His second venue, HIX Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis, followed shortly after with HIX Soho opening in 2009 and HIX Restaurant and Champagne Bar in Selfridges in 2010. In 2011 he opened HIX Mayfair in Brown’s Hotel, and in 2012 came HIX Belgravia. Tramshed in Hoxton followed the same year, with HIX City after that in 2013 and Hixter Bankside in 2014. We asked him how running his own restaurant empire compares to running a kitchen: ‘You have to see the whole picture. There’s so much apart from just the kitchen, there’s the bars, the cocktails, the front of house, everything to get involved in.’ Opening (and keeping open) so many restaurants, during one of Britain’s worst recessions, is no small achievement. He says of this: ‘It’s kind of staying ahead of the game really.’
Mark Hix has been at the forefront of developments in British cuisine for his entire career. In 2008 he wrote British Regional Food, a seminal text that cemented his position as an authority on the nation’s culinary history as well as its more modern offerings. We asked him what he thinks of British food today, and how the food scene has changed over the course of his career: ‘Now you can create a menu with 100% British produce, whereas thirty years ago, when I first moved to London, that wasn’t possible. Everything, if it was going to be half decent, had to come from France or Italy. Twenty years ago, British cuisine would have meant things like steak and kidney pie or Lancashire hotpot. Now, it could be crayfish and brandy, or baked sea bass with rosemary. It’s not just about revisiting old classics from 100 years ago – though they can be really good too. What we do is British food made of British ingredients. A lot of the stuff we’re doing here is British-focused with a twist.’
Provenance – food with a story – is central to Mark Hix’s offering. He says: ‘Every trip is an opportunity to source new ingredients really, whether it’s here or abroad. Obviously I try and focus on British for all the restaurants and encourage British producers to try and get their names out there. Consequently new producers tend to come to me with products as well.’ As a result of this diligence, Mark Hix’s restaurants are served by over forty different suppliers, with all the complex stock management that that involves. When we asked one of his long-serving head chefs what kept him with the group, the first thing he mentioned was the quality of ingredients and the ethos of quality that drove the business. If an ingredient is not at its best, it doesn’t go on the menu.
Mark Hix describes his style of cooking as ‘simple, seasonal and British’, with a hard and fast rule of ‘no more than three main ingredients on the plate’. He says that by choosing an ingredient carefully, it requires less treatment: ‘It’s just about showing off the main ingredient.’ His dish of Launceston lamb sweetbreads with Coles Farm peas is an excellent example of this. While Mark Hix’s cuisine is British, it is not static or slavish to the idea that traditional British food is a notion set in historical stone. His Crispy fried squid with garlic, curry leaves and almonds shows how British cuisine has developed over the years, embracing influences from the many cultures that have made the nation their home. Foraged ingredients also make a frequent appearance, as in his Portland crab rosti with land cress and chives. He told us: ‘You can’t help it really, when you’re in Dorset, or somewhere else rural. If you’re interested in food and you see something when you’re going for a walk or along the beach, you just can’t resist.’
Sharing knowledge with others continues to be a feature of Mark Hix’s life and career. He now has ten cookbooks under his belt and writes regular columns for The Independent, Esquire and GQ. In 2014 he opened Hix Academy on the site of his old cooking college in Weymouth – a project that offers students catering and hospitality qualifications, but also, crucially, extensive practical experience. Students work at the Hix Academy Restaurant which is modelled on his London establishments and has them engaged with active service from the very first day. He says of the first group to go through the programme: ‘They’re not too bad for the first bunch.’
We asked him what still engages him about food, all these years on, what drives him to put in the hours and where he looks for inspiration: ‘It’s a constant, ongoing thing, really. It might be walking around Waitrose, it might be walking around a farmer’s market, it might be going to someone else’s restaurant, it might be flipping open a magazine or someone’s new cookbook that has arrived on my desk – there are lots of sources of inspiration. I think the exciting thing about this sort of business is you don’t know what’s around the corner, you don’t know who you’re going to meet, so the whole thing together is interesting and stimulating. The minute you lose interest, you know, it’s time to throw the keys in the river.’