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An audience with Nathan Outlaw

22 June 2016 by
An audience with Nathan Outlaw

As The Caterer's series of live interviews with leading chefs continues, editor Amanda Afiya invited Nathan Outlaw to Westminster Kingsway where he told an audience of hospitality students about his career, love of seafood and exciting plans for the future. Rosalind Mullen reports

The latest news is that he is about to relaunch the Al Mahara restaurant at Jumeirah's ultra-luxurious Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai this September. It's just another milestone in a career that saw Outlaw win his first of many Michelin stars aged just 25.

In fact, by the age of eight, Outlaw had already committed himself to the industry, having watched his father work as a chef in professional kitchens.

Following a two-year course at Thanet Catering College - now East Kent College - Outlaw joined the InterContinental Hyde Park hotel under the late Peter Kromberg. Here, and later working under chefs such as Gary Rhodes and Eric Chavot, he discovered his passion for seafood.

"It was 1997, and Rick Stein was huge. He was my hero and always has been. It was the only place at the time that was cooking amazing seafood. I got on a train at Paddington and knocked on his door in Padstow."

It was a gamble that paid off. After a few years working his way up from chef de partie, Stein advised him to gain fine-dining skills. So, at 21, Outlaw took a sous chef role under John Campbell at the Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire, and later moved over to the Vineyard at Stockcross as Campbell's head chef.

These were formative years for Outlaw, learning from two very different chefs. Stein was a self-taught celebrity TV chef, who ran a very busy service every evening. Campbell was a system-led chef, who had trained with Forte. Outlaw was at Lords of the Manor when Campbell got a Michelin star and at the Vineyard when he gained two. But it wasn't enough.

"I was 23 and running a kitchen with 16 to 18 chefs and pretty much walking around with a clipboard and not doing what I love, which is cooking," he says.

Against everyone's advice, Outlaw opened his first restaurant, the 32-seat Black Pig in Rock, Cornwall, in May 2003 with his in-laws. Within eight months it was awarded a Michelin star. He was just 25, newly married and with a baby son.

He closed it three years later, due to the seasonal nature of trade in Cornwall and the pressure of working to Michelin-star standard with just one commis. Next followed a short stint at St Ervan Manor, a boutique B&B in north Cornwall, where again, he gained a star. Seasonality remained a problem, however, and the owners sold the property.

By the end of 2006, he had taken on the restaurant at the Marina hotel in Fowey, putting his name over the door for the first time. Restaurant Nathan Outlaw was awarded "rising two stars" by Michelin. By now, Outlaw had a higher profile, appearing on the BBC's Great British Menu and also operating an 80-seat casual-dining restaurant at the St Enodoc hotel in Rock. When the credit crunch came and the owners sold the Marina hotel, he relocated Restaurant Nathan Outlaw to St Enodoc as a second restaurant, focusing on seafood and, in 2011, winning two Michelin stars.

For many chefs, this would be a career high-point, but for Outlaw it was just the beginning. His ultimate dream was to run his own seafood restaurant on his own terms. He shared his inspirational story with students and young chefs at Westminster Kingsway during an interview with The Caterer editor Amanda Afiya, sponsored by CCS.

How did you set up your own business?

At St Enodoc we started to make money, business-wise, for the first time. But long-term, I knew I couldn't buy a hotel as beautiful. I was trying to avoid involving investors and borrowing money - you've only got to read The Caterer to see people getting into trouble by doing that. So, [in 2013] I decided to open a beautiful little restaurant, Outlaw's Fish Kitchen [in Port Isaac]. We bought the lease. It's the first time we bought something ourselves.

Now I realised what it was like to make decisions yourself - good and bad. If you make the wrong decision, you take 100% of the consequences but, on the plus side, you can do what you want. I like that feeling. If I want to play music I can do it. Change the structure of the menu? No-one's going to say you can't.

At this time I was also approached to do consultancy on the food and beverage [F&B] at the Capital hotel in London [Outlaw's at the Capital]. I oversee the F&B in the five-star hotel, but I don't have to pay for the staff. I advise them. It is a good situation - the Levin family have been in the industry for years.

