Harden’s Insider: interview with Alex Hunter of The Sea The Sea

Eyebrows were raised and heads were scratched when Alex Hunter announced that his hit seafood ‘chef’s table’ restaurant, The Sea The Sea in London’s East End, was to close down at the end of March. The stylish 14-seater chef’s table – which Alex describes as “a Bond villain’s lair” – will then turn into a venue for chefs’ residencies, while the main focus of the business will pivot to supplying fish and seafood to other restaurants. 

Why would he want to shutter a venture that was in full stride – and that every avid diner had on their ‘must-visit’ list? Harden’s ventured out to the railway arch in Haggerston to find out.

It turns out that Scottish-born Alex – who had stints as a club promoter and private jet salesman before founding the Bonny Gull sustainable seafood shacks then The Sea The Sea – has “never really considered myself a traditional restaurateur – there are better operators even inside my own business”. 

The advent of the pandemic lockdown soon after he had launched The Sea The Sea as a fishmonger and restaurant off Sloane Square in Chelsea pushed this new business in the direction of retail, which proved a big success. That in turn deepened Alex’s interest in the direct sourcing of fish, and led him to take over the old fish market at Looe in Cornwall, whose closure had left the port’s dayboat fishermen having to pay to truck their catch to Brixham or Plymouth.

Instead, Alex bought their fish and began selling it directly to restaurants in and around London. This business, running between the two sites at Looe and Haggerston, has grown exponentially, and now supplies 150 restaurants – 80% of them in London, the rest on the route between Cornwall and the capital.

“We’ve outgrown the site here,” Alex says. “We reached the point where the restaurant and wholesale business were encroaching on each other, and they couldn’t both grow.”

And if one part of the business had to give way, it was clear to Alex it would be the restaurant – even if the announcement came as a surprise and a disappointment to the fans of Portuguese chef Leandro Carreira’s creative and original cooking (Leo has yet to announce his next move). 

“The restaurant has never been better,” Alex says. “You can’t get a seat until it closes. It’s been an amazing journey, but we’re finishing on a high – I have had some less fortunate endings, and this is definitely a success story.

“But we’ve achieved what we could, and I was increasingly finding that I was enjoying other things more than being caught up in running another restaurant – things like wholesale, product development, national delivery.

“I’m passionate about the supply side of this business. I’ve become more and more obsessed with the whole infrastructure, the control of supplies, with full traceability and transparency. If you control the supply, an awful lot of doors are open to you. The more of the process you can control and keep out the middle parties, the more opportunity you have. This approach has made us unique – we have filled a void, because we do really understand the customer because we have been what they are.”

Alex’s commitment to providing fish in 24 hours from catch to kitchen – and his ability to prove it – allied to his brand’s well-known commitment to quality have, he said “really paid dividends: we’ve been well received by our peers in the restaurant world.”

“We never make promises” about what fish will be available in the next few days, he says, “because the sea is unpredictable”: instead, he is in constant communication with the fishermen and sends out an email to his customers at 8am telling them what is for sale that day.

Alex acknowledges that sustainability is a “big grey area” that everybody is happy to trumpet, whether or not they can back their claims. He points to the absurdity of having a ban on rod and line fishing of pollock, for instance, while “plenty of pollock is caught in bycatch in nets, and thrown back into the sea dead”. He also stresses that “in order to be sustainable, your business also has to be financially sustainable – but we do always try to source in the best possible way.”

One key to ensuring the sustainability of fragile fish stocks is to eat a greater variety of fish “so are not just hammering the familiar species,” he says, pointing out that he never had salmon on the menu at Bonnie Gull, and doesn’t sell it wholesale now “because other people do”.

“There’s a huge variety of more affordable fish, some of them less well-known. Megrim sole may be ugly, but it’s very difficult to tell from a lemon sole when cooked, and at a fraction of the price. Black bream is not quite as beautiful as gilt-head bream, but it’s lovely tasting.”

Another long-term ambition is to alter the statistic that 90% of fish and seafood from Scotland goes abroad. That would require changing the common British perception of fish as “extravagant” – something only eaten at premium prices in Mayfair (or as fish and chips).

As for the theatrical chef’s table at The Sea The Sea, Alex says “I still love the space and love having it”. He “open to conversations” with chefs or restaurant brands who are looking for a platform lasting from one to three months. “We’ll support them, but it’s very much their project” – and there are a number of options on pricing, revenue split or fees.

The main stipulation is that 80% of the savoury offering is fish or seafood sourced from The Sea The Sea – including from the increasingly well-known Himalayan pink salt dry-ageing room, on display through street-facing plate-glass windows. 

“But we’re not here to be difficult,” Alex adds. “It’s not a problem if they want to use a particular Iranian caviar that we don’t stock.”

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual at Chelsea The Sea The Sea fishmonger/restaurant – and, Alex adds, further restaurants could very possibly be on the cards. Watch this space.

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