Above the buzzing hipster hangout Tramshed in Shoreditch, with its Damien Hirst cow-in-a-vat, there’s a kitchen-diner that looks like the ultimate London bachelor party pad. It’s got a lot of leather and wood, a poker table, big shiny brass pans and a colossal fridge. Then there’s the man who wields the pans, restaurateur Mark Hix: purveyor of no-bullshit British steaks and chickens to the trend-tracking crowd below.
Tanned, modest and quietly chirpy, Hix couldn’t be further from the sweary alpha maleness you’d expect from a Shoreditch food entrepreneur who reputedly has Damien Hirst on speed-dial.
Ex-colleagues and friends paint a picture of a genuinely nice bloke whose success is all about his food: ‘No one has a bad word to say about him,’ says Tracey Emin, who first met Hix on a boozy night in Brick Lane’s Golden Hart in the late ’90s. ‘Lots of artists are friends with him but the friendship comes first: it’s not about wheeler-dealing. What’s amazing about his success is how nice he is.’
That success has been impressive. After moving to London at 18, Hix rose to become chef director of Caprice. After he quit to launch the Hix Oyster and Chop House in 2008, he went on to open seven restaurants in four years, bucking the recession and proving that you don’t need choice to pull crowds. With four of those restaurants thriving in London, Hix has influenced the taste of this city on every level: his Fish Dogs – a posh fish finger sandwich served from a vintage Citroën van – are the hallmark of a hip streetmarket and he has now piled in, along with Yotam Ottolenghi, to help revolutionise festival food at next weekend’s Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire.
As for the 50-year-old man himself, you’re probably more likely to find him foraging for pineapple weed in Dorset than out on the lash in the East End these days – although he does still like to throw a big party here for friends, including the now middle-aged British artists. Chatting in his leathery Shoreditch kitchen-cum-office, with a pile of foraged herbs beside him, there’s still plenty of the enthusiastic Dorset lad about him: listen and you can hear the sound of the sea in his voice.
But there’s a bit of chipper cockney there too: that, and the lewd Tracey Emin plates on his wall are reminders of his success in this brash urban environment that he’s made his own.
I like the dirty plates on your wall – are they meant to look like naked women?
‘It’s dirty plates. It’s just sexual, isn’t it?’
You’re mates with a lot of the YBA crew – especially Tracey Emin, whom you taught to cook. How did you get into art and artists?
‘I gave her confidence, because she didn’t really cook. It would be late at night, drunk. I lived in London for a long time so I got to know a lot of the artists, and I’ve always done exchanges for the restaurants and the artists. Firstly to have a nice story on the walls and secondly to have interesting people come to the restaurants.’
So they come in and eat and they pay you in pictures, like Picasso?
‘They hang their work in the restaurant and then eat and drink – it’s a nice old-fashioned Parisian thing to do. Artists are up for it because it’s a bit of fun and if you exhibit in a restaurant, more ordinary people see your work.’
You grew up in Dorset, and wondered whether to study catering or metalwork. It must have taken great self-belief to achieve what you have.
‘I sort of fell into cooking. My grandparents brought me up so I was left to fend for myself. I went fishing a lot. My grandfather grew tomatoes and my grandmother cooked: cheap cuts, lambs’ hearts and pork belly. I remember that smell of the ham in the kitchen. They died when I’d been in London for a couple of years. I still think about them.’
Has your country upbringing influenced your cooking?
‘In Dorset there’s lots of wild stuff knocking around, like sea veg, sea cabbage. A lot of it’s very potent. Try sea spinach and you never want to touch cultivated spinach again. At school, one of our lessons was to kill and pluck a chicken. Everyone thinks I’m mad when I tell them that, but it was a subject at school. If you live in the countryside it’s one of those things you do.’
Do you enjoy that element of cruelty in cooking?
‘If you’re going to have meat on the menu you’ve got to kill the things to eat them. If I had to choose my last meal it would probably be grilled lobster on the beach, and something that you’re not supposed to eat, like foie gras.’
