Mark Hix’s Tramshed is the closest a London restaurant has got to merging dining with contemporary art since Damien Hirst opened Pharmacy in Notting Hill. It’s no surprise that Hirst collaborated with Hix on the installation (that takes centre stage in the dining hall), as he, like many of the YBA’s, has a genuine affection for this down-to-earth chef. Here, Gemma de Cruz talks to Mark Hix about his new book and exhibition The Collection, and how it feels to hold such a unique place in the British art legacy.
GdC — This is your 11th recipe book; how is The Collection different to the others?
MH — This is a new idea, to – in a lighthearted way – bring together some of the artwork we have in the restaurants. The Craig Martin, for example, that’s on the cover is in my Selfridges restaurant on the pillar. Likewise Tracey Emin’s HIX neon was originally made for Frieze, then I got her to make another one for Selfridges.
Tracey’s Chicken Soup drawing fits perfectly with Tramshed, even though it wasn’t originally made with that in mind. It kind of reflects the way the chickens here are brought out on the plates.
It was made for a piece I did for the Independent in 2008 where I had to ask my friends who were artists to draw their favourite meal or what they ate when they were relaxing and Tracey chose Chicken Soup. It’s in the book but wasn’t an existing work [from the restaurants] as such.
Each artwork is a chapter opener – starters, meat, drinks, etc. What do you think it adds having these artworks interspersed throughout?
It represents the restaurants a bit more and the relationship with food and art. A lot of people, when they open a restaurant, just go out and buy things to stick on the wall, whereas all the art I have is bespoke.
Is that important to you?
It kind of just happened – it wasn’t an intentional thing. I don’t open a restaurant and say “I must get this, this and this…”
You’ve talked before about the relationship the Poilâne bakery in Paris had with artists – that the owner accepted paintings as payment for his bread, and how you’ve adapted that idea – as a result the art in your restaurants is very personal.
Exactly. Pierre Poilâne had a relationship with artists where if they couldn’t afford to pay the bills they used to give him a piece of work. For me there’s a trading element where artists get a tab – some of them use it some of them don’t.
Do you feel that these artists have more of an affection for you than they do for other ‘collectors’?
Yeah, it’s more about the personal relationship with me than the relationship with the ‘restaurant’. For example when I left Scott’s all the artists asked whether I wanted them to take their work out? But I said no: keep the relationship [with the restaurant] – whether you use the place or not is up to you.
Why do you think they asked you that?
Because the deal was much more with myself than the restaurant as such.
There’s clearly a lot of mutual respect from this group of artists.
Definitely. If they say to me “Can you do me a dinner for 100 people?” Yes of course I will. So when I ask them if the could do me a drawing or a sculpture – they say yes. It’s the same sort of thing – it’s nothing to do with value or ownership.
You’ve got six restaurants but the Tramshed is the first example where an artwork has been involved in forming the architecture of the space.
The reason that happened at Tramshed was because I walked into a site meeting one day with Andrew Waugh, the architect, and he was suggesting moving the mezzanine to the middle of the restaurant. I thought that would look a bit odd, so during the meeting I texted Damien and said I needed something.
It’s such an architectural feature; somehow it’s beyond installation, as it seems so integral to the space. Do you feel that when people come here, they’re coming partly for that?
Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I put that glass plate in the front – you get lots of people taking photographs through the window without coming into the restaurant.
Would you ever ask an artist to design an entire restaurant?
I don’t know – it depends on the building itself. What you don’t want to do is ‘over’ decorate it. I think that’s the key – to keep the building as intact as possible, especially if it’s an historic, listed building.
Where do the recipes in The Collection come from?
This is a ‘best of all the other books – a greatest hits. It’s quite nice for readers to have one book of ‘the best’ on their shelves.
Who is it aimed at?
Customers I think would like this book, because of the art. But it’s a book that anyone could use.
Are there any recipes in here that are new?
The only things that are new are a couple of the cocktails at the back. I’ve never done a drinks section, so that’s all brand new. I’ve even created a drink to celebrate Maggie Thatcher’s life.
Is there any collaboration you’ve done where an artist has asked you to come up with a dinner that fits their work or personality?
I’ve done dinners for all of them at different times. Out of all of them I’ve cooked more for Tracey, different things, for example, recently I took a kilo of caviar out to France for her 50th birthday. I made little baked potatoes with Caviar.
There was definitely a time when the Rivington felt like the art world canteen.
The funny thing is when I opened the Rivington there was hardly anywhere else around here where you could go and eat. Part of the reason for opening the Rivington was to feed the artists. I’d randomly do after-parties for small galleries and, when White Cube opened on Hoxton Square I did their opening dinner for the first show [Out There, April 2000]. It was a bit like a little village here, you’d go to parties and bump into everyone so you naturally got to know people.
Tim and Sue used to live just down from here [on Rivington Street].
