Welcome to the first episode in our all-new podcast series, in which we’ll be chatting with some of the amazing creators and innovators that we’ve met – and continue to meet – on our journey. You can get straight into it by clicking the Mixcloud player below, or by scrolling down and reading the transcript. Enjoy!
Jon: Hi, and welcome to the first episode of the Real Podcast. My name is Jon Wilks and I’m from Real Kombucha, where we create the finest in non-alcoholic fermentation. We brew for open minds, and with that in mind, we thought we expand yours. We’re going to do that by chatting with some of the amazing innovators that we meet as our journey unfolds. We’re going to be doing that month by month, so keep tuning in [you can sign up to follow our podcast by clicking here].
As one of the only truly delicious alternatives to alcohol, we meet a lot of people who are looking for something a bit different – people who aren’t drinking for whatever reason, but also creators who work at the cutting edge of the food world. I’m talking about chefs; I’m talking about mixologists; I’m talking about restaurateurs who have an eye on what’s to come.
To kick things off, we headed down to The Tramshed in Shoreditch to chat with someone who has set the pace in the foodie world for sometime. I’m talking, of course, about Mark Hix – a chap who has been a great supporter of Real Kombucha almost since the word go. In his words, this is the only alternative to alcohol… and those are obviously words we like very much.
Most of our listeners are likely to know all about Mark Hix, but for those who don’t, we sat him down and took him right back to his very first day in the kitchen….
Mark Hix: When I was leaving school, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. It came to the crunch in the 5th year. I’d been working in the pub, helping out with starters and things – just to earn extra money, really. It was the first time that boys could do domestic science instead of metalwork, and so three of us decided to do domestic science because we hated doing metalwork and we thought we’d be in a classroom full of girls. It turned out that, actually, all the girls had decided to do metalwork, so there were three boys and the teacher.
So we just messed around really, and we didn’t take it seriously. Then it got to the end of the 5th year, when it was crunch time, and they said, “why don’t you go to catering college?” I didn’t have any other ambitions, so I did. I had a really good lecturer called Laurie Mills, and he always talked about London and food and cooking, and we used to go around to his flat every Thursday afternoon and party instead of doing this thing called electives. So, I thought he was a really quite inspiring person, which he was in the early part of my career.
Towards the end of the two years at catering college, I started writing off for jobs in London – there was nothing going on in Dorset – and the only job I could get was in the staff canteen at The Hilton. I went there for six months while my mates were all working up the road at The Dorchester and Grosvenor House. I then managed to get a job at Grosvenor House, which I did for two years, and then I got a job at The Dorchester working under Anton Mosimann. I did that for two years until one of the sous chefs who’d been at The Terrace, which was the fancy Michelin-starred restaurant, left and went to a job in the City. He asked if I wanted to be his number two.
I did that, and after about six months he decided to leave. I was only 22 years old, and I decided to apply for his job, which they gave me. It was basically a small restaurant and two wine bars. I used to look after that, and I did it for about four years. It was only Monday to Friday in the City, but I got a bit of a reputation for my cooking there. Then my fishmonger rang me and told me that a job at The Caprice was coming up. I didn’t known much about The Caprice – you couldn’t really Google in those days – but that was that, and I started there. At the same time The Ivy was opening, and the chef there didn’t quite work out so I ended up looking after The Caprice and The Ivy, and then consequently J. Sheekey, Scotts and Daphne’s.
So, your interest in food was purely…
Purely by default!
It hadn’t been something you were interested in before?
You speak to a lot of chefs and they talk about hanging off their mother’s apron…
Yeah, they always talk bullshit. My early food memories were my grandfather’s tomatoes in his greenhouse. Supper in the summer would quite often be a plate of tomatoes with Sarson’s vinegar and salt and some crusty bread. Or I’d go fishing for mackerel and my grandmother would just fry it up and then she’d souse the rest, which would be a snack or supper in the fridge. Those are my simple food memories, and I guess, today, my simple cooking stems back to one-ingredient dishes like that.
So, what was it that grabbed you and took you from metalwork to kitchen work? There must’ve been a transition where you realised, “Actually, I do love this.”
Yeah, that was catering college. My lecturer, Laurie Mills – he always talked about food and London, and where he’d worked in London. Quite like most things, it’s normally a person that gets you going.
And an ambition to get up to London from Dorset, I suppose?
Yeah, exactly, because Dorset… there was nothing going on down there.
If you were starting out now, what would be grabbing your attention?
Oh, it’s a completely different thing now, you know? All the good restaurants were in hotels in those days, 35 years ago or whenever it was. Now it’s gone to being standalone restaurants. Hotels… people who want to do restaurant food don’t really do the hotel thing very much. Not as much as then.
London, as you know, is quite saturated with restaurants. There are a lot of restaurants out there, so it gets tougher and tougher, and trading is becoming more and more difficult.
Is there anyone that’s really standing out for you at the moment – people that you’re spotting on the scene and thinking they’re going to last the distance.
Yeah, there are a lot of young chefs coming out of the woodwork… I can’t think of one off the top of my head!
You know, I just think London is such a great city. There’s so much choice.
I went to see a band a couple of years ago – an American band who hadn’t played in London in about 20 years. The first thing they said when they came onstage was, “Wow, you guys have suddenly learnt how to eat!” It really struck me.
Yeah, well I do a lot of talks in America and they ask a lot of questions about gastro pubs, and what’s the food like. A lot of people haven’t eaten here and they don’t really know.
Well, England has long had this hard-to-shake reputation of not being a very good food country…
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
But it’s shaking it.
