I could have spent this Tuesday moping about the Fish House in Lyme, feeling gloomy because it is currently closed on Tuesdays as well as Mondays as we don’t have sufficient staff. All those customers trying to book tables and we can’t open our doors to them!
But I am an optimist by nature or else I wouldn’t have survived this far along the long road back after my London restaurants closed as Covid struck.
So, instead of getting down, I took myself off for an afternoon’s fishing. It’s my favourite type of therapy; better still to be doing it with an old mate. Trevor Gulliver, founder of St John restaurant in London’s Smithfield and a friend from my days in the capital, had invited me to join him on the River Test in Hampshire. How could I say no when this chalk stream, 39 miles from source to estuary, is widely regarded as the birthplace of modern fly fishing?
Neither the rain nor the place’s sacred reputation put us off. I managed to catch a couple of trout – and put them back – but what truly raised my spirits in the face of all the current challenges blocking my road back was the chance to compare experiences of emerging from lockdown – Trevor in London and me now based in Dorset.
His staffing problems are not, he reported, nearly as bad as ours. He has managed to hold on to his experienced staff, who returned as soon as they could reopen. Starting up again down here, I didn’t have such history and loyalty to draw on, though on the bright side I should add that at my pub, The Fox in Corscombe, we are doing OK for staff and are still open on Tuesdays.
But as Trevor brought me up to date on the struggles of well-known names in the London restaurant business to survive the current storms, I found myself feeling quietly pleased to be away from it all in Dorset.
One positive of being down here is that I have much more direct contact with those who produce the ingredients we cook with. It creates a valuable bond, so much so that later in what has been a fishy week, I was taken along by another friend to one of the Fishermen’s Association meetings that cover the industry on our stretch of coast, from Beer through Axmouth and Lyme Regis to West Bay.
Unsurprisingly the issue that got the crowd of 50 or so most animated in these times of fragile supply lines was getting their catch from boat to market in Plymouth and Brixham, and servicing a few restaurants en route.
What struck me most, though, was the demographic in the room. Where, I wondered, were the whippersnappers? There were, unless the others were hiding, only two young fishermen there. Locally at least, this is becoming an older profession, lacking the new blood that is necessary for its survival.
There are all sorts of reasons why this is happening. The hours are long and tough, dictated by the tides, not by the normal working day. And when you do get home, you stink of fish. It can be dangerous, too, and the financial rewards are not great. The fact that access to our waters has become a matter of international argument since Brexit hardly helps give the impression that this is a secure long-term career path.
But it isn’t all negatives. I’ve grown up around fishing boats and fishermen. It’s my world. So what I want to do, when I have more time – though Tuesdays are looking fairly flexible in my diary at the moment – is start going into local schools, primary and secondary, taking some of the local fishermen with me, and encouraging the kids there to think about fishing as a career. I have been doing the same over many years in the cause of recruiting to the hospitality industry.
Someone needs to champion the fisherman, or a whole way of life is at risk of dying out. Not to mention that future of my Fish House and fish truck, where we serve only the freshest fish, caught locally.
Perhaps, I’ve been wondering, in another lifetime I might have opted for being a fisherman instead of a chef. But then I don’t recall ever thinking of it as a career option when I was a young man. I was too keen to get away to the big city with its bright lights.
Life has a way, though, of bringing you full circle. I am banking on the same being true of my business.
Read Mark Hix’s column every Thursday. Catch up on his last column here:
I’ve always been reluctant about becoming a TV cook