Food: It’s a fishy business for friends Mitch and Mat

Mat Prowse and Mitch Tonks
Mat Prowse and Mitch Tonks

Take the fuss out of fish with the help of seafood specialists Mitch Tonks and Mat Prowse. The pair reveal why simplicity is key, and dish up a tasty recipe from their new Seahorse cookbook

Forget coffee, tea or an icy shower, if there’s anything guaranteed to give restaurant owners Mitch Tonks and Mat Prowse a boost in the morning, it’s their breakfast grappa.

Since travelling around Europe some years ago, on the hunt for culinary inspiration for their celebrated Seahorse restaurant in Devon, the two friends have continued the boozy morning ritual, which is popular in food markets in Italy and Spain.

“We like our little drink in the morning,” says Tonks, laughing.

“It’s quite enjoyable,” adds the award-winning chef, who fronted Good Food series, Mitch And Matt’s Big Fish Recipes, with former rugby star Matt Dawson.

“The secret is, it’s only one drink, and for some reason, some days it’s better than others. Some days you don’t really get it, and other days you get really quite smashed and I’m not sure why.”

While the pair’s customary drink, which they quaff alongside their morning coffee, has raised a few eyebrows, it’s part and parcel of the jovial atmosphere they hope to create in the restaurant, with dancing on tables and musical interludes from their maitre d’ Mark Ely encouraged.

“It doesn’t really sound like it’s a very professional place,” says Prowse with a laugh. “It has a life of its own.”

Friends since the late Nineties, Tonks and Prowse - whose experience in kitchens began with pot-washing for a local eatery when he was 13 - have just released a new recipe book, aptly named The Seahorse, based on the dishes they serve in their restaurant.

And while they are both knee-deep in seafood these days, this wasn’t always this case.

“I was working as a head chef at a restaurant in Bath and Mitch came to sell me fish,” explains Prowse of how their partnership began.

“He set up his fishmongers there after giving up his previous life as an accountant in London. He came into the restaurant one day, trying to sell me fish, and that was it, we just hit it off. We decided to start running cookery classes.”

While he and Tonks, who “wasn’t having a great time” as an accountant and quit aged 27, bonded over their love of seafood, they’re well aware that many people don’t share their enthusiasm for fish.

“It smells. It’s full of bone. It’s going to stick in your throat and you’re going to be dragged to hospital to get rid of it,” exclaims Prowse, with a weary sigh.

“Everything you hear about fish, whether it’s sustainability or cooking it, is all negative. But it’s not. It’s an easy thing to cook. Very simply with the sustainability thing, just find yourself a good fishmonger and trust they’re doing that bit for you.

“Buy the freshest fish you can find, cook it really simply and you’ll have the best meal ever. That’s all we do in the restaurant. Sometimes you feel like a fraud because it is so easy, but behind the scenes it’s not!”

Fancy trying your hand at some simple fishy dishes? Here’s a recipe from The Seahorse to try at home...

Sea bass with braised courgettes

(Serves 4)

100ml plus 1tbsp olive oil

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

4 courgettes, cut into quarters then cut into 2.5cm chunks

A good handful of basil, roughly torn

4 sea bass fillets, about 180-200g each, skin on

1 lemon

Salt and ground white pepper

1 lemon, cut into wedges, to serve

Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6.

Heat the 100ml of olive oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and sweat for a minute without colouring.

Next, add the courgettes and basil, then season with salt and white pepper and mix well. Cook the courgettes for about 15 minutes, stirring regularly until most of the water from the courgettes has evaporated and they have stewed down, leaving some in chunks and some completely broken down. Take off the heat and set aside.

Heat a large ovenproof frying pan with the tablespoon of olive oil over a medium heat. Place the sea bass in the pan skin-side down, season with a little salt and cook for about 12 minutes until the sea bass skin starts to take some colour and begins to crisp.

Carefully turn the fillets over and place the pan into the oven and roast for about five minutes, or until the flesh turns white and flakes easily.

To serve, reheat the courgettes over a low heat until they are just warm. Add a good squeeze of lemon and put a generous spoonful onto each warmed plate. Put the sea bass on top and serve with a lemon wedge.