Nathan Outlaw has found his home in Cornwall: Port Isaac, where he has relaunched Restaurant Nathan Outlaw. Amanda Afiya joins him on a tour of his restaurant empire on the Cornish coast, from pub grub to fine dining
For a man with five celebrated restaurants to his name and an academy at Cornwall College, Nathan Outlaw is, surprisingly, about as self-effacing as they come. And not to mention still impressively young.
It seems like only yesterday that Nathan and Rachel Outlaw moved to her native Cornwall to set up their first restaurant, the Black Pig in Rock, but it's actually been a whole 12 years since they uprooted from his role as head chef at the Vineyard in Berkshire.
Not that it's all been plain sailing - several highs and lows saw him having to relocate and relaunch with unwelcome regularity along the way - but today, Outlaw stands as the proud owner of two restaurants in Port Isaac (his flagship Restaurant Nathan Outlaw and Outlaw's Fish Kitchen), a brasserie in Rock (Outlaw's at St Enodoc hotel), a 50-seat pub in Rock overlooking the Camel Estuary (the Mariners Rock) and a restaurant at one of Knightsbridge's most distinguished hotels (Outlaw's at the Capital hotel). And if his recently relocated Restaurant Nathan Outlaw retains its two Michelin stars and four AA rosettes, the group will boast four stars and nine rosettes.
The team at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw
I meet him on an overcast day at the newly situated Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, which sits on the cliff top, overlooking the village of Port Isaac, the home of the award-winning TV comedy-drama Doc Martin. A relatively unassuming building from the outside (and much younger than the many character cottages dotted around the picturesque port), the restaurant formerly known as the Edge has panoramic views across the Celtic Sea. With the dining room taking the whole of the upstairs, the restaurant's vantage point - and the diner's view - couldn't be more dramatic.
Cod, cauliflower, watercress and bacon at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw
On the Edge
For the first time since moving to the county, this new venue, perhaps more than any other, gives the Outlaws a future they haven't had before - somewhere they can envisage running for decades to come.
"About two years ago the people who owned the Edge were looking for someone else to come on board, and I always thought the spot was a good position. As I found out more about it, I realised it was something that was suited to me because of where it is. With my style of cooking, it makes sense to have a sea view, but more importantly, it was somewhere that, in time, I knew I could afford to buy. [Outlaw has taken over the lease of the restaurant, but has the option to buy the freehold.]
"Rachel and I have always wanted to put our roots down long term; somewhere we could call home for the next 20 years. It fitted thatâ¨criteria. When I came in, I saw a blank canvas."
Amazingly, Outlaw hadn't actually viewed the property properly before doing the deal because local gossip dictates that whenever he walks into a restaurant, he's buying it.
"I had been in a long time ago, so I knew how the restaurant looked, and I was familiar with it from the road because we opened the Fish Kitchen in the village two summers ago. It just ticked all the boxes in terms of the future, so I knew it was the right place."
L to R: Megan Rees and Simon Davies of Outlaw's
Fish Kitchen with group general manager Ian Dodgson
For Outlaw, relocating Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, which was previously based at the St Enodoc hotel in Rock, to Port Isaac was exciting too. Although he's opened or taken over quite a few restaurants over the past 12 years, he's never started one from scratch, and the Edge presented him with an empty shell.
"All the walls had been stripped, the kitchen was ripped out, everything had gone," he explains. "I know most people would have brought in designers, but I thought, 'I'm going to do it all myself, because it might be the only chance I ever get'."
He stripped back the original flooring, exposing the beauty of the green oak boards. "We wanted to warm up the place a bit," he explains, adding that they used a yellow "coastal colour" on the walls. "I used the landscape as a colour chart and tried to keep things very natural. The original intention was to have tablecloths, but then I saw these beautiful tables, which are made from recycled scaffolding planks, sanded down and polished, andâ¨I was determined to have comfortable chairs."
The artwork comes from local artists Caroline Cleave and Katie Childs, and illustrations were commissioned from Phil Harvey, who goes by the name Phillustrator. "Katie Childs' paintings are actually of the estuary in Rock, so it's nice to connect St Enodoc and the Mariners with here," says Outlaw. "The cushions are based on Caroline Cleave's work too."
