Eat Out With...Nathan Outlaw

04/05/2017 - 11:32
With two Michelin stars and a number of restaurants from Cornwall to Dubai, Nathan Outlaw is making waves in the culinary sector as one of the most talented seafood chefs around. Here he talks to Eat Out about what inspires him, the challenges he’s overcome and the secrets of his signature sauce...

How did your restaurant chain evolve into what it is today?

Lots of hard work, keeping things simple rather than overcomplicating and building a strong team. Without those things, I wouldn’t be where I am now. People have a romantic idea of what it’s like to run a restaurant, probably because of all the TV programmes about cooking there are now, but in reality it’s very hard work and long, unsociable hours. I think you have to be a certain type of person to do it.

From a menu point of view, I’ve always chosen to keep things simple. Of course, having the best seafood in the country helps me to do that and I want customers to taste the flavours of the fish - after all, it’s the main ingredient on the plate. I don’t use heavy, creamy sauces; they tend to mask the flavour so I’m always a bit suspicious if I see one on a dish that the main ingredient is not at its best! Mind you, the problem with simplicity on the plate is that it has to be perfect every time; there’s nowhere to hide.

Finally, I’ve invested time into my teams. If your team is behind you it’s much more likely that you’ll have a successful restaurant. Many of my people have been with me long-term and that’s quite unusual in the hospitality industry. Every person on my staff is important from the Head Chef to the kitchen porter. They all have a job to do and they need to work together and feel valued in order to make things run smoothly. Also, I only have happy people on staff!

What’s next for your business?

As far as I know, consolidating what we have at present… but who knows? I never plan too far ahead. Things just tend to come along and if it feels right, I go with it.

How do you ensure your concept stays on trend?

I wouldn’t say we are ‘on trend’ and we have no intention of trying to be! ‘On trend ‘ is only about for a short while and tends to change quite quickly. I don’t want that. I want something that continues for as long as I want it to. We’re confident in what we do and we make sure that we strive to do it well. Great ingredients, great cooking and great hospitality; those elements will ensure we’re always timelessly ‘on trend’!

Has location played a significant part in your success?

Very definitely. We have what I think is the best produce in the country and have made positive relationships with local growers, producers and fishermen so that we have access to the very best quality ingredients available. We have been amazed by the encouragement and support given to us by local people. It really makes all the difference and we feel that we have been accepted as part of the local community. Also, my restaurants in Cornwall all have fantastic views, which complete the whole experience for customers. Where better to eat the best seafood than overlooking the sea? Who could ask for more?

My restaurant in London is tucked away, just two minutes from Harrods so that is a very advantageous location and out in Dubai, again, we’re surrounded by ocean.

What is it that drives you still?

Enjoyment of working with people on all levels. It is part of the reason I like getting out to do demos at festivals whenever I can! I am a ‘people person’, and have learnt so much through chatting to those in various walks of life. It gets me into trouble when I’m supposed to be keeping to a time schedule and I carry on chatting!

The challenge of working in seafood cookery. People don’t realise that seafood is seasonal. It’s also wild and that means there’s no way of determining what condition it’s in until you begin to prepare it. Much like humans, some fish are fitter than others and some will have eaten better than others. Add to that the way it’s been treated since being caught and stored and you have lots of variables which have to be assessed and allowed for when you’re cooking.

On top of that, if the weather is bad, the fishermen may not be able to get out for several days. That in turn means that there are times when supplies a very scarce but you still have to get a menu together. I certainly have to be quite ‘creative’ at times!

What are the milestones that have defined you over the years or you have learned the most from?

I realised I wanted to have a career as a chef when I was ten years old and from then I’ve never wanted to do anything else. Of course one of the biggest milestones was opening my first restaurant, and then earning a Michelin star. It was a huge learning curve of course, and a big challenger because I was the only one who was held responsible for the first time, but then once I had done it I was able to reap the rewards myself too.

Another one was writing my first book. I had to think about how I did things so that I could explain to the people reading the book, until then I’d just done it! Opening in London and Dubai – both very different places from Cornwall and equally challenging. Finally, getting a 10/10 for cooking from the Good Food Guide this year. That was mega!

What was the biggest challenges you have ever faced in his career, and how did you overcome them?

When I started my first restaurant, The Black Pig, there was no money, I couldn’t even afford to buy containers to keep food in so I had to cut used milk cartons in half and use them. It was also where I first served my lobster risotto because I couldn’t afford to buy in whole lobsters unless I knew they would be sold. Making risotto meant I could still have lobster on the menu but I didn’t have to buy lots of it!
If you had to give one bit of advice to someone looking to become a chef, what would that be?

Watch, listen and ask questions. There’s no other way of learning and you’re never going to start at the top! Experience isn’t as important as passion for cooking and a desire to learn

How do you spot a great opportunity to start a restaurant, and how do you keep things driving forward in the first few months after opening?

Pure gut feeling. I’ve never thought to myself I’d like to open in such and such a place. I’ve had opportunities flagged up to me from various sources and if they felt right, I’ve followed them up. Some have fallen by the wayside before they’ve come to fruition but I’m very happy with where I’m at now.

On the run-up to opening it’s sheer madness, and in the first three months it’s a case of ‘all hands on deck’. When we opened Restaurant Nathan Outlaw the electricians were still sorting out the lighting two hours before opening and my mum was scrubbing the toilet floors! Eventually, it all falls into place. After that it’s a matter of keeping your head down and tweaking until you get it right. For instance, in London we made several changes to the menu to suit the different clientele. No doubt we’ll do the same in Dubai. Once everything settles though, it’s about maintaining consistency – and that’s the tricky bit. It’s what makes the difference between a good restaurant and an excellent one.

In your own words, what has been the secret to your success?

A desire to do well, sheer hard work and continuing to enjoy what I’m doing. Despite what people think, I still work in the kitchen and I work the same hours as the rest of the team. If there ever came a time when I didn’t enjoy it, I’d do something else. To be honest, though, I’m not sure what!

What are the top sellers on the menu and why do you think that is?

Anything we serve with our signature Porthilly Sauce, which is made from local crabs. It takes two days to make from scratch; it’s the only way to get the intense flavour. I’m not going to say any more than that or it won’t be my signature dish anymore! Any scallop or turbot dishes go down well. People love both. I think it’s because they don’t trust themselves to cook these ingredients well and they’re too expensive to waste if you mess them up! My lobster risotto always goes down well too. It was borne out of economy but feels luxurious. We have returning customers who phone and ask if the Porthilly sauce or the lobster risotto are on the menu prior to booking.

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