It’s safe to say that Mark Hix has sailed through some choppy waters in the last 18 months. The award-winning restaurateur and full-time bon viveur was - up until quite recently - one of the bright lights of the London dining scene, having grown his Hix restaurant empire to lofty heights, only to have the Covid-19 pandemic wipe his business legacy out. As the storm water came in over the sides, Mark, like so many other business owners in the hospitality sector, could only sit and watch as it all went under. But tragic as it is, this is no hard luck story. Pragmatic to the core, Mark left London and headed back to Dorset, the county where he grew up, and picked up the pieces. He opened the Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis, and subsequently the The Fox Inn, just inland in Corscombe. Then lockdown 2.0 struck. Undaunted, Mark bought a converted Chevrolet ambulance on eBay and transitioned it into his ‘HIX Oyster and Fish truck’ which serves the local community in Morcombelake and helps to support local fishermen. He’s also been writing a brilliantly candid and honest column for The Telegraph detailing the difficulties he has faced and how he has gone about moving forward in an admirably positive and resilient manner. Here he is…
Oliver Spencer: 2020 was a seismic year for the restaurant industry Mark and you’ve been incredibly candid about the difficulties you faced and are still facing. How have you managed to be so upbeat?
Mark Hix: Well, needs must! I’ve just had to keep at it really. Obviously I can’t wait to reopen in April, but I won’t believe it until I see customers in seats. Last year, we opened, we closed, we opened, we closed again - it was a bit all over the place and really difficult to get any consistency or momentum. We’d only managed to get the the Fox Inn in Corscombe open for two and half weeks before we had to close it again, but it is was it is, we can’t do anything about it. I don’t see any point in moaning about it. Yes, it’s tough, but you’ve got to keep looking forward. Naturally, the finances are hard - you don’t have to be an accountant to realise that - but I want to keep paying suppliers so I’ve got to keep a clean book, paying the people who are really important to the business. Today we’re installing a new kitchen in the Oyster and Fish House which I committed to over 6 months ago, not knowing we were going to be in the current predicament, but I wasn’t going to cancel. It’s imperative we try and keep things moving. I’m sensing that we’re through the worst of it, but we don’t really know. I’m playing it day by day. All I’m thinking about is opening again, by which time it will be the start of summer. It will busy, everyone will be looking forward to going out and eating again.
OS: You grew up in West Bay, Bridport and are Dorset through and through. What makes the county such a special place for you?
MH: Well I went to London at quite an early age and didn’t really come back here much until much later in life, so I started to appreciate it much more. It’s always the same growing up in a small place - you can’t wait to leave and explore the world, but age and experience have a knack of drawing you back and making you look at the place in a different light. Now I’m a bit older, I’m really enjoying the seaside and country life, the fishing, the shooting, all that sort of good wholesome stuff.
OS: What do you miss most about London or is it a case of good riddance?
MH: I don’t really miss it if I’m totally honest, although that said I do crave good Asian food. And the Groucho club - I miss going out with boys! But really, I don’t think I’ll open another restaurant in London, I’m a bit done with it. I’m certainly not going to do anything that I need to heavily invest in, so for the moment I’m very happy, and busy, with what I’ve got going on in Dorset. That’s where my focus it. What’s more, there are lots of thing cropping up, not necessarily to do with the restaurants either. For example, I’m really enjoying writing my column in The Telegraph and have found the writing process quite cathartic. I was writing for the Independent for 14 years and I missed that so I’m glad that people are enjoying the Telegraph column. I’ve also been approached about potentially doing some TV, documentaries, that sort of thing. I avoided the whole TV chef thing in the Noughties but this might be more down my street.
OS: I’ve really enjoyed your Telegraph column because you’re very candid in it. How has the response been to it?
MH: A lot of people have reached out to me after I started the Telegraph column - I’m just saying it as it is really, with no bullshit. It’s not a hard luck story, it’s just what it is and I think people, especially small business owners have taken some inspiration from my honesty.
