Mark Hix's involvement in Pharmacy 2, a restaurant opened last month by British artist Damien Hirst, is all down to a chance encounter in Mayfair.
The London restaurateur and former Ivy chef tells me this over wine and snacks in the restaurant, which operates from Hirst's Newport Street Gallery. We're eating kale with toasted prawn shells and salty cuttlefish croquettes with watercress mayonnaise. Also crunchy crackling—hard to manage when trying to talk about culinary-artistic crossovers.
"Hirst doesn't get out so much anymore, he doesn't drink," Hix says of the artist once banned from the Groucho Club for rowdy behaviour. "He's still very busy doing things, but he's far more reserved. I hadn't seen him for months. It was chance that I bumped into him. We got talking about Pharmacy 2. Everything was set up in terms of the venue—he just needed a chef. It's a really fun project, so I said yes."
Hix's decision to back a medicinal-themed restaurant run by an artist most famous for encrusting skulls with diamonds may seem hasty, but he and Hirst are longtime friends. A huge formaldehyde-frozen cow made by Hirst stands in the centre of the chef's Tramshed restaurant.
In a press statement on the restaurant's opening, Hirst explained: "I've always loved Mark as a chef and his approach to food, so it's great we're working together on this."
It's not the artist's first foray into the restaurant world, either. In 1998, to much Cool Britannia-fueled hype, Hirst opened the original Pharmacy. With its pill bottles, aspirin-shaped bar stools, and ironic egg-and-soldiers dishes, it was an art exhibition first and a restaurant second.
Of course in the 90s, you could get away with that stuff. Tony Blair was cool, indie band rivalries made national news, and Hirst was still riding the wave of being the best known Young British Artist. This was a time when Alexander McQueen was considered a bit "out there" for putting on a show in Shoreditch—an area that today teems with brioche bun pop-ups and cold brew coffee shops. Kate Moss, David Bowie, and Madonna were all on the guest list.
But the hype surrounding Pharmacy soon evaporated. It closed in 2003, partly due to disagreements between Hirst and his PR team but also because, as former financial backer Matthew Freud said, "it became a very, very shit restaurant."
At today's Pharmacy 2, the pills are still there—as are the walls lined with medicine bottles and a huge stained glass window designed to look like magnified human DNA.
"The pill cabinets and so on are the same, but there are Damien's butterflies this time, and new things," says Hix. "He's far more prepared this time."
He may be right. For one thing, Pharmacy 2 is in Vauxhall, South London, rather than clinging onto dated Richard Curtis vibes and using the former's Notting Hill residence. Five minutes' walk from the Houses of Parliament and in a gallery that exhibits Tracey Emin and Banksy alongside Hirst, this should attract a more touristy clientele.
The biggest difference with Pharmacy's second incarnation, however is the food. Kevin Gratton, chef director for Hix's restaurant empire has assisted with the menu, which promises "quality food made from fresh ingredients." It's a far cry from the "Voltarol Retarding Agent" cocktails and carpaccio of seabass with "Nobu dressing" on offer at the original restaurant.
"I'm not being hugely experimental here," says Hix. "We're just sourcing the best ingredients and letting them work. I just want to do things that I know Damien likes, and I know the customers enjoy. We've got a few spicy things on the menu, a dish from Lebanon, some Moroccan influences. There's inspiration from all over—it's just good food I think. A mix. But we do change it up regularly."
Hix is also keen to keep the menu entirely separate from the restaurant's pharmaceutical aesthetic.
"It'd be stupid to do that, too much of a fad in itself," he says. "People would tear into it if I started trying to make food as much of an 'art piece.'"
Not that the chef isn't prepared for the haters. A few days before we meet, a particularly disparaging Daily Beast article emerges online.
"Of course, it's love or hate," Hix says of the article. "If you don't like Hirst's art, it's not the place to come. But other critics liked it."
Pharmacy 2 seems to be offering Hix's trademark seasonally orientated British cuisine—with a side of medicinal decor. The artist, who declined MUNCHIES' request for comment, has had little involvement with the food.
"I haven't seen him much at all," says Hix. "I've just got on with it—come in and designed a menu. Damien's let me get on with it, which is good. There's no influence from him in the cooking."
Just as I wonder whether anyone can actually stomach eating a sirloin steak while sitting next to a giant DNA strand, a man on the table next to us orders one. The woman with him has smoked salmon and a side bowl of mash. Hix contains a laugh. Maybe the restaurant has a curious effect on people's minds?
"I think it's just an intriguing place," Hix says. "What Damien's done is create something new and exciting. Obviously he did this before but this time, it's a smaller space—a little more refined. I think there's greater longevity and it's more sustainable as a restaurant."
At its heart, though Pharmacy 2 is a novelty restaurant—food can't help but come second to the shock value of eating next to shelves of brightly coloured pills. But in a restaurant-saturated city like London, are there any eateries that don't operate with at least a sort-of gimmick up their sleeve? A guest chef, a funny way of describing avocado on toast, a menu that only includes cereal. At Tramshed, Hix tells me some that people walk in, take an Instagram snap of Hirst's cow, and leave without even pausing for a sandwich.
"I just think it's exciting," says Hix. "Above anything else, it's a fun place to eat. I love art and food, and I believe the two combine."
He leaves me to talk to his lawyer so I order the duck curry. The rice is fluffy, the pakoras crisp and delicate. For a moment, I completely forget that I'm sitting in a YBA-run "pharmacy," surrounded by pill bottles and medical signs.