by Marcus Leach
When people think about owning a restaurant more often than not a romantic image will often come into their head; maybe an image of a little seaside establishment serving the freshest fish straight from the market that morning. For Nathan Outlaw that romantic image is his reality, although it took a lot of hard work to achieve it.
Whilst his flagship restaurant, the self-titled Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, boasts two Michelin stars, Outlaw remains grounded and firmly focused on the future and not letting his standards slip. There is no sense of self-importance about him, as there can be with some who achieve a degree of fame, but rather a complete humbleness. Sat talking to him I get the feeling that he is grateful for all he has, knowing that without the ability to cook none of it would have been possible.
Growing up it was his dream to work with one of the greatest seafood chefs around, Rick Stein, and so off to Cornwall he went to learn his trade. Over fifteen years later he is still in Cornwall, only now he has four restaurants and a pub to his name, and yet he still maintains a very grounded approach to all that he does. The Essential Cyclist caught