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OS: Absolutely. I for one can’t wait until April 12 rolls around so that I can open my stores and come down to Dorset and have a long lunch! Tell us about The Fox Inn in Corscombe - you acquired it during lockdown didn’t you?
Yes. So the owners are family friends of mine, they’re actually PJ Harvey’s parents and they bought it to preserve it for the village because it’s a wonderful building. They approached me about a year or so ago but I wasn’t in the position to do it and then fast forward to a few months back, everything seemed to be lining up. The Oyster and Fish House had been opened and I felt like it was a good idea to do something meat-based inland, and the Fox Inn was perfect. I’m really excited about opening up. We’ve found some truly amazing local producers in the South West.
OS: And the Hix Oyster and Fish Truck in Morcombelake? How did that come about and what has it been like since you opened?
I was at a bit of a loose end when it all went tits up and found myself on eBay, as I very often do! I was thinking maybe I get a food truck, because that would allow me to cook and trade and bring a bit of money in. So after trawling it for hours, I found this converted Chevrolet ambulance, it looked perfect! I put a bid in for half the price and they accepted it!
So that was quite fortuitous but it has taken off since then. The whole idea was to support local fishermen by buying directly from the boats. Some of them are families, some have just started fishing, some have been in the game for generations, and some have been builders who started on a rod and line. There’s a guy called Tax who catches prawns - a real local delicacy - he’s actually a social worker in Camden. It’s great for the locals because they can now buy proper fresh fish caught only hours before.
OS: Well while we’re on the subject, let’s talk fish. We’re surrounded by a sea of gastronomical riches. What should we be eating right now?
MH: There are so many nice fish available on our shores, we’re really spoilt. We’ve been getting some lovely gilt head sea bream recently, my friend had a boat full of them and they’re quite rare for down here. I love fishing but haven’t had much of a chance to go out in the last year. My quarry tends to be sea bass, fresh salmon and sea trout. I go abroad as well, fishing in the Bahamas and Mexico, where they have bonefish which are very fast and sporty. I haven’t been fishing properly for a long time so can’t wait to get back in it.
OS: You’re passionate about art collecting and promoting young British artists which is fantastic. What are you plans for Hix Art now you’re back in Dorset?
I’ve just started selling certain pieces online as I’m downsizing a bit. I’ve got a real mix from vintage lamps to contemporary paintings. Since I moved back down to Dorset, I realised I’d accumulated so much stuff so it was about time I found them some nice new homes. In the Fox Inn, I’ve got a library, more like an old farmhouse kitchen really, where all my cookbooks are, and I’ll be selling some art and what I like to call ‘Vintage Kitchenalia’ in there. Hopefully I’ll be doing the Hix Award again next year.
OS: What are you most proud of in your career?
Many things really. If you’d ask me that two years ago then I definitely would have said setting up your own business is a great achievement. Losing your business isn’t quite so great but in many ways I’ve been most proud of how I’ve bounced back and not let it define me. Lots of people in business have similar stories, that climb to the top followed by an unforeseen fall - and then the ‘what next’? It’s all part of the energy and excitement of running your own business, getting things back on track.
OS: What would you say to the 20-year-old Mark Hix today?
I’ve had a lot of different business partners over the course of my career and I would say go and do it on your own. Because when you’re on your own, you quickly come to terms with the idea that if it fucks up you can only blame myself. Stay independent as much as you can and take responsibility. Sometimes you need to bring people in, but if you can do it on your own then do so!
OS: How has your wardrobe held up during lockdown?
It’s ok actually. My wardrobe has been split between my house boat in London and here in Charmouth. In London is where I keep all my tweed suits and smart stuff, and unfortunately Dorset has to bear witness to all my scruffy kit, but no one really cares down here.
OS: What are you going to wear to the first party you can go to?
I am going to be going to a lot of parties, that’s for sure! I’ll be wearing my Oli Spencer of course. We’ve got a lot mutual friends in fashion so I’m looking forward to seeing all of those reprobates over some long lunches! You know who you are!