It's all change for Nathan Outlaw. With the chef having last year parted ways with both his pub in Rock and a Dubai hotel restaurant, this year also saw the closure of his restaurant in the Goring hotel. He tells James Stagg how he's now transforming his two-Michelin-starred Port Isaac restaurant into something completely new
You've changed Restaurant Nathan Outlaw to Outlaw's New Road. Is this something you were considering pre-coronavirus or is it a practical decision based on what's possible with social distancing?
It was something I'd been thinking about for quite a while. Probably three or four years ago I realised the simpler food is what I prefer. That said, I've always had a simple style to my food and kept it down to three or four ingredients maximum. There's not much to it if you look at it, as I was much more interested in the technique and sourcing of the ingredients.
It resonated with me that what I've been thinking about for the past few years is what I should do. It was solely my decision – but supported by my wife and general manager.
Because I haven't got restaurants in London any more or the pub [the Mariners in Rock, now run by Paul Ainsworth], and it's just two restaurants in Port Isaac, I can be very selfish in the sense that I've got to make myself happy to make everyone else happy. I'm a great believer that it comes from the top – if I'm not happy, it will show and they won't be happy.
So the plan is to cook with a bit more freedom?
When you have a fine dining restaurant and two Michelin stars, there are so many unwritten rules – that incidentally nobody has ever shared officially – they're just rumours and industry gossip. I just want to come to work, enjoy being with the team and serve great food on the plate. Nothing will change in terms of standards – the fish I was buying for the two-Michelin-starred restaurant will be the same.
What were the unwritten rules that you were keen to ignore?
There were all sorts of rumours that used to fly around. When I opened my first place at 24 years old, everyone said you had to have certain crockery or glassware. The same with the rumour that you had to have five canapés and five petits-fours to get five AA rosettes. If you've got a kitchen with three or four chefs, you're just putting yourself in trouble and adding to their day. I've just got to the point where I listen to my heart and my colleagues.
This is where I think people have got into trouble in the past. Now they've run out of choices, but all these unwritten rules would make people lose sleep. Front of house was under so much pressure thinking they could only serve one way.
Can you give us a sense of the new menu?
There are no rules. It all depends on the weather. We're aiming to support the fishermen and suppliers that we have a good relationship with. So if there's good weather we'll have a bigger menu.
That was one of the other things that were always said in the past. Your menu has to be solid, it has to have structure. Bollocks to all that. We're going to get the best ingredients we can get and stick them on the menu so they're in front of people as quickly as possible.
Are you freer to do what you want now that you don't have the pressure of partners in London and Dubai?
I was very lucky. You could probably say those opportunities came about because of the awards – you get noticed and written about. But, luckily for me, everyone I've been involved with – be it the Capital, the Goring or Dubai – that has never been the focus. They know that's not what I'm about. First of all we look after the staff and then we make sure the customers are happy.
For 20 years I've been aiming for things that actually don't really matter to me. I got into cooking because I love cooking – I had no idea about awards and accolades. I'm lucky to have achieved these things with my team, but I've got to the point where I've done everything I can do, so now it's making the offer more accessible and fun for everybody.
Do you think the change in style will have an impact in terms of accolades?
In terms of stars I think we will drop down. The food on the plate in my view will be far better than what we were doing before, but that's just my view, because I enjoy eating a simple piece of turbot that's cooked on the bone, or a crab and lobster salad. For me that's better than some of the dishes we did before with some pointless garnishes on them. You put them there because you thought you needed to put them there.
Now the untrained eye could say that my Dover sole is the same as any other Dover sole – but I know it's not. In the eyes of a guide what we're doing is simple – albeit with the best seafood we can get.
Does the new style lend itself to more covers too?
The difference is now, because of the business pressures, we need to make up for the last four months. We only have 10 weeks and we're into winter again.
Previously there was only one sitting in the restaurant, but that's not going to work now as we only have five tables.
I couldn't ask people to pay £140 for the menu and only sit there for two hours. Now you come to eat my food, and I'll be cooking in the kitchen with the guys, you'll pay half the money – or even less – compared to before, the ingredients will be the same and the only thing I'm asking is that after two hours, can you go please?
So the restaurant will be more accessible in terms of price?
I'm gambling that by being more affordable, we'll bring in more local business and people who we may have alienated before due to cost. What we're offering is a celebration and the best of Cornwall, which will resonate with people in the south west. We may have been a little out of reach, but I'd be happy if we were more affordable and busier through the winter.
