Interviews

Nathan Outlaw

Fourteen years since he opened his first place, Nathan Outlaw’s eponymous restaurant in the Cornish fishing village of Port Isaac has reached the number one spot in the Good Food Guide, scoring a perfect 10.

He may have knocked L’Enclume off the top spot in the process, but such is Outlaw’s popularity among his peers that there has been nothing but praise from other restaurateurs and chefs, including L’Enclume owner Simon Rogan.

'Simon and Penny sent us a beautiful bunch of flowers to say congratulations,' says Nathan. 'I was really touched by that. The reaction across the board has been amazing. People everywhere seem to know, which is great, and we’ve had loads of e-mails, texts and cards.'

Nathan has even received congratulations from fellow Cornish chef Rick Stein, who was something of a mentor in his early days.  

'Yeah, Rick said "well done" on Twitter, which was lovely. I don’t see him that often these days as he lives most of the time in Australia or he’s off filming somewhere, but to get the message via Twitter was enough.'

The wave of publicity surrounding the award has thrust Nathan into the national spotlight and although he may be a new name to many people, it’s 14 years since he opened his first restaurant. How does he feel about the journey?

'I look back fondly at the last 14 years. Everything that could have possibly happened – both good and bad – has happened in that time. There’s not much I haven’t seen now, but it’s all those experiences that have brought us to this point.

'But I must say I’ve never been worried, because I don’t worry. It’s not my way. I’m probably more impatient than anything. I’ve always known we could be really good at what we do, but it takes a lot of time and dedication to get there. Passion alone isn’t enough.'

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Outlaw has been careful not to do too much TV and remains under the celebrity radar despite publishing a handful of best-selling cookbooks.

'I do what I like to do and won’t do something if it’s not fun and I don’t think it’s worth doing, therefore I’ve said no to a lot of TV stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s intentional that I’m a bit under the radar, but I’m not 100% comfortable with the whole celebrity thing and I can’t do something if my heart’s not in it.

'I wish just cooking was enough to get people to eat at your restaurant, but being in a seasonal area you have to remind people you’re there now and again.

'The books are my passion. I love working on them. I think it’s because they are a representation of me. Perhaps if I was offered a TV programme that did the same, I’d be interested. Who knows?'

Outlaw has been described as a ‘wizard’ for creating stunning dishes from humble ingredients, but he says it’s all about the produce and he’s lucky to use Cornish seafood, which he considers to be the best around.

'The fishermen of Cornwall do an amazing (and dangerous) job. I talk to them about the catch and what’s happening in our seas and I also listen to their knowledge and advice.

'Personally, having now done a bit of travelling around the world and visiting fish markets when I’m in these wonderful places, I would have to say that Cornwall has the best fish in the world, not just the UK.

'The water in Cornwall is perfect for the many varieties that can be caught off our shores – cold, but not exceptionally cold, and full of a rich diet of things for fish to eat.'

With restaurants in Cornwall, London and Dubai, Nathan has a full diary each week, but he has learned to adapt to the role of restaurateur and isn’t worried about losing focus on his core Cornish business.

'My week looks like Monday and Tuesday London and then Wednesday to Saturday, Restaurant Nathan Outlaw. In between services, I visit Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen in Port Isaac and The Mariners in Rock.

'Every 6-7 weeks I wipe the Cornwall week out and spend a week at the Dubai restaurant instead. So I suppose I miss four days at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw every 6-7 weeks. Everything else slots in between. I’m lucky that I have solid and loyal people in senior positions at all the restaurants so there’s no danger of dropping the ball.'

In an industry with its challenges when it comes to staff retention, Nathan has a reputation for being a good employer and many of his staff have been with him for years, something he puts down to giving them a degree of freedom.

'It’s easy really. Let them be themselves, don’t shout at them, support them where you can and give them opportunities. Anyone who’s worked with me for a long time will tell you that with me around anything can happen and you won’t get bored. I don’t plan years in advance and if something comes up and I like the look of it, off we’ll go!'

The news that Restaurant Nathan Outlaw had been named the UK’s number one restaurant coincided with Nathan and his wife, Rachel, finally buying the freehold of the Port Isaac restaurant. What does this mean for the future?

'Well, basically it means until I retire, which will probably never happen, we will be in Port Isaac! It’s always been a dream for Rachel and I to own our own restaurant and finally we’ve done it. We are very happy.'

Nathan turns 40 next year, which is something of a milestone for many chefs working in professional kitchens and he admits that it doesn’t get easier.

'Physically I’m not in the best condition and that’s the years of being on my feet all day and eating naughty things taking their toll. It’s something I know I need to sort out now. Thank goodness I don’t drink much and I’ve never smoked.

'The goal over the next few years are to sort that out and get a better balance to it all. I think most chefs in my position would say the same.'

So he doesn’t see himself cooking into his 60s like Shaun Hill at the Walnut Tree?

'Ha! Shaun is an amazing guy and to be cooking like he still does is an inspiration to any cook. I hope I can still be cooking until I physically can’t do it anymore.

'I have always loved cooking and always will. I can’t stay away from a stove for more than a few hours, it’s as simple as that.'

September 2017