As you've said, Fish Kitchen is in Port Isaac, a really cute fishing village, and yet what you are doing there is tapas-style. Was that revolutionary for the area?

Yes, no one was doing that in the area. The reason we had to do it is that the restaurant has 15 seats, so if you operated it as a normal restaurant you couldn't turn tables to make money to pay the bills.

So, it is good food, but it is quick - we've got a 15-seat restaurant that does 80 covers a day. You couldn't do that in a traditional place because people would hang around. Even though it's small, it is the most profitable of all the businesses we've got. I've got two chefs, one person washing up and two in the front. Just five people can serve 80 people, and it works.

You also gained a Michelin star at Fish Kitchen. Were you worried that would put people off?

It ruined the idea of doing a few of them [as a concept]. The idea behind Fish Kitchen was that if you turn up at an idyllic fishing village you can eat local crab. We thought it would be nice to do a few around Cornwall - with low rent and low staff you can afford to shut them in winter. But it got a star, and you can't roll out restaurants at that standard.

What Fish Kitchen has become is a destination restaurant in itself. So all the restaurants I have offer different touches. No brand repeats itself, and they have different price points. From my point of view, it is great because customers come down, they are around for a week, and can eat in our different places.

So you have two-starred Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, you've got Fish Kitchen, which is tiny, and in Rock you have the Mariners public house, so you are offering people a range.

Yes, and all those things influence what we do at the Capital. It all works together. I don't think I could open a repeat restaurant. Five years ago I thought I would, but concepts are not for me.

The pub in Rock is a 50/50 partnership with Sharps Brewery. They approached me. It's straightforward. I run the guts of the pub and food and their support is in logistics. But it is the toughest market for us. In restaurants, you get types of people - the foodie traveller, special occasion or regulars - but in pubs you get people who want a sausage roll and a pint, as well as people who want a whole turbot. I don't think pubs are as easy as people make out.

In 2014, you moved Restaurant Nathan Outlaw out of the St Enodoc hotel in Rock to Port Isaac.

The old restaurant had 20 covers and it was how the hotel [owners] wanted it. I couldn't put my personality on the room. After seven years, I wanted to do it on my own. I found the perfect location for a seafood restaurant, on a cliff. I knew it wouldn't come again in my career and decided to make the move. It was risky, as I lost the support from the rooms business.

The restaurant is over two levels, with the kitchen downstairs, and it's slightly open. We have a wraparound bar with 8-10 covers, taking into account a modern way of dining, as some people want to be in and out quickly, even at two-star level.

Upstairs, there are 24 seats. There are views over the Atlantic Ocean - you can see fishermen and dolphins. But, obviously, at night you can't see them, so inside the restaurant needs to look good, too. It's in a rustic style with lots of wood and colourful artwork, mainly of fish.

I am quietly obsessed about the music we play. TripAdvisor said that the food was fantastic but the music was even better. I play what I like. Led Zeppelin, Motown, all sorts.

Front of house and the kitchen are more integrated. The guys sometimes come out and do the tables, which is quite new. The first time I experienced it was at Noma [in Copenhagen] seven or eight years ago. I thought it was a good way to do it.

I have tried to build my dream restaurant. There is no-one to tell me the artwork is terrible, I put up what I want. I am going to buy the property. I have managed a deal. The owners allowed me five years to get the money in place to buy it. Sometime this year I hope to get to that point. My daughter is 11 and wants to take the place over. You never know…

And you offer good working hours.

Yes, when I moved out of St Enodoc, we changed how we work. We don't open five days a week, we open four days, so staff are off on Sunday and Monday and on Tuesday they do the prep for the week until 4pm-5pm and get the evening off. We are closed for six weeks over January. I tried to make it more appealing.

I know a lot of work goes into your seafood menu. Can you tell us about it?

My style of food appears to be simple on the plate, but it is more complicated than just fish and sauce. It starts with sourcing. We have 15-16 fisherman that myself and the head chef talk to and barter with, and three other fish suppliers. Many people are involved to try to get the best piece of fish in the country.