There’s nothing cruel about displaying a dead cow in Tramshed?
‘We had stick from the vegetarians but the cow wasn’t killed for the art piece, it was going to the knacker’s yard. The architect wanted to move the mezzanine to the middle of the restaurant. I thought we could put a sculpture up there, got in touch with Damien Hirst and he showed me this image of the cow in a tank. I was apprehensive but it fits perfectly. It’s one of a kind.’
It’s not just the dead cow in a vat: the roast chicken that you serve punters looks like it’s been tortured as well as cooked...
‘Well, in this country, no one serves the feet on the chicken. You can buy the feet in Chinatown, but no one serves the feet and I just think, you know, architecturally, it looks interesting.’
You were chef director at Caprice, which is the epitome of posh formal dining. But your own places are set up for people to have noisy fun...
‘My philosophy’s always been that a restaurant should be fun. But some restaurants are just too formal and stuffy. I always feel slightly on edge when I’ve been in those sorts of places.’
Your Fish Dog van is part of a London street-food revolution. Do you think good food has become more democratic?
‘Absolutely. Street food is no longer necessarily hot dogs or hamburgers or dodgy deep-fried chicken. Lots of restaurants are doing farmers’ markets and festivals now. I think it’s interesting that you can go to a festival and actually have good food when years ago it wasn’t the case.’
You’re catering for Wilderness Festival next weekend, but what have you got planned for London – more chicken?
‘I want to do more chicken and steak restaurants. We’ve got a few sites in London that we’re looking at. But we won’t use the name Tramshed – it will be specific to the building. The trouble is, I never plan anything. I’ve not got an idea what I’m going to be doing in two years’ time – something might just come up.’
Visit a Mark Hix restaurant
Chef Mark Hix has always had a thing for meat, and his latest venture takes things to extremes. To be precise, you can have roast chicken for one or to share, steak, chicken salad, or steak salad. (A few ‘bar snax’ include ox cheek croquettes and – the sole veggie option – radishes with celery salt.) To list so few options is beyond bold, and the produce has to be beyond good, which it is. Free-range fowl comes from Woolley Park Farm in Wiltshire; beef is from traditional British cattle breeds and is aged in a ‘Himalayan salt chamber’, the science of which is complex but results in fabulously sweet and tender steak. What’s more, unless you’re starving, the whole chook will feed three people, making it £8 per head. This is great value, especially as ‘chips’ (actually thin-cut fries) are included in the price. All this meat is meted out in a turn-of-the-century Grade II-listed industrial building (which once housed the local tram’s electricity generators), a vast room with a soaring ceiling. Light comes in through an enormous arched window, while mezzanine levels break up the floor space. In pride of place is a work by Damien Hirst: a formaldehyde-filled tank containing a preserved bullock and rooster. Puds run from sweet, fragrant strawberries with Jersey cream to a fiendishly good cheesecake rippled with raspberry coulis. Staff are some of the friendliest we’ve encountered in London. Limited options doesn’t need to mean limited success, and Tramshed makes two ingredients go a
In his 17 years with multiple operator Caprice Holdings, Mark Hix learned a thing or two about running restaurants. His flagship in the heart of Soho retains the buzz that surrounded its opening in late 2009. YBA artworks by the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin add a modern twist to the wood-panelled room, which is packed and noisy most nights (we have known service to tail off slightly when stretched, although in general it’s superb). This is still the place to sample Hix’s signature seasonal British cooking and revel in the informally clubby surroundings. Staples on the breakfast-to-dinner menu include roast Woolley Park Farm free-range chicken to share, smoked salmon with ‘Corrigan’ soda bread (most dishes contain a name-check), or hanger steak with roast bone marrow. Specials go big on seafood (we had a great smoked haddock salad with soft-boiled egg and asparagus recently) and unusual native vegetables (samphire, say, or foraged mushrooms and herbs). Drinks can force a bill alarmingly upwards, but Mark’s Bar in the basement is a great spot for a few interesting cocktails, if you can bag a table (the licence requires you to choose something from the menu too).
