Mark Hix: Glitz with everything

Caroline Stacey meets Mark Hix of The Ivy, whose new recipe column starts in next week's magazine
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This is the chef that leads the team that cooks the food that makes the restaurant the hardest to get into in London. Mark Hix is chef director of The Ivy. The Ivy is so frequently name-dropped by celebs, so famously, impossibly difficult to dine at, it has mythical status. Hix is the first to admit it's not the food alone that keeps everyone coming back. Even so, his idea of what's a pleasure to eat at the most desirable tables in town has proved remarkably compelling and enduringly popular.

From next week Hix will be taking Simon Hopkinson's place, writing recipes, photographed by Jason Lowe, that we hope will inspire as intense a longing to get into the kitchen and cook and then eat, as Hoppy's have.

What can we expect from Hix? He grew up in West Bay on the Dorset coast. The beach is pebbly, the ices are creamy, and the seaside gimmickry takes second place to fishing. Like so many cooks, Hix has a deck of timeless food memories that are altogether more evocative than the usual reminiscences about school dinners or mum's cooking horrors: the arrival in June of the intensely fragrant strawberries his grandfather grew; standing in the playground eating queen scallops caught by his schoolfriend's trawlerman dad. These, not flashbacks to a new brand of crisps or the collector's cards from the cereal packs, are probably why he went into cheffing, not marketing. He would still rather cook seafood than anything else. "I love shellfish, I could eat it every day. Shellfish, and offal."

But cooking wasn't an irresistible force. In his last year at school he had chosen to study domestic science rather than metalwork. "I was good at it, but I didn't think I'd be doing it for the rest of my life." When Hix was about to leave school he had no idea what to do with himself. "All my mates went off and became golf pros." His golf handicap then was seven; now he rarely has time to play.

From catering college in Weymouth he headed inland to London, working in hotel kitchens at Grosvenor House and The Dorchester, under Anton Mosimann's benign regime. At the age of 22, he moved on to become head chef at "a funny little place in the City", where he earned his first guidebook accolade. This led to the interrogation meted out to candidates for a job at Le Caprice, and he found himself in the kitchen of the then trendiest restaurant in London.

That was 13 years ago. Two years later he was in charge of The Ivy kitchens too. Consummate restaurateurs Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin had taken over and revived The Mousetrap's long-running neighbour, helping it become as, if not more, popular than Le Caprice. Scroll forward, thousands of salmon fishcakes with sorrel sauce later. As the Caprice and Ivy team take over and apply their magic sparkle to theatreland's old seafood trooper J Sheekey, they simultaneously sell out to the Belgo group. In the merged family of restaurants, Mark Hix's responsibilities and cooking savvy now extend to The Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey and their younger half-sisters, the Italian-leaning Daphne's, Middle Eastern Pasha and Vietnamese Bam-Bou. He whizzes between them on his Vespa.

Just as well he can't be persuaded to choose a favourite style of cooking. Trips to Costa Rica, South Africa, the Caribbean, Kuwait and even the Essex coast have all made an impression, though he's not one to have his head turned by novelty. Hix is still as keen to remind people of forgotten nursery dishes as keep them abreast of food fashion. He doesn't have a manifesto, except to show us the pleasure to be had from good, simple food – from all over the world. His training is classical French, his instincts English, but, he says, "I like to introduce other flavours without going too mad. Everyone tries so hard to be different – chefs as well, unfortunately.

"I don't believe in fussy, complicated techniques or presentation, and the older I get the less I try to create new combinations. Most of the best dishes I come up with have no more than three main ingredients, and I like to be able to taste them all."

What, then, is in the fridge of his Hoxton warehouse home, where there isn't even a balcony or window box to grow herbs in? Given his schedule, not a lot. "A bottle of Champagne, just in case." Sliced frozen ceps in the freezer, frozen chopped parsley, frozen peas, tiger prawns, "always peas, a bit of cheese, gorgonzola. Crumpets. And you can produce an instant, luxurious pasta dish with garlic and butter. People think their fridge has to be full of food." If he invites people to dinner he won't know what he's cooking until he's been shopping.

Ingredients come first, and any meal he cooks will revolve round one good main one. Doesn't matter who, what or when it's for. He wrote the recipes in the frantically stylish hardback profiles of the restaurants The Ivy and Le Caprice. But of the three books he's had a hand in, Eat Up: Food for Children of All Ages (4th Estate, £16.99) is closest to his heart. He started writing it when his twin daughters, Ellie and Lydia, were four (they're now eight), with the aim of encouraging from the earliest age a love of freshly cooked food that tastes wonderful.

"You can cook out of an empty fridge as long as you've got common sense and are inspired. No one needs to cook to survive but there's so much more pleasure to be had from cooking than from choosing a packet from the chill cabinet of the supermarket."

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