Chef Mark Hix and master mixologist Nick Strangeway’s new London venture is a coming together of two creative titans of the on-trade. Alice Lascelles meets the dynamic duo to talk about silver sorrel, bottles of seahorses and hotwiring liquidisers
The first time that Nick Strangeway and Mark Hix met, it was in trying circumstances. ‘We were doing a party out in Cuba at Havana’s Nacional hotel for 500 people,’ Strangeway recalls. ‘I was doing the drinks and Mark was doing the food – I think Mark had just flown in from doing the Oscars – but then it turned out we weren’t allowed to do what we were supposed to do, and so on the day it turned from a sit-down dinner for 500 to a cocktail party with canapés. Except they wouldn’t let us near anything…’
‘They wouldn’t even let me in the kitchen,’ mutters Hix, reaching for Strangeway’s pack of Camel Lights and extracting a cigarette.
‘Which to be frank was quite useful,’ continues Strangeway, ‘as they had these electrical appliances sitting in loads of water with sparks flying off them so in the end I was quite relieved I didn’t have to actually physically touch anything…’
‘You had to hotwire the liquidiser!’ laughs Hix.
‘…and then the hurricane came in!’ cries Strangeway, and they burst into gleeful chuckles, clearly delighted by the memory of chaos on such a grand scale.
That was ‘five, or maybe 10’ years ago. These days the pair can be found in the more temperate surroundings of Hix’s restaurant Hix, in Soho’s Brewer Street, where Strangeway has been charged with masterminding the basement bar. And while there may not be so many life-threatening electrical appliances about, the spirit of improvisation still applies, it seems.
‘There wasn’t really a brief,’ says Hix, ‘just if it’s new and it’s mad and it’s exciting – everyone has different glassware which makes it interesting: Victorian, sherry, Babycham, that in itself makes a bar interesting. One table might have a punchbowl, another quail egg shooters or a fondue set. I think people respect it – it’s become quite an industry place to come and see what these people are doing.’
A VERY BRITISH AFFAIR
With an expansive metal-topped bar that used to be a sushi counter, and loungey Manhattan-style decor, this bar could have gone in any number of directions. But Strangeway, like Hix, ‘wanted to do English things.’ That meant colonial punches, Shrubs, Collinses and hot drinks like the deliciously frothy Lamb’s Wool, an 18th century recipe of roasted bramley apple sauce, spice and Hix IPA served in a silver goblet.
‘That kind of thing wouldn’t work in most bars but the kind of people who come to eat in Hix’s restaurants will be willing to look at an 18th century recipe. So you could be a little bit more extreme with food and drinks,’ says Strangeway.
‘There wasn’t really a brief – just if it’s new
and it’s mad and it’s exciting’ Mark Hix
The fact that Hix does things like develop his own IPA was another attraction – a chef who champions small producers is one thing, but one who does so when it comes to drinks is a rather rarer breed.
The menu at Hix abounds with beers, gins, ciders, perry and even a Somerset eaux-de-vie (used to soak cherries for the house aperitif, the Hix Fix) all sourced by Hix and Strangeway from micro-distillers and breweries around the country.
But they’ll also look further afield if the right booze calls. Just over a year ago I found myself with Hix in Mexico on the trail of Ocho tequila, and in January, I joined the duo on a trip to Guyana to visit the El Dorado distillery. Despite being on crutches following a nasty accident involving his motorbike and a reversing van (you don’t want to know the details), Hix hobbled gamely on after Strangeway in search of the perfect barrel of rum to take back and serve as an exclusive in the bar.
‘When you go on a trip like this there’s a story that you can tell the customers and it makes it so much easier to sell,’ says Hix, who was so inspired by a visit to the Quinta de la Rosa winery in Portugal he collaborated with them on a wine created specifically to pair with fish, called Tonix. The fact that his mate Tracey Emin designed the label can’t hurt either.
Indeed, Hix’s circle of friends, which includes the likes of Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Keith Allen and Alex James (whose cheese is also on the list), can’t go unremarked.
‘It’s always good to have some ‘faces’ in the place,’ he grins, ‘I got to know people in the art world when I lived in the East End, and I started trading dinners for art and I got to know them like that. So I’ve got quite a good collection!’ And when it came to kitting out the Brewer Street venture, he simply commissioned them all to make a mobile, ‘and then they come in and use the restaurant’.
Strangeway is also no stranger to the art world, having studied at the Cortauld Institute and then worked as a photographer’s assistant before a series of jobs working alongside bartending legend Dick Bradsell on projects such as the launch of the epochal Atlantic Bar & Grill saw him catch the cocktail bug.
‘When I arrived in London at the beginning of the 90s, if you wanted a good drink you had to go to a five star hotel. Or you went out and got shit drinks in trendy places,’ explains Strangeway. ‘What Dick did was bring good, quality drinks into younger places like the Groucho, Fred’s and Zanzibar. He made drinking fun but also a quality experience. It changed how people drank. There’s a simplicity about what Dick does, too – he takes A and B and makes C out of it. And makes C good.’
‘We’re quite similar that way, quite simple,’ interjects Hix. ‘You will never see Nick behind the bar shaking a cocktail. Maybe filling a punch bowl, yes. He also likes to do a fair bit of stirring!’
And then there’s the bottling. Behind the bar there are more than a dozen Kilner jars bearing handwritten labels reading ‘Gin & Chervil’, ‘Gin & Pine’, ‘Quince Gin’ and even one jar with, alarmingly, several dead seahorses floating about in it. (I am assured the last, a gift from Vietnam, is just for show…) There’s homemade sherbet and jam, tinctures and syrups, and piles of seasonal fruit – at the time of writing, we’re in the two-week window for Seville oranges.