Upstairs, the bar, which was originally downstairs, has been recycled as a station looking onto the 24-seat dining room. On the ground floor, where the kitchen is based, guests using the 12-seat chef's table (only available when Outlaw is in the kitchen) have a view of the brigade in the kitchen and the wine cellar.
If the Outlaws can establish their flagship restaurant at Port Isaac for the next two decades, it will certainly draw a line under the chef's early years in Cornwall, where his career saw moves from the Black Pig in Rock to St Ervan Manor in Padstow to the Marina Villa hotel in Fowey and the St Enodoc hotel in Rock, where he has retained his brasserie Outlaw's.
The team at Outlaw's at St Enodoc hotel
"When I have moved, it has usually been out of my control," he explains. "You just have to adjust to that and I suppose I bounce back. I go into most days never really thinking any negative thoughts - I'm generally quite a positive person, and there's nothing that I can't do.â¨I always think like that, and that's probably why I've got five places today!
"But of course there is a limit to what anyone can do and sometimes you've got to be aware of the people you're taking on that journey with you, because you can't expect everyone to have the same ethic. I sleep, eat and breathe this industry: I literally do nothing else and I don't see that as a bad thing. A lot of people think I'm mad, but I enjoy what I do.
But he must have been worried about jeopardising his awards by relocating the restaurant? "People say they worry about moving because of their accolades, but I don't give it a second thought. You do what you do, and we've been successful - sometimes unsuccessful - and you've just got to get on with it. I'm lucky that I've got the success of the people around me, and that sounds very corny, but that is the truth.
Brill, Porthilly sauce and spring greens at Outlaw's at St Enodoc hotel
"At the Black Pig I was on my own and I just got on with it, but along the way people have come on board - I hope because they've enjoyed working with me. I've always been very good at managing people and looking after them and talking to them.
"I rung up Michelin, the Good Food Guide and the AA and I told them honestly what I was doing, that we were thinking of the future and that we had chosen somewhere where I felt I could take the place further and whereâ¨I could see myself for a long time - cooking and enjoying the environment.
"I have to be realistic. All the other stuff I do [such as consulting] could go tomorrow, whereas this place is where I'll be as long asâ¨I can cook and stand up."
Having achieved great success with Restaurant Nathan Outlaw at the St Enodoc hotel, which sat alongside the brasserie there, it still can't have been an easy decision to up sticks.
"I was there for five years, and for the first four I was adamant that I was going to buy or do something with that place, but a year ago I sat down and thought, 'I don't want to bring investors in, I don't want to get backers'. That would have been the only way I would be able to afford it. So I changed my mind. I had taken the restaurant as far as I thought I could take it without doing quite a big refurbishment, which would have meant investing Rachel's and my money into something that wasn't ours.
"We made a very straightforward decision to safeguard our family's future, and I thought that if we're going to invest the money that we've earned in the last five years, we might as well do it in our own place. That's why we still have Outlaw's the brasserie - it's still a good hotel and the restaurant still works well, but it just didn't make sense, long term, to keep Restaurant Nathan Outlaw there. That's my main restaurant and that's the one that's going to look after me when I'm an old man."
Performance-wise, the most profitableâ¨restaurant within the group is Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, despite the fact that the brasserie in Rock is a much larger restaurant. "But the thing that we deal with there is seasonality - as soon as you hit October half-term it goes off the scale: the staff costs go through the roof and the availability of really good produce becomes quite difficult. The seas are rougher, which means availability is not as easy, and customer numbers drop. It doesn't matter what press and PR you do - if the people are not here, they're not.
"Restaurant Nathan Outlaw is consistently doing 20-plus covers every night from the night it's open [Wednesday to Saturday], with the same staff all year. The restaurant last year was open for 47 weeks, and for 40 weeksâ¨it was fully booked, so that completely bucks the trend for a seasonal place - people travel from everywhere for the restaurant.