Some of my sauces, such as my Porthilly sauce, takes three days to produce and it has taken me eight years to get it right. We have a well-crafted approach to let the fish shine, but you won't see it anywhere else. That is why we have got the attention from Michelin and the AA and the Good Food Guide. What you experience there, you won't experience anywhere else in the country.

Yes, the depth of flavour of your sauces is incredible. When we did An Audience With Tom Kerridge, he said Gary Rhodes taught him to take ingredients off the dish. I can see a similarity with your cooking.

Yes, definitely. When I worked for Gary, that's what he impressed on me. He made things taste amazing with only a few ingredients. I take my hat off to people who can put 12 things on a plate and make it work, because I can't. What I can do is take small amounts and know when to take things away. For me, there is such a distinctive flavour and texture to different sorts of seafood and if you put too much on the plate you won't appreciate it.

I try to create the sauces to boost the seafood. That is where the skill and years of experience of being a chef and understanding how stocks are made comes in - knowledge such as knowing what the effect of roasting onions a bit longer will be. It's the little things that come into play.

And you're now opening a restaurant at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.

Yes. If you suggested it to me only two years ago, I would have said no chance, but the restaurants have had a big impact. The Burj's new general manager [Anthony McHale] came to Cornwall and ate in Outlaw's Fish Kitchen. He rang me in May last year, and said, "can you come over to talk about opening a restaurant in Dubai?". I thought it was a hoax.

I wondered where I would get the fish from. Anyway, I went over there and I went into the kitchen, straight into the fridge, and I found fish and oysters from Cornwall. I thought: "They are setting me up!" But they get three flights of fresh produce a day from the UK and Paris and some local stuff. Even though I have been cooking for 20 years, it is exciting to find new ingredients. When I go over there in July I will start using the local produce, too.

The biggest challenge is to take what is currently a French restaurant and make it a British restaurant. It sounds easy, but it isn't. British food is simpler and more ingredient-led. And front of house is extremely different. British hospitality is more relaxed - it allows characters to come out - and that's what I will try to do with the restaurant. The French side is stiffer, so changing this will be the biggest challenge. The business side isn't a problem as it is very strong.

Pete [Biggs, former head chef at the Capital] has been with me since 2002 and he will be head chef and Sharon [McArthur], who has been with me 10 years, will be general manager. They will run it and I will

go over every eight weeks. That is quite a lot for a consultancy chef, as most only go a few times a year. I will cook when I am there and train the guys, so it is a new chapter - no negatives.

How will that work? I know you don't like to be away from the restaurant in Port Isaac for long. When you go to the Capital, you go on Monday and you're back on a Tuesday.

It will have a small impact - it will be four services every eight weeks - but my head chef Chris [Simpson] has been there 12 years. To be honest, I only get in his way. And others have been there for 10 years, too. I have kept the business small and suddenly I have loyal guys who have been with me a long time.

Do you consider yourself a restaurateur now?

I have thought about that a lot. No doubt when you are hitting 40, the physical side does affect you. Where I used to spring out of bed at 6am, it is a bit harder now and I feel it at the end of the night. So, most chefs at some point have to become more of a restaurateur. But it is exciting as well. I am comfortable about sitting and eating in my restaurant, whereas 10 years ago I wouldn't have been.

Where else would you love to launch a restaurant, now that your eyes have been opened to the possibilities?

I have friends in New York and Melbourne, and both cities are attractive. It will naturally evolve into me being a restaurateur and less of a chef.

My secret is people, and if I haven't got them, I can't do it. I don't want to go to bed worrying whether the new head chef has best intentions. It has definitely got to be people who come up through the ranks.

I create the opportunities, which is a slower way to do it, but the right way to do it. There are examples where you think maybe [someone opened one restaurant] too many, but I can cope with what I've got. It fits the balance of my life. Everything is about balance.

Tell us about the Academy at Cornwall College

I had been supporting Cornwall College by doing cookery demos. You get to meet people. Five years ago Stuart Mathieson, who was in charge of the faculty, said, "You have done so much with us, why not open an academy?" We opened Academy Nathan Outlaw, not to do fine dining, but to bring confidence and to encourage people to come into the industry.