‘A lot of the drinks involve cooking, and our bartenders really like to work closely with the kitchen. You can come in during the day and you may find them with a little gas burner stove on the bar making things, because these drinks require a lot of prep. And they also have great chefs to bounce ideas off,’ says Strangeway, whose ingredients are as likely to come from his back garden as from Borough Market.
A chef who champions small producers is one thing,
but one who does so in drinks is a rather rarer breed
‘I knew with Mark I could go and see the fruit suppliers I wanted to go to and Mark wouldn’t blink at the cost because he only buys good quality products, and he buys seasonal products,’ says Strangeway. ‘The thing is, Mark’s business isn’t run by accountants, its run by a chef. And his business partner is the least businessy accountant I’ve ever met. It’s about quality first and foremost – and then obviously the numbers have to come in…’
Yes, I was wondering about those pesky numbers. Where do they come in, I wonder?
‘We’re both fairly lucky that we’ve got someone else who works with us,’ laughs Strangeway, catching Hix’s eye. ‘I don’t make commercial decisions – luckily I’ve got a business partner who does that!’
THE MONEY MEN
Strangeway’s more sensible half is Met Bar founder and ex-Stoli brand ambassador Cairbry Hill, with whom he has just launched bar consultancy Strangehill, which has so far consulted for Hix, a string of spirit brands, and a luxury hotel chain in the Far East. (‘Strangely, Cairbry’s always the one that has to go and do those meetings in the five star resorts…’ muses Strangeway.)
Hix, meanwhile, gives much of the credit to his longterm business partner Ratnesh Bagdai, who he has known ever since the pair opened J Sheekey for Caprice Holdings in 1998, when Bagdai was head of finance and Hix chef director.
Not long after Hix left Caprice Holdings in 2007, the duo opened the first of three Hix restaurants, two in London and one in Lyme Regis. This March heralds the arrival of their fourth – a Hix champagne and oyster bar in Selfridges in London. A potential site in New York is also on the radar, he suggests, possibly for another oyster and chop house.
But wherever the restaurant, and whatever it’s serving, a convivial atmosphere is a key part of the Hix house style, he says. ‘We have several people who come in every single day of the week, they almost use it like an office, which is nice to see,’ says Hix. ‘And it was Nick’s idea to do the punchbowls – there’s always a cold punch and a hot punch on offer so that you can give people something when they arrive.’
‘It’s like us whacking a bottle of rum or a bottle of tequila on the table like they do in Guyana or Mexico. Actually, maybe that’s something we should do…’ he ponders, turning to Strangeway, and the riffing starts once more.
‘I think a lot of restaurateurs don’t have any fun, even in their own restaurant,’ Hix adds, later. ‘The reason I went into this business originally is because it’s fun to be in. Now I’ve got a completely free rein I can do what I want: quirky things that I would never have done when I was working with Caprice. And I think customers like that. If they order the salmon they may see me coming in with a coolbag actually bringing in the salmon, which I’ve smoked in my own back garden.’
‘It’s like Mark’s front room,’ laughs Strangeway, sparking up another fag and twiddling his beard. ‘He drinks a hell of a lot in his own bar – more often than anyone else! He’s probably our best customer!’
|PICK ‘N’ MIX FROM NICK ‘N’ HIX|
MH: ‘I’m from Dorset. When I first came to London I didn’t really eat out that much. I’ve got a very small CV. Working with Chris Corbin and Jeremy King (The Wolseley, Le Caprice, The Ivy) was probably the best thing that happened. They’re fantastic restaurateurs.’
NS: ‘Since I worked at Che I like working with restaurants as well. Working with John Davy at Che taught me almost as much as working with Dick Bradsell. Before that I was an arrogant little bartender who was a bit too cocky behind the bar – thinking I was the bee’s knees – and with him I learned how slick it is in a restaurant and how difficult it is.’
MH: ‘I do a bit of gardening – I try and grow things you can’t buy in the supermarket, like this thing called silver sorrel, which I got from a garden
centre. A couple of times a week I harvest it and bring it into the restaurant and put it on the menu – it’s really nice to be able to do that. I’ve also got an old 70s speedboat down in Dorset, and I like to do a bit of fishing.’
NS: ‘The industry has changed immensely. There are bartenders who are 10 times more knowledgeable than I’ve ever been, because they can go on the internet and read blogs and get so much information from them. I think that’s another element that’s kept me engaged.’
NS: ‘When I worked as a photographer’s assistant I had bleached blond hair and silver trousers. I also once dyed my beard purple for a Hawksmoor photoshoot for Time Out.’
MH: ‘My smoker is Canadian – it’s very simple
actually. It’s just like a domestic fridge. You don’t get any smoke coming out at all; it all stays in the cabinet. With salmon it’s all about the cure. I ended up using molasses sugar, which also gives it a nice bit of colour. I smoked cherries for Manhattans too.’
NS: ‘In the winter I have a tendency to go feral. I’ll not cut my hair and I won’t shave, if possible. And I did that one year and my girlfriend said, “Oh for fuck’s sake…” But she said, “You can save a little bit,” so I did and it’s been growing faster than Demerara Bank ever since.’
THE PERFECT NIGHT OUT
MH: ‘You can’t pre-organise it.’
NS: ‘And you never know where you’ll end up. It just falls into a good time…’