The team at Outlaw's at the Capital
An inspector calls
And while Outlaw will have to wait for the results of fresh inspections, I was able to persuade Giovanna Grossi, AA Hotel Services Group area manager, to share some details of her recent visit - something of a pilgrimage from her home in Liverpool.
"Boy, was it worth it," she enthuses. "Apart from the outstanding meal and the engaging, friendly service, what a stunning location. I could enjoy the view because of the light nights and, wow, it really is amazing.â¨It makes the experience come to life, and when the sun went down it was magical."
Grossi says she found it hard to single out a favourite dish of Outlaw's, describing flavours as clean and clear and, refreshingly, not overworked. "I loved the raw scallops with onion, preserved herring and chilli, and the local crab and asparagus course was exceptional. Desserts were equally impressive, but Tunworth cheese with beetroot and pine nuts was a dish I will remember for a very long time."
Critically, though, Grossi says she found Outlaw relaxed and contented in his new environment. "He is so comfortable and is clearly never happier than when he's cooking. The way he spoke about the produce I had just eaten was like listening to my favourite opera - he really does source the best local ingredients and his team clearly share his passion and vision. He's so humble, genuine and passionate and, without a doubt, as the AA's current Chef's Chef, is well respected by his peers and operating at the top of his game."
I couldn't have put it better myself.
Nathan Outlaw's empire
Group general manager Ian Dodgson
Restaurant Nathan Outlaw
- Location Port Isaac, Cornwall
- Relocated from Rock 2015
- Seats 24, plus 12-seat chef's table
- Offering Eight-course seafood and fish tasting menu, a vegetarian option with prior notice, and a four-course lunch tasting menu
- Dishes include Lemon sole, peas, broad beans and fennel; turbot, hispi cabbage and seaweed hollandaise; passion fruit, pineapple and coconut
- Head chef Chris Simpson
- Maitre d' Stephanie Little
- Restaurant manager Anna Davey
- Sommelier Damon Little
Outlaw's at the Capital
- Location Knightsbridge, London
- Opened 2012
- Seats 34, plus two private rooms seating up to 14 and 20 respectively
- Offering Seasonally changing set-price menu with three courses for £55
- Dishes include Cured bass anchovy mayonnaise, basil and pistachios; breaded hake, asparagus, leeks and wild garlic; rhubarb and apple crumble, vanilla ice-cream
- Head chef Pete Biggs
- Restaurant manager Sharon McArthur
- Location Port Isaac, Cornwall
- Opened 2013
- Seats 18
- Offering Small plates of seafood, cooked to order and served when ready, dictatedâ¨by the day's catch
- Dishes include Curry cured grey mullet,â¨pickled peppers, coconut yogurt; breaded plaice, cucumber tartare salad, dill mayonnaise; red wine braised cuttlefish, beans and samphire stew; espresso ice-cream sandwich, caramelised banana and candied walnuts
- Head chef Simon Davies
- Restaurant manager Megan Rees
Outlaw's at St Enodoc hotel
- Location Rock, Cornwall
- Opened 2010
- Seats 50, plus seating for 20 outside
- Offering Seasonally changing set-priceâ¨menu with three courses for £45
- Dishes include Boxeater beef tartare, seaweed mayonnaise; salt cod Scotch egg, 'green' soup, smoked oil; chicken, leeks, brown butter dressing, gem lettuce; chocolate fondant, marmalade, malt ice-cream
- Head chef Tom Brown
- Restaurant manager Jorge Monteiro
The Mariners (in partnership with Sharp's Brewery)
- Location Rock, Cornwall
- Opened 2014
- Seats 70-100
- Offering No-fuss pub grub
- Menu Steamed mussels, onion and parsley; cod fish finger, tartare sauce; 10oz free-range pork chop, bacon and onion hash, poached Terras Farm duck egg, apple sauce; lemon posset, blood orange, honeycomb
- Head chef Zack Hawke
- Restaurant manager Neil Tomlinson
- Outlaw says "Sharp's Brewery is a young company which has been very successful with its beers. Recently, it was bought by Molson Coors. Now part of a global company, it is just as passionate about getting the message across about beer and food matching," says Outlaw. "They presented us with an opportunity to open a pub with them and we jumped at it. We wanted to serve well-sourced Cornish products such as charcuterie, smoked fish and local cheese. On top of that, we have a fabulous local butcher, Philip Warren quality butchers in Launceston, who supply fantastic meat. "When it changes from doing 10 on a night in November to 200 on a night at Easter, you have to be very flexible on the menu, especially as it's still the same three chefs in the kitchen."