I go there nine times an academic year and do masterclasses. Students don't have to pay and everyone gets on it if they have the right attitude. They work in all three [Cornish] restaurants on a three-day block, three times a year. That's a big thing in Cornwall.

It is good to be involved. They have a mentoring session with chefs in their second and third years to filter them and push them in the right direction. It is good to see them leave and apply for jobs they wouldn't have thought they could apply for.

What advice would you give to the students here today?

Do it because you want to do it and work in places you want to be in, rather than what someone tells you to do. Do as many work experience days - or stages - and find out where you want to be. Most importantly, be in an environment where you feel wanted and where you are going to learn.

When I came into the industry, it was a hostile environment, but we don't need to accept that any more. If someone invites you for a day, say, "no, can I come for a week". I always thought it strange to do a one-day trial - it just doesn't cover it. Anyone can be nice for a day.

What would you say to younger chefs here in terms in how they should present themselves?

Ask lots of questions and look eager. If you don't look like you can be bothered, you will get crap jobs. I didn't want to hang about picking through spinach. I pushed and made sure I did my best.

Take a risk - I walked into Rick Stein's and said "I see your sous chef has left and I can do the job". I took a punt because sometimes it takes ballsiness. If you feel nervous about doing something, it is usually the right thing to do.

A word from CSS

Antony Ward, marketing manager at CCS, says: "As the world's foremost suppliers of the finest quality catering equipment and professional clothing, we are extremely pleased to support the An Audience with… series of interviews. It was fascinating to listen to Nathan Outlaw and hear his advice for aspiring chefs. It's a wonderful opportunity to see leading chefs interact with the audiences and talk about issues about which they are passionate."

Nathan Outlaw on…

Cooking with technology and gizmos

I cook with pans and I cook with flames. I have nothing against things like sous vide or modern types of cooking, but it is not what I am into. It is difficult to do that with fish, anyway - it may work with salmon, as it has a higher oil content, but it doesn't work for me. I am a traditionalist and I love to judge things - I don't rely on timers or exacting recipes. I still like the edge of being a chef - the craft of knowing textures and temperatures.

I have a bain marie for cooking vegetables and infusing oils. It's an area of cooking that I did a lot when I was working with John Campbell, and he was one of first chefs to be using it. I am not one for lots of garnishes or micro-cress, but I don't have anything against it.

The skills crisis

Certainly, it is a struggle to get the chefs, but I think the most obvious thing for me is education. Look at schools and colleges and try to be attractive to that market and bring people in - that is your only option.

I spend time with Bournemouth students at the Capital and some Westminster students. I think chefs should get back into the colleges. Too many high-profile chefs are giving grief to colleges, but they should be helping them.

Social media

Obviously, it is very rude to be on your phone in the restaurant. You should expect to get a bollocking for that. Once you are in a kitchen, a good one, you should feel you are in an environment where you can talk to people properly. I wouldn't be impressed if someone asked for a job via a tweet.

I use social media myself because I think you need to, but I keep it positive and not opinionated. We have put social media advice in our employment manual because you have people who tweet, "I have had a shit day at work today." It can be retweeted. You need to protect yourself.

Female chefs

My daughter wants to be one. I will encourage her, but there is no getting away from it, female chefs have to give up a lot if they want to get on. Talk to Clare Smyth, Angela Hartnett - they are both friends of mine, but they have had to give up a lot more on the personal side than men have had to give up. But they are all amazing chefs at the top of their game.

And nowadays - especially in bigger restaurants - there is a huge turnover, so they can afford to let people do straight eight-hour shifts. I am surrounded by women. My wife, my mum, my restaurant manager. I like to have women around because I think an all-male kitchen is a bit weird.

Older workers

I think older people are valuable. Look at my dad. He is 61, a great chef, he is full of experience. He can do what an experienced chef can do in eight hours rather than 12.

His third book - Everyday Seafood

The first was about fish species and the second was about techniques and so was more cheffy. This one is aimed at novices and is simpler, involving fewer ingredients and ones that you can easily get. I think it is the best one for those reasons.

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