Mark Hix is director of food at this stylish hotel dining room (Marcus Verberne is executive chef), and his influence can be seen in the modern British menu and also in the modern British art. The wood-panelled room is a relaxing and attractive place in which to eat, and staff are attentive (quick to proffer spare reading glasses, for example) without being obsequious. Compared to previous meals here, a midweek dinner lacked a certain something: deep-fried Cornish lamb’s sweetbreads with whipped peas, smoked bacon and a poached Burford Brown egg was excellent, but mixed beets with ragstone goat’s cheese and wild herbs, although pretty, lacked oomph; heritage tomato and lovage salad was similarly timid. Mains had more character: fish and chips brought a lightly battered chunk of coley, plus superb chips and light pea purée; a sizeable chargrilled Halesworth pork chop with marrow, capers and anchovies also pleased. Only Newlyn monkfish curry disappointed – the bland fish not helped by a one-dimensional curry. To finish: ginger parkin was more sticky toffee pud than a parkin, but nonetheless good; lemon jelly with lemon curd sorbet was a big hit; gooseberry fool with shortbread was average. Better than all of them were the chocolate truffle petits fours. But even with this slightly uneven experience, we still had a great evening in one of London’s more enjoyable hotel restaurants.
Although the name tells diners what to expect, there’s more to Hix than chops and oysters – Blythburgh pork crackling with apple sauce, for example (an ideal nibble), or irresistible deep-fried sprats with caper mayonnaise, followed by roast free-range Goosnargh chicken with wild garlic sauce (for two). But oysters (there’s always a choice, Helford natives for £3.20 each, say, or Colchester rocks at £1.95), chops and steaks feature prominently. Most diners have been male whenever we’ve dined here. We watched in admiration as one table tucked into a medley of steaks; the choice includes porterhouse (for two) and hanger steak with baked bone marrow. We can vouch for the barbecued Galloway beef ribs. Mixed beets with goat’s curd and watercress is among the lighter starters. Puds are nicely retro with modern twists; you can stick to steamed treacle sponge with custard, or dare to try absinthe jelly with vanilla ice-cream. Alongside the global wine list there’s a good choice of beers and ciders, including Hix Oyster Ale, brewed by Palmers of Bridport. Like St John nearby, Hix offers feasts for ten or more people. Owner Mark Hix is also director of food at the Albemarle.
Givenchy, Chanel – Hix. The restaurateur’s name sits oddly above the designer-label haven of the Selfridges ground floor, just past the Prada and Dolce & Gabbana concessions. Yet the ‘Hix Restaurant & Champagne Bar’ (to give its full name) would look at home in an airport shopping mall, which – in some ways – is exactly what this corner of Selfridges is. For our fellow diners have not specially sought out this new, third London location for Mark Hix’s growing restaurant empire any more than I’m likely to impulse-buy a Balenciaga handbag. Most of the drinkers in the mezzanine level Champagne bar are blow-ins, the flotsam and jetsam of the department store retail experience. At the top of the spiral staircase leading to the restaurant’s mezzanine level, the economy seats are to the right, while the truly loaded turn left into the dining area proper. Yet service was far from first-class – it was dizzy, slow and confused (charged at 12.5 per cent), and remained so throughout our meal. Despite this there’s much to enjoy, once your eyes adjust to the prices. ‘Starters. Purple sprouting broccoli £9.25.’ Now that’s got to be pretty impressive broccoli, thinks I. Either that or a typo. But it’s neither. The small plate of steamed cruciferous greens is served with pieces of pickled walnuts (a bit like vinegary olives) and some shavings of Lancashire cheese. It was a lovely combination of flavours, which I suggest you could knock up at home in about five minutes for under a quid. The