The team at Outlaw's at the Mariners
Nathan Outlaw: Why I love fish
"Two of my restaurants are fish only - Restaurant Nathan Outlaw and the Fish Kitchen - but even in the other restaurants fish probably represents 75% of our non-dessert sales.
"The reason why I've always been drawn to fish is that it challenges me. Every fish is different. Some lend themselves to grilling, some roasting, some cured. If it's uber fresh you want to do something raw or cured with it because the flavour and texture is so unique, and it's a shame not to show off how good the produce is. So we do something quite simple.
"As fish get older, it's better to grill or pan-fry it. Take gurnard as an example: it starts to tenderise because of the breakdown of the muscles and rigor mortis setting in. At the beginning of the day you are prepping something, but by the time you get to service the texture of the fish might have changed so you have to treat it differently - I love that, but that's the anorak side of me; the nerdiness of what I do.
"We all know asparagus is in at the moment and everyone has it on their menus, including us. You even wait for it every year. But fish changes through the seasons, and on a daily basis. Of course, you know roughly what it's going to be like, but it still surprises you. A supplier can ring up and say they've got some mackerel and I'll say 'it's too early' and they'll say 'well I've caught it!'
"Where we are in Cornwall with the position of the sea, with the gulf stream and the rise in sea temperatures, you're going to see more exotic species coming through - by that I mean species that were not native to this area say 10 to 15 years ago, such as gilthead bream and red mullet from the Mediterranean.
"Meanwhile, really cold fish such as hake are going further out to search for colder waters and the fishermen are going further out to sea to source them from their new habitat. Everything has shifted. It's good and bad - it's good because there's a lot more variety in the species we are using, but obviously it's bad because it's the effects of global warming.
"Our strength as a business is that we know exactly where our fish has come from. We've never had a problem with produce.â¨For example, our oyster supplier rigorously checks our oysters more than three or four times a day. In fact, they actually had the Oyster Festival locally and the oysters didn't come up to scratch from his tests so they didn't have any oysters! I trust him completely. I've got traceability all the way and that's the advantage that I have with seafood.
"I love the industry and I love what fishermen stand for. It's such an old occupation as well - it fascinates me. Take that view out there, it's different every day - it's quite mesmerising. But even as a young chef, when I first worked in London and didn't have that view, I always seemed to gravitate to the fish section."
Nathan Outlaw Academy
Three years ago, Nathan Outlaw and Cornwall College launched a project dedicated to educating and nurturing young talent.
With a programme based on the college's new VRQs (vocationally related qualifications), mixed with the time that Outlaw and his suppliers could give freely, Academy Nathan Outlaw at Cornwall College was born.
The academy sees budding young chefs, restaurateurs and hospitality staff study professional qualifications and receive training and tuition from Outlaw and other leading industry experts, including the catering and hospitality team at Cornwall College.
The Academy aims to equip students with the skills and experience they need to become outstanding professionals in their field. Students join the academy at Level 2 and continue to study the advanced qualifications at Level 3 in both the kitchen and front of house.
The courses combine practical and theoretical workshops with industrial visits, work experience in high-profile establishments and masterclasses with leading chefs, plus the chance to work in Outlaw's restaurants or kitchens.
Outlaw's at St Enodoc's head chef Tom Brown, a graduate of Cornwall College, is heavily involved with the project and is party to the students' selection process. Outlaw delivers about eight masterclasses across the year at the Camborne and St Austell campuses.
"We tend to take two or three graduates a year into some part of the business," says Outlaw. "It seems to be quite successful, and I'm proud to be helping young people - and older people who want to change their career. Hopefully, with the name of academy on their CV, they have the credibility and the confidence to secure good jobs and do well."
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