A tale of fish

A tale of fish

For restaurateur Tony Allan, the owner of the much praised Fish Kitchen and Jarvis Fishmongers in Kingston’s Coombe Road, the last 20 years have been something of a whirlwind

Following the fantastic success of his restaurants, such as Bank in Aldwych, and his fishmonger business supplying top West End restaurants, he was named the Stock Exchange Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998 and went on to open the celebrated Fish in London’s Borough Market in 1999 and Fish Kitchen in Kingston. With the world at his feet, the Allan empire grew and at its height there were 30 or so restaurants in the group.

It all started for Tony at Claridge’s where he trained as a commis chef before moving on to become head chef at a fish restaurant in the City. Following arguments with the executive chef about the quality of the fish, Tony left to set up his own business supplying top-quality fish.

‘Me and a mate of mine used to go to Hastings market to buy fish,’ says Tony. ‘And I built up a lot of contacts with head chefs and started supplying them. I then moved the business into London and from 1986 to 1996 we built up one of the biggest and finest fishmongers in London. We were supplying everybody and we had a fantastic business. The big difference with us was that we portioned fish fresh. We built a reputation for taking the labour out of the kitchen for them.’

The next step was to open his own restaurant, and in 1996 the chance to open Bank in Aldwych was too good to miss. ‘Within six weeks of opening we’d won Restaurant of the Year, and then we floated in 1998 with a view to opening a chain of fish restaurants. A friend of mine told me about an old pea shelling warehouse that had become available in Borough Market, and that became the site for Fish. It opened in February 1999 and at the time I was lucky enough to do a documentary for the BBC’s Inside Story called Fish Tales about people from London markets. Three days before we opened they showed it on the BBC and we never looked back.’

Unfortunately a combination of circumstances, including the fact that seven restaurants were opened within six weeks of 9/11, meant that huge pressure was placed on the cash flow of the company and it went into administration. By then Tony had stepped back from the business to focus on a TV series he was making with Giorgio Locatelli. A highly publicised court case in which Tony was sued by celebrity chef Marco Pierre White following some ill-advised comments in the Daily Mirror didn’t help. Luckily, Tony was able to buy back several of the restaurants and Jarvis Fishmongers, and the company was reborn. Having sold some of the restaurants, Tony was free to concentrate on Kingston and Borough Market and in the intervening years the company has thrived, as has Tony’s passion for fish, with Fish Kitchen in Kingston offering top-quality fish and chips along with a table service for people who want to dine in.

‘Fish was always the thing I wanted to cook. I always had a passion for cooking it and I prided myself that we would properly bone it. When we opened Fish we wanted to encourage kids to eat it and one of the biggest problems is bones – kids don’t like them. So we bone everything, and as well as fish and chips we offer tuna burgers and a fish club sandwich.

“Seasons have changed but in October you’re going to be looking at sea bass, turbot, scallops on the shellfish side, and even English lobsters are still available.”

‘At Jarvis we smoke our own salmon and haddock – it’s very traditional with great skill levels. I’m very passionate about skill levels, I’ve got a guy working in Jarvis who’s been there 30-35 years who smokes all the salmon and sooner or later he’s going to retire and I don’t want to lose those traditional skills. Two of my guys are absolute craftsmen but people don’t realise that. I buy the most amazing fish, I buy it with my eyes, I’m up 2.30am every morning four or five days a weeks. I don’t just ring up and trust a bloke at Billingsgate, I check and open everything.’

And what would he recommend people try at this time of year? ‘Seasons have changed but in October you’re going to be looking at sea bass, turbot, scallops on the shellfish side, and even English lobsters are still available.’

And his favourite fish dish? ‘My all-time favourite fish dish – it’s got to be fish and chips.’