Mark Hix

Mark Hix

Mark Hix

Mark Hix’s impact on British food is legendary, with multiple restaurants and cookbooks shaping our understanding of the nation’s cuisine.

Mark Hix grew up in West Bay, Bridport, a seaside town on the Dorset coast, raised by his grandparents on a diet of simple country dishes: ‘My grandmother cooked — cheaper cuts like lamb hearts and pork belly — and my grandfather grew tomatoes.’ Mark did not have big career plans when he first stepped into the kitchen. A boy who has worked in some capacity since the age of twelve, he found himself in his first kitchen job, at a local pub, ‘to earn a bit of cash.’ After dabbling with domestic science at school — and winning the school prize for his efforts — he says he ended up at catering college ‘purely because I didn’t have any other options.’

It was at Weymouth College that he met Laurie Mills, a teacher at the college and the first of his significant culinary inspirations. Mark says: ‘He was a brilliant chef and party boy and he always talked about London – I wanted to go there and do what he did.’ At the time, it was hotels that offered the best possibilities for high quality training and experience, so on heading to the capital he took up a position as commis chef at The Hilton. He then moved onto Grosvenor House Hotel, where he trained under Anton Edelmann.

Next came The Dorchester, when Anton Mosimann was at the helm. He worked his way up to chef de partie, staying in the position for two years, until a chef at the hotel left to head his own venue, The Candlewick Room, and asked Mark to be his number two. After eight months that head chef left, leaving a twenty-two-year-old Mark with a valuable opportunity: ‘It was a bit about being in the right place at the right time — I asked if I could have his job and that was it really. It was either that or I left to find something else.’ By the time he moved on, four years later, he had made his dent on the London food scene.

Next came a head chef position at Le Caprice, and when owners Chris Corbin and Jeremy King – ‘the best restaurateurs in history’ – opened The Ivy in 1990, he was appointed as executive head chef of the group. He began overseeing Le Caprice and The Ivy, but as the group expanded, the role grew to managing a further six venues.

After nearly eighteen years with Caprice Holdings, Mark left to pursue his own projects. He told us: ‘It was probably time I thought about branching out on my own, doing my own thing. Having your own business is a different challenge – a very different challenge – more responsibility, more risk.’ In less than six months he had opened his first venue, HIX Oyster and Chop House, in London’s Smithfield. As would become the pattern with his future venues, for Mark it was the site that dictated the menu. ‘I don’t really think of a concept and then look for a site, I kind of do it the other way round. I just wanted to do something that people weren’t expecting, something not predictable.’

Keen to give his first restaurant a unique talking point, he started experimenting with smoking fish in his back garden. His ‘Hix Cure’ smoked salmon, flavoured with salt and molasses and smoked over oak and apple wood was soon supplying Selfridge’s food hall – with Mark whizzing orders around in his scooter – and as this cottage industry blossomed, smoking operations moved up onto the roof of the famous shop. ‘I started smoking my own fish at the end of my garden – with the cat always sniffing around.'

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. ‘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. ‘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. A lot of the stuff we’re doing is British-focused with a twist.’

Provenance – food with a story – has always been central to Mark’s offering. ‘Every trip is an opportunity to source new ingredients really, whether it’s here or abroad. Obviously I try and focus on British 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’s restaurants were served by over forty different suppliers, with all the complex stock management that that involves.

Mark 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’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. ‘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’s life and career. He now has ten cookbooks under his belt and has written 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.

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.’

At the end of 2019, Mark announced that he was closing Hix Soho on 22 December after ten years of successful trading. Citing rising rents and difficult market conditions for the reasons behind it, he then closed his remaining restaurants in 2020, after his businesses went into administration. He's made it clear that this was a decision he was against, and we're keen to see what's next for this exciting and hugely influential chef.