Interview: Nathan Outlaw, Michelin star chef and seafood aficionado
PUBLISHED: 08:39 02 September 2019
With a new restaurant opening, a new book just out, and an industry-defining two Michelin stars already in the bag, Nathan Outlaw has put Cornwall's culinary heritage on the plates of an audience of global foodies without ever forgetting his regional roots
Looking at Nathan Outlaw's current place in the British culinary scene, it's hard to imagine the cheerful, bearded chef as having been anything other than a bona fide seafood aficionado throughout his life. Outlaw's rise from Rick Stein protégé, to seeing his eponymous Port Isaac restaurant become the first fish-specific restaurant to attain two coveted Michelin stars in 2011, is indicative of a man who was assuredly comfortable amid fillets since he first picked up a knife - surely?
"When I was a child, I really didn't like fish," the 41-year-old admits. "I guess I had fish and chips and fish finger sandwiches and that sort of thing, but I didn't really ever eat proper seafood. It wasn't really something we ate as a family. But what I was exposed to was at the seaside, because whenever we went away on holiday when I was a child it would be to the seaside. So, I think it planted something and put that interest there. So, when I came to start cooking professionally, I was really interested in seafood because I knew a bit about where it came from."
This culinary ethos, and the tangible link between place and plate, has always defined Outlaw's cooking. Now a globally renowned authority on the fruits of our nearby seas, the connection between this chef and the county of his birth runs far deeper than proximity to the centrepieces of his internationally acclaimed recipes.
"Because of the way Cornwall is as a county, being so narrow and long, it actually has so many different environments in it," he explains. "So, you have the north which is quite rough and rugged, and you have these lovely fields of grass with all these beautiful cows grazing that produce great dairy, and these little coves where the fishermen can get in and out with the tide in day-boats, and that brings freshness and quality. You have great grain conditions, albeit it is quite windy so there are some things that won't grow, but if you're talking about things like potatoes, cauliflowers, all the brassicas, strawberries and apples, obviously, which they use for scrumpy and ciders.
"Even something as simple as a Cornish pasty, if it's done properly, is amazing. So, there's a real food heritage in Cornwall. Stuff like clotted cream is only made in the West Country; it's one of those things that relies on the quality of the milk produced and those cows, so it's not something that can be done anywhere else necessarily. So, there is that uniqueness."
And then, of course, there's the catch of the day - over forty different species at places like Newlyn alone. "I think mackerel is definitely my favourite, but the season for that is quite short," Outlaw nods. "It starts about early April and will go until October. Even in that time you can't really say you're going to catch it - but I guess that's why it's called fishing and not catching because there's no guarantee to it. I love crab, that's probably my favourite shellfish, and I think scallops are great.
"The more luxurious fish I like, which is quite expensive to buy, is probably a big John Dory, or a nice bit of turbot, they're both fantastic. Then there are the unsung heroes, like a megrim sole or a gurnard, or a weaver fish - all these things that you wouldn't necessarily see too much of anywhere else."
Outlaw's inherent trust in the quality of the Cornish seafood scene is clear - "If I could get away with perfectly cooking a piece of mackerel and then serving it with a wedge of lemon," he laughs. "I would!" This partnership between his restaurant and local suppliers and businesses also forms the cornerstone of his continued professional Michelin-starred success, the expectations of which he is under no illusions about.
"If you're coming into Restaurant Nathan Outlaw you should expect to have a good time, because the guys out front are really, really good and they've been with me a long time," he says. "And I think you're going to get the best seafood that you're ever going to eat. It's taken that long to get to that point, but people do expect that, those are the expectations that are on my shoulders, they're expecting perfection."
Fans of Outlaw's work who may have visited Port Isaac and left with a full belly but a hunger to learn more can even take on some of the recipes served up at the industry-leading establishment with the recent release of Outlaw's eighth and latest cookbook, Restaurant Nathan Outlaw.
"This book is much more about a snapshot in time of my restaurant, something that I have been working on for a long time, and it's a view of 12 months of the history of that place. It's got a lot of my signature dishes in there, and things that you might find a bit more difficult to cook - everything in there you can do, it might just take a bit more time and effort."
And like any high-flying restaurateur with a deep-rooted appreciation for environs, Outlaw is quick to heap praise on his culinary contemporaries who ensure the county is a place where visitors are "going to struggle to know where to go because there are so many good places".
"You're going to get food envy from somewhere that's for sure," he smiles. "There's a really good street food place called Craftworks, they're doing really well. And then there's a place called Hidden Hut - I can't even get in there, which is quite frustrating.
"The best restaurant that has opened in the last couple of years, for me, is Coombeshead Farm, which is run by a guy called Tom Adams who used to be at Pitt Cue in London. It's the whole farm-to-table thing: they have their own pigs and chickens, they're doing everything themselves, they've got their own bakery, they've got their own bees; it's a lot more than just cooking; that's really good."
Outlaw does admit that, for all of his obvious affection for Cornwall's vibrant culinary attractions, a short hop across the Bay of Biscay led to his personal piscine nirvana.
"I was filming five or six years ago in North Spain, just outside of San Sebastian, and we went to place called Getaria," he says. "The restaurant is called Kaia Kaipe; they grill all the fish on these big charcoal grills, and we stumbled upon it because we were fishing for squid for this TV show. The crew had arranged this restaurant for us to cook at to do that segment of the show. And I saw these guys doing the fish on these big grills, and I just said: 'we have to eat here'. And everyone was telling me, 'no, Nathan, we have to go on to the next place.' So, I said, 'tell you what, I'll pay for everyone, we just have to eat here.'
"I got the whole crew to sit down, there were about 12 of us, and it was just whole turbots, and whole breams, and all this tuna that they canned themselves. The year after, because I was so impressed by it, I took my dad for his 60th birthday because he loves seafood. It's a really amazing place. It was all really simple, but it was just mind-blowing."
To find out more visit nathan-outlaw.com.