fishing (he is a keen fisherman) and teaches them all aspects of the business. He has his own smoker in the college and last year visited Fingal Ferguson in Gubbeen. He was impressed. “You have great cheese in Ireland,” he says.
Of all the aspects of the business, these days, he finds customers the most difficult. He also tries to avoid reading Trip Advisor.
“Everyone’s a critic. There was more blogging at first. It has evened out now, but it’s tiresome, yet we have to see if the criticisms are valid. I put them on the notice board for a while as a lesson to staff.”
Hix’s work has its perks. He is just back from tasting wine in Chateau Margaux. So what about the thorny issue of mark-up on wine?
“We put three times mark-up, less for expensive wines, which is fair.”
In Ireland, wine importers say there is anything between three and five times the mark up in restaurants.
Hix has written eight or nine cookbooks (he has lost count). The next one will probably be on cocktails.
“I think I have run out of things to write about food,” he says, though he continues to write a weekly column in the London Independent and a monthly column in Esquire.
From the start of his career 30 years ago in the staff canteen in the Hilton hotel, putting frozen peas into boiling water, Restaurants Etc, the company Hix has with his partner, now employs 320 in its seven restaurants and he has an eight-bedroomed B&B in Lyme Regis.
And they are profitable. Budding chefs please take heart.