Interview with an Innovator

Mark Hix: 'I am not going to personally do any more restaurants in London'

The chef-owner of Tramshed talks about street food, seasonality and how restaurants will move out of Soho and into East London.

20 July 2018
chefsingredientsprovenancerestaurantsseasonalstreet food

Hix on Paper – CV

  • Started his career in hotel kitchens, including the Hilton, Grosvenor House Hotel and the Dorchester.
  • Occupied the head chef position at Le Caprice, before becoming executive head chef for restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King’s growing food group in 1990.
  • Opened his first restaurant, Hix Oyster & Chop house, in 2008, laying the foundation for his own portfolio of eateries that now includes chicken and steak hangout Tramshed as well as Pharmacy 2, a collaboration with artist Damien Hirst.

It’s a weekday lunchtime and Mark Hix appears right on time from the lower levels of his much-celebrated Hix Soho restaurant for our interview.

Dressed smartly in a suit, Hix is fleeing London to judge a BBC food show in the West Country shortly. (While the chef-restaurateur doesn’t like doing TV, he enjoys public speaking.) First, there’s lunch.

Over plates of crayfish, theatrically decorated seafood pie, burrata, asparagus and, later, an elderflower jelly, we experience a crash course in Hix’s kitchen philosophy: “following the seasons as opposed to trends.”

A proponent of modern British cuisine, Hix is a long-time friend of 90s art provocateurs Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. He likes a party, but tends to avoid food industry events, preferring the art and fashion worlds.

During this bloated and competitive time for the restaurant economy, Hix’s key takeaway for restaurateurs is not to open at all right now. “Now is a time for everyone to knuckle down and think about stuff,” he tells Food Spark, while predicting the death of restaurants in London’s Soho and discussing concept theft.

 

I fell into food by accident. I didn’t know what to do when I left school, so I worked in a pub during the holidays, helping out in the kitchen. Then I did domestic science in the fifth year because I hated doing metalwork and I thought we’d be in a classroom full of girls – but all the girls decided to do metalwork!

My earliest food memories... were my grandfather’s tomatoes from the greenhouse. Getting home from school, having a simple supper of crusty bread, tomatoes with Sarson’s vinegar and some salt – there was no fancy salt then. Also, catching mackerel on the pier, bringing a bag home and my grandmother frying them that night, then saucing the rest.

I was head chef at Le Caprice at the age of 28. I had a few hard interviews with [restaurateurs] Chris Corbin and Jeremy King and got the job. I learned a lot from Corbin and King. They were a great inspiration for all sorts: the menus, the service, it was very simple, an inspirational brasserie-type menu.

At that time, no one else in London was doing that sort of food. You could get a bit of everything from all around the world, so I played on that Caprice menu and developed it a bit. The Ivy [another Corbin and King operation] was even more international: you could eat everything from curry to shepherd’s pie to sushi. There was something there for everyone.

London is getting harder and harder. Soho landlords have almost doubled our rent and business rates. It’s becoming more and more difficult to operate and turn a profit somewhere like that.

All of the landlords in Soho have done the same thing. They’ve done one thing creating Soho as the hub for restaurants in London, and them shot themselves in the foot as restaurants are just going to move out. You always challenge it, but it is what it is. You get the rent down a little bit, but you still end up paying a hell of a lot. If it’s £200,000 extra rent on business rates, it means you have to earn an extra million quid, which is impossible.

My prediction? Restaurants in Soho will close, everyone will struggle really. There will be more retail shops in Soho and more restaurants opening in east London, further out of central.

People who aren’t in the restaurant business don’t understand... the consequences of what it’s like to open. They see it from the outside. In the old days, we used to open a new restaurant and turn a profit straight away. Now it’s much harder. I’ve not opened anywhere for ages.

The London restaurant market has become saturated. There’s an awful lot of choice. In Soho, I counted 30 street food stalls in Berwick Street. They don’t have to go through the vigorous health and safety procedures we do, they just set up and open.

A lot of the street food is actually very good. There’s lots of choice in Soho. You can also eat decent food for a tenner in a restaurant, so the market is flooded really.

There’s not always longevity in street food. Sometimes the pitches and rent for street food are also quite high, but it’s a good in-road into business and a sideline to having a restaurant. It’s having a bit of fun but also putting your brand out there, doing something a bit different.

Sometimes you don’t always get it right. I closed restaurants in Belgravia and the City. At that time, Soho was doing okay, but those particular sites were not. Sometimes you just don’t know. It’s best to close, but quite often it costs a lot of money to close too.

I am not going to personally do any more restaurants in London. Open the papers and somewhere like Terence Conran has gone tits up, and Jamie Oliver’s closing restaurants. A lot of people are closing rather than opening. Now is a time for everyone to knuckle down and think about stuff.

There’s too many chains out there on the high street. You could be anywhere, the high street restaurants all are pretty much the same. It’s quite repetitive.

People still don’t use enough British home-grown ingredients and follow seasons, which should be a natural thing to do. I think we should be supporting our own farmers and producers. If you follow the seasons as opposed to trends, you’re halfway there really.

Even people you know try and nick your concept but don’t get it right. I was the first one to do a dedicated chicken and steak restaurant with Tramshed, a lot of people have followed now. I’m not bothered though, if people don’t have their own ideas.

I was always interested in design and interiors. Whenever I did a new restaurant, I would do the interior with the architects. I would look for stuff on eBay or architectural salvage shops. The interior is always my eye. The look depends on the building. Bankside was an old tin factory, so I wanted to keep that industrial look but not the industrial look everyone else does. I try and look for original stuff at smart salvage yards like Trainspotters, Retrouvius and LASSCO.

Damien Hirst said: “Can you help me out?” Pharmacy 2, Damien’s restaurant, was ready to open, but he wasn’t happy with the chef’s food so he didn’t open the restaurant. I bumped into Damien outside of Scott’s with his ex-wife Maya. I stopped and said ‘Hi’, and it sort of went from there really. I’ve known him for a long time, so I know exactly what he wants and likes to eat.

When I open a new restaurant, I get artists involved. They create work for the space, as Damien did downstairs at Tramshed. The art is a part of the design and the look and the refit.

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