You’ve got your eye on the scene a lot of the time, and at the moment there’s obviously this big movement towards drinking less – towards a more alcohol-free lifestyle. I read something the other day that said something like a quarter of Londoners between the age of 18 and 24 now claim to be teetotal.
Yeah, a lot of young people aren’t drinking and partying hard like we used to. When I first moved to London we’d be out partying all the time, in between shifts – between the late shift and the early shift! I’ve got twin daughters who are 23, and they don’t go out and party hard. They sort of did when they were younger. There are a lot more people who aren’t partying hard – but again, I don’t know if a lot of those guys and girls are very career-motivated as well. I don’t know.
How does it affect you as a restaurateur – somebody who has a business to run and is looking forward? Those 18 to 24 year olds, and your daughters for example, are going to be regular customers at a later date, so presumably you have to be thinking more about that non-alcoholic movement.
Yeah, I think in restaurants you just need clever options… like kombucha and other non-alcoholic drinks. In the restaurant itself, our soft drink sales aren’t massive compared to wine sales, I suppose, but I think more and more people are giving up drinking for various reasons. You need to have good alternatives that aren’t sweet and bottled. For me, a couple of days a week I don’t drink, and something like kombucha is probably the nearest taste to alcohol without having a drink.
I’ve started making my own. I’ve got two big Kilner jars at home, just for my consumption, and I give it away to mates and stuff.
Had you come across it before?
I’d heard about it, but it wasn’t really on my radar until I met Adrian [co-founder of Real Kombucha]. I think it’s a good thing, and I introduce a lot of people to it who hadn’t heard of it. It’s a good thing, and as I said, I think those people who have given up or aren’t drinking as heavily as they were before are happy when they taste the kombucha.
Yes, well, without naming names, you’ve certainly introduced us to some quite well-known people who I’ve since been fielding sales emails from! People want direct deliveries!
Yeah, well those people weren’t necessarily non-drinkers, but it’s quite nice in your wine cellar at home to have kombucha, because there’s always someone at a dinner party who’s driving or not drinking.
Absolutely. That’s the case. I haven’t drunk alcohol for 10 years, and the biggest problem that you have when you choose not to drink is choice. I don’t know if you agree, but up until now the choices for the non-drinker have been quite limited. As a food pairing, what would you have given to someone who was choosing not to drink?
Either our barman makes non-alcoholic cocktails out of fresh juices and things, or we have ginger beer and that kind of stuff, but that’s about it really.
So, what is it particularly appeals to you about kombucha? You’re sitting drinking a Real Kombucha Smoke House now…
I just think it’s the closest thing to alcohol. Everyone likes – and some get addicted to – the flavour of alcohol. I think kombucha is the nearest thing because it’s still in that fermentation process, so you can liken it to cider that doesn’t have any alcohol in it, or something like that. Someone said to me the other day that recovering alcoholics often drink kombucha. I think that’s the main thing: if you like the flavour of alcohol, this is the nearest thing. I think the first couple of mouthfuls of it, people think, “Hmmm, not sure about that”, but as soon as you get the taste for it… it’s a bit like drinking a glass of beer for the first time.
So, you’re drinking a few a day at the moment and then going home and brewing your own?
I do! I have a glass in the morning of my homebrew, which always tastes different – it’s got different levels of fizz to it, and different levels of vinegarness, so occasionally I’ll add a bit more sugar to it.
Are you flavouring it?
What I tend to use is good quality white tea, and I infuse it a few times. And I experimented, actually, with green tea and ginger, which comes out really nice. My six-year-old daughter drinks it. She goes into my wine cellar and syphons off glass after glass of kombucha. She loves it! I give her a bottle and she takes it to school sometimes.
Nice! My daughter as well – nine years old – drinks the Dry Dragon kombucha that we make.
Yeah! She makes it with me, you know? We make the infusion – we put freshly sliced ginger, strain it off, put it in the kombucha jar with the mother from the previous one. She loves it. And next time she comes to stay she goes to test it to see if it’s ready.
So it’s a good family occupation, then.
Yeah – I’ve not gone into any crazy flavours. I’ve literally just done the white tea and the green tea and ginger. It is a thing that people can do at home… well, some people can’t be bothered to make it, you know. It’s not even a difficult thing to make.
It’s not really, although we spent a lot of time testing it out. In the brewery, David – the founder of Real Kombucha – tried out 150 different teas to try and get the three right ones. We tried flavouring in the early days, but I think if you’re looking for something that really gets that alcohol flavour – that alternative to wine – then it’s a bit like brewing wine. If you’ve got it right, you wouldn’t flavour wine.
Have you tried cooking with it yet?
Not really. Well, yes – I’m lying! What we have been doing is kombucha flatbreads.
So we mix it with flour, and it’s almost like a yeast in itself, and we use it for flatbreads.
Here in the Tramshed?
Not just in the Tramshed, but the other restaurants, too. And we’ve done things like wild garlic and kombucha flatbreads.
Amazing! How would you do that?
Instead of using water, you just use that! It naturally ferments the bread.
That’s the first thing I’m doing when I get home!
Jon [outro] And you know what? That’s exactly what I did, and it tasted amazing, too.
That’s all for this month, so catch up with us next month when we’ll be interviewing another of the movers and shakers from the food and drinks world. In the meantime, you can catch up with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – all the usual places. Come over to our website and see the blogging that we’re doing all about the finest in non-alcoholic fermentation. See you next month.
Big thanks to Mark Hix. Check out HIX Restaurants for more info on his growing empire.