What we're offering is a celebration and the best of Cornwall, which will resonate with people in the south west
Will you miss tasting menus?
For the last five years I've not eaten in a fine dining restaurant. Don't get me wrong, I respect what people are doing, but I don't want to sit at a table for more than two hours. I'm happy to have a drink in the bar before or after, which is something we'll be able to offer when fully open again. I don't think I should run a restaurant that I wouldn't sit in myself.
I don't think I should run a restaurant that I wouldn't sit in myself
What kind of impact do you think it will have on the profitability of the restaurant? Presumably this will reduce spend per head but maintain covers?
Part of the reason for changing the restaurant is because I want some longevity to the business. I'm committed to what I do for the rest of my life. I don't have any desire to sell up or build a brand to sell on. After reflecting on things, I've realised that if I can create the heart of our business as a fun and happy place, I think long-term we'll be better off.
In the short-term the risk is that I've got 10 weeks to make up the losses we've suffered. Then, from beyond October half-term, this area drops off a cliff, apart from a couple of weeks over Christmas.
How will the increase in covers affect the way you operate?
Previously we'd do around 30 covers a day and now we're looking at anything from 50 to 70 covers in the restaurant and up to 60 orders going through takeaway, so it's quite a turnaround. The prep load is much more – for a start the takeaway portion is bigger than you'd do in a restaurant.
The way we set the kitchen up now is less like a French partie system and more an American line cook system. We have four chefs – two on cold, two on hot – who do everything for delivery and the restaurant. Then at the back of the restaurant we have a prep area, with two chefs full time, prepping all day. So there will always be six in the kitchen, including me.
What about the Fish Kitchen? With 18 covers is it viable to open under distancing requirements?
The Fish Kitchen doesn't work because of social distancing and the safety of the staff, so we've had to turn that into a private dining space.
In the restaurant we can't really take larger tables, so any bigger tables that enquire may well get sent down there with a chef – probably me. But it'll be the same menu as New Road to start with.
How are bookings looking so far?
We're fully booked for July and August, which is great. The average week is 55 covers a day. We just have to keep it going through the winter, that's the key. If we can get to Easter, we'll breathe a sigh of relief.
Nathan Outlaw on... click and collect
Having started click-and-collect service Outlaw's to Go during lockdown, the chef now sees it as a viable revenue stream that will be continued in parallel with the restaurant operation.
"There are so many holiday homes and campsites that it's working really well," he explains. "It was a complete unknown to me. I've done everything apart from takeaway. The good thing about a takeaway is that you get your order early and they've paid for it, so all you have to make sure is that it's ready on time and the food is good."
Dishes include fish from the day's market, filleted and coated in lemon, garlic and parsley breadcrumbs and fried, with herb mayonnaise and pickled vegetables (£12) and Port Isaac lobster Caesar salad with baby Gem lettuce, anchovies, croutons, herbs, Davidstow Cheddar and lemon and shellfish dressing (£19).
The new kitchen structure will allow for the service to operate alongside restaurant service, though Outlaw admits that as yet it is untested.
"Adding the restaurant on top might expose a few cracks, but I don't see why it shouldn't work, especially in season when there's a lot of people around," he says.
Nathan Outlaw on… the road to London
The lockdown due to coronavirus struck just as Siren, the restaurant operated by Outlaw at London's Goring hotel, was finding its feet. But the impact on business in the capital meant that it was one of the first high-profile restaurants in London to announce it would not reopen.
Siren was launched last year, the first new dining offer in the hotel's 109-year history, and though Outlaw says the door is still open, he has no plans for a speedy return.
"If I was in the position of Jeremy Goring and David Morgan-Hewitt, I would have done the same thing," he admits. "But the way we've left it is that we're all good friends – in fact, Jeremy has a house not far from Port Isaac, so I still speak to him a lot.
"The real shame is that we'd had a meeting the week before saying how we'd got to a point where we found our place in the market. The sad part of it is that we had to lose the guys that were working there."
Now Outlaw says he doesn't have any aspirations in London, and though there may be opportunities in the capital in the future, he's "absolutely focused on surviving this year".
He adds: "Two years ago I was doing Dubai every six weeks and London every fortnight and had the Mariners as well. I don't know how I did it. There are many chefs out there who can juggle many balls and I admire them."
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