That’s right, they used to graffiti my car. They used to sneak down there and stick stuff all over my wing mirrors.
What was the idea behind having a gallery downstairs?
It’s interesting the way it’s worked really, it was just an off the top of my head idea, I never wanted to be involved in the artworld as in buying or selling and dealing. I needed to use the downstairs space so I thought maybe we could try and show artists who don’t get shown in mainstream galleries. We give artists the opportunity to show to the public. The important thing is I don’t feel like I’m treading on other galleries’ toes.
The Collection is essentially an art book and cookbook combined.
It’s nice to integrate the experience of seeing the work with something people can take away and have on their bookshelves. I remember years ago doing a recipe for Bridget Riley who was doing a page or two pages in a cook book… but there’s no cook books as such where there’s art work like this.
How do you feel about the fact that you have such an enviable collection?
The way I’ve done it over the years has been through collaborations and exchanges it’s a nice way to do it. I’ve not had to work too hard on it: it fits in with the day-to-day stuff, and it makes the whole thing a bit more interesting. Even something as simple as like the FishDog – I asked Tim Noble to make me a sign for the FishDog van that we take to markets and now that’s our FishDog logo.
What do you think it is about your restaurants that make them so popular?
Fun. I think that’s really important.
Is that a reflection of your personality?
Yeah, I think so. If you go out to eat, you don’t want to go out and look at each other over the table, or if there’s more of you talk about boring business, you want to go out and have a bit of fun and be somewhere that the staff are having fun. You [the restaurant] still have to produce the goods but at the same time create a happy environment.
Your trademark with all your restaurants is to use the best quality ingredients even if it’s a very simple dish.
Yeah, there might be two ingredients, but i like to think they are the best things available at the time. If you turn to a random page in the book – game salad with blaeberries – they’re the key things in that dish, and a few interesting salad leaves. Apart from that you wouldn’t want an awful lot more. There are lots of dishes on our menu that are just one item. We have a hard and fast rule that there are no more than three ingredients on the plate.
So, minimal ingredients, good quality and fun, is that your recipe to restaurant success?
Yeah, that’s the recipe!
With six restaurants, how do you keep them all following that philosophy?
On Tuesday mornings we have a meeting with all my head chefs and we’ve turned it into a ‘Challenge Hix’. Each of my head chefs cooks against me for 20 minutes and I stay on and the next one steps up – they all have to be dishes that are relevant to the restaurants. We put all the dishes over there [points to the coffee table] then the best ones move up to the bar billiards table. It’s interesting because when you don’t know what ingredients are going to be in front of you it’s quite nice to invent things. It’s great.
Why do you do that?
It adds a bit of fun; I don’t work in the kitchen on a day-to-day basis so they get to cook with me. It forces them to come up with something.
Your kitchen/library/office looks like a TV studio. Considering your media friendly personality, has TV ever appealed to you?
Firstly, I haven’t got time to do it. Secondly I think it can easily destroy restaurants because you end up spending an awful lot of time away. There’s only a few people who’ve balanced TV and restaurants, for example, Rick Stein – but it’s difficult running restaurants from a TV studio. I’d much rather be hanging around in the restaurant or hanging out with my staff in meetings than being in a studio. I wouldn’t want my staff to say we never see him because he’s always on TV. I probably would enjoy it but do you want to enjoy TV or enjoy building up restaurants?
Mark Hix is an award-winning chef, restauranter and food writer. The Collection, signed by Mark is available from all HIX restaurants.
Cock ‘n’ Bull
The waiter at Tramshed is looking at me as if he’s trying to place where he remembers me from. “Yes, sorry, it’s me, the vegetarian”, I say before he’s even put down the water jug. “No need to apologise,” he says, “no need at all.” But I do feel the need to apologise (despite the waiter’s professionalism) as Tramshed is best known (and loved) for its chicken and steak, not its (vegetarian) spelt cake.
The waiter turns to Rebecca Lidert, who is sitting beside me, and greets her by saying, “Hello Princess Lovage”. “Hello Lovage” she replies. They both set about laughing, and Rebecca explains this is her nickname, as well as a Hix ingredient. Rebecca is the gallery manager of Cock ‘n’ Bull, the gallery located beneath this vast, gleaming restaurant and is as happy hosting dinners for the art world elite as she is curating exhibitions. While the Tramshed is permanent home to sculpture by Damien Hirst and Gary Webb, the gallery runs a swiftly rotating programme of group exhibitions and solo shows by unrepresented artists. There is something about Rebecca that you don’t find very often in gallerists: she’s absolutely non-hierarchical — at the private view, you’re as likely to find her schmoozing with the Shoreditch art crowd as pitching in behind the bar. She puts this egalitarian, friendly attitude down to her background, working with restaurants and members’ clubs. An attitude that she carries through to the gallery ethos.
