By Lewis Smith
Mitch Tonks is clear on the rules for siting a new Rockfish restaurant. It must be in sight of the sea and the fresh fish it serves must have been landed the same day.
And at its heart must be sustainability.
Too often, he says, businesses treat sustainability as a marketing ploy, an idea to which lip service is paid but one that can be discarded when the mood changes.
At Rockfish, which he jointly owns, he regards it as part of embedded behaviour that is as much part of the restaurant as good service and tasty food.
“Sustainability is a measure of your behaviour,” he tells Fish2fork. “One of the things at Rockfish is we want to create restaurants without sustainability being a marketing ploy. It’s a behaviour.”
He is infuriated by restaurants which claim to take marine sustainability seriously but where their actions fail to match their words. “It’s a marketing thing people jump on,” he says.
The efforts he and business partner Matt Prowse have put into sourcing seafood responsibly have just earned Rockfish the Good Catch Award at the 2017 National Fish & Chip Awards.
Sponsored by the Marine Conservation Society and the Marine Stewardship Council, it is one of the most prestigious sustainability awards offered to the restaurant industry.
Rockfish, with five branches on the south coast, also picked up the Best Multiple Operator title but it was, Mr Tonks says, the Good Catch award he was most anxious to win: “Out of all the awards we would like to win, it would be the sustainable award.”
Among the most important factors he cites for the accolade is his close connection with the port of Brixham, in Devon, where 12,400 tonnes of seafood are landed annually - making the port one of the UK’s biggest and most valuable for seafood.
Brixham is where Rockfish get’s all its fresh fish and Mr Tonks is a familiar figure there. Being at the fish market, being able to watch the fish being landed, talking to the fishermen, gives him detailed knowledge of the state of the market, forthcoming rules and regulations, and the health of seafood stocks.
He uses his knowledge to guide his purchases, not just for price or taste but for the level of sustainability for each species, and to help ensure his staff are fully aware of the source of the seafood they serve.
Few customers are keen to cross-examine restaurant staff about the source of the seafood, he says. They are unaware of or confused about the issues, or they simply want to have an enjoyable meal without having to start a debate with the waitress or waiter.
Nevertheless, Mr Tonks believes not just that there is an expectation among diners that Rockfish should be serving responsibly sourced food, but that the restaurants should accept it as a responsibility.
“People want to know our fish is sustainable,” he says . “Consumers aren’t as clued up as we think they are. This is what we do all the time. It’s how we train our people.”
He also believes awareness of sustainability has improved within the fishing industry: “Ten years ago sustainable fishing was a new thing. There was a lot of pressure being put on the fishermen. there was a certain amount of resistance. Now they are much more environmentally aware and there attitude is more ‘why would we want to mess this up?’”
With five Rockfish restaurants already open - the first opened its doors in Dartmouth in 2010 and was followed by Brixham, Torquay, Plymouth and Exmouth, all in Devon - Mr Tonks is looking for further expansion.
Rather than open in Cornwall, where he feels there are already plenty of top chefs already operating, such as Nathan Outlaw, he is looking at other locations in Devon and further east. Exeter, Weymouth, Portsmouth and Poole are all possibilities, which would give him continued access to what he regards as one of the finest sources of seafood in the world - what he calls England’s ‘seafood coast’.
Photo: Mitch Tonks. Credit: Matt Austin/MitchTonks