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The long road back Chef Mark Hix is starting over
The long road back Chef Mark Hix’s journey from restaurant empire to fish truck (and back again)
Aholiday, we are told, recharges our batteries, and we all need our batteries recharging after the 18 months we have just been through – and what we continue to endure. I have certainly found myself reinvigorated by three days away from it all, fishing in Iceland. It was my first break since losing my London restaurants in March 2020 and starting up again down here in Dorset in the middle of a pandemic.
I half-imagined that stepping back, however briefly, from my daily routine of fish truck, pub and restaurant would give me some new perspective on what has been one of the most tumultuous periods in my life. But what I found was that I needed a rest more than a period of introspection, with any gaps filled by the distraction of catching a salmon.
And the boost it gave me has carried me through an even busier period since I got back. The pub and restaurant are as full as ever. The plus side is that we have never had so much positive feedback from customers as we try, as a team, to navigate these tricky waters between regulatory unlocking and the worries that the rising number of Covid cases are causing.
There’s that five per cent of diners whose general anxiety spills over into getting cross with us, for example, when we can’t guarantee what fish or shellfish will be on the menu when they come here to eat. I have noticed we are getting more of it than ever before, and a greater reluctance to accept that because we only serve fresh, locally caught fish, what we serve is decided by the nature of the sea and the seasons.
I understand where the irritability and impatience come from. We all wish that Covid would just go away and we could all get on with our lives. Or that the rules/recommendations coming from the Government were clearer and more consistent. My big bugbear was watching 60,000-plus in Wembley for the Euros earlier in the month when we were still having to enforce social distancing between our tables.
The reality, though, is we remain short-handed and are struggling to recruit, so the team is working around the clock trying to make it the best experience they can for customers. So when that small minority direct their frustration at the waiters, demanding, for example, a different table when they can see the restaurant is full, it can be hard to absorb.
Maybe I am noticing it more because I am living above the shop at the moment.
The first of the new bedrooms in the annexe at The Fox in Corscombe, which we have been preparing for guests wanting a slice of Dorset this summer, is ready. I’ve named it after Bill, my Bridport grandfather, who was the one who really set me going on the course that my life has taken.
But before taking any bookings, I’ve been staying a few nights in it to check for snagging problems. So as well as spending my waking hours between the fish truck, the pub and the Fish House in Lyme, I am also there when asleep. It has its advantages. I walk straight out each morning into the kitchen garden, where I spent so much time planting during winter and spring.
But it is also a bit like being on show all the time, especially when the only moments I have spent in my home are when I went there to host a ‘kitchen table’. These are events where I cook for up to eight paying guests in my house. Some of my mates in the trade think I’m mad, blurring the boundary between work and home like this. ‘Don’t you find people going through your drawers when you’re not looking?’ they ask.
The truth is that I work so hard those boundaries have been hard to discern for as long as I can remember. And the only real problem I’ve ever had is getting a taxi to take some of the visitors home afterwards when they’ve drunk too much. In theory they run from midday to five, but I don’t bother too much with clockwatching. And that certainly was the case on this first kitchen table since last summer, because the group who had booked were friends from London, coming down to see where I was hiding. By the end, I think they understood why I had made the move.
There are diners whose anxiety spills over into getting cross when we can’t guarantee what fish will be on the menu