As a space, the closest parallel with Cock ‘n’ Bull gallery is the art programme that Habitat used to run throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, commissioning both new and established artists to make work for their stores, gaining a reputation for what they showed rather than where they showed it. There’s a similar identity brewing around Cock ‘n’ Bull, it has all the benefits of the association with the HIX brand but functions as an independent space.
When Tramshed first opened in May 2012 (just as White Cube closed the doors on its Hoxton branch), the gallery was directed by art historian and curator Niru Ratnam. Rebecca stepped in later that year and continued to run the programme while introducing HIX LIX art dinners (whereby artists showing in the gallery would work with Mark Hix to devise a menu that cross-referenced their work with his recipes), pop-up shows, auctions, The HIX Award and charity events. When I ask her what the past year has been like she lets out a defiant sigh, explaining that the first few months were spent fighting to establish the space as a gallery in its own right. Her pet annoyance is being mistaken for the (Cock’n’Bull) sandwich that’s served in the restaurant.
“What’s interesting about reviewing the programme after a year, is that I can see there needs to be a balance — between the charity show, the group show, the mid-career show… There are works that are intellectual, some that are interactive and some that are just a bit of fun. Ultimately, each one feeds the other; for example, because Breed (24 September — 9 October) was a very commercial show it brought in collectors and a more design-based audience. Every show I have will attract a totally new crowd, but part of that always includes a rollover from a previous show, so you end up with a good mix. Eventually, the gallery will have its own defined crowd, but at the moment I’m making crossovers.”
Rebecca explains that because she doesn’t have the same financial pressures as most commercial galleries she has the freedom to switch between shows that are openly commercial, to working with new artists who have never shown before, giving them the opportunity to do whatever they like in the space from large scale installations to fashion shows to live performances.
“The next show I have after The Collection is Hurls Chamber by John Finbar and Jack Stanton, they’re putting together an installation / performance that will run at scheduled times throughout the day.” When I later ask Jack Stanton (who recently won the Saatchi Gallery New Sensations Prize) what they have planned, he tells me that he and Finbar will be collaborating on a “new, frisbee-sport project… a fast-paced, combative game dictated by a metronome and played in a specially designed chamber.” The idea of Sunday lunchers popping downstairs to watch and participate in a game of ‘art’ frisbee taking place beneath the ever-so chic and formal decor upstairs literally puts a new spin on the idea of ‘underground space’.
The current show at Cock ‘n’ Bull is The Collection, which is a round-up of work that was made for various HIX restaurants, from drawings by Michael Landy to wall painting by Michael Craig-Martin and photography by Mat Collishaw. This is perhaps the show that is most closely represents Hix’s relationship with British artists. Rebecca tells me “this is the first time I’ve put together something so big, in terms of names. It’s brilliant, the work is interesting because of Mark; it’s all about him. I love that it’s work that’s either typical of the artists or about their relationship with Mark. For example Tim [Noble] and Sue [Webster] made a specific work for him, the Mark’s Bar neon.”
I ask Rebecca what kind of visitors the gallery attracts, and how it splits between those on the east end gallery trail who go specifically to see the work, and the unsuspecting diners who are out for lunch unaware that a gallery even exists downstairs. Rebecca confirms that there is certainly a division, then elaborates; “Weekend crews seem different again — they’re ready to be curious, to see what they’ve missed during the week, they’ve switched their work phones off and they’re on their own time and excited because they’ve found something that’s a little secret.”
Veteran gallery goers are used to searching out these kind of hidden venues, it isn’t uncommon to find exhibitions above pubs, the back room of a hairdressers, even somebody’s flat. What’s most unusual about Cock ‘n’ Bull, however, is that it has the feel of a rough and ready space, but in a high class establishment. It’s perhaps this dichotomy that makes it work.
While it’s positioned in the trendier part of town, Tramshed serves the same HIX quality food you’d find in Soho or Mayfair and therefore attracts a very balanced clientele. During the week there’s a glut of media types who work in the area, out for a business lunch, and at the weekend an influx of families. What’s interesting is that this provides a ready-made audience for the gallery (often, while waiting for a table, diners are directed downstairs to see the show). The weekend Sunday paper-reading culture crowd are more likely to go to Tramshed for the food than for the art, so for them the gallery is a bonus. This kind of shoo-in is something most east end gallery start-ups only dream of. It’s a bit like going to Tate Modern and having a coffee in the cafe afterwards, except the other way round — with better coffee.
So, with the gallery gaining momentum with every show, I ask Rebecca about her plans for its future. “It would be my dream to be able to do exhibitions that are all-encompassing sensory experiences,” says Rebecca. “The space lends itself to it. I’d love to see a kind of [Yayoi] Kusama installation, I want to encourage artists not to just hang the art on the wall but push them to become completely involved and make the most of having complete creative freedom. It’s about indulging, not just about looking but having the other senses stimulated too.”
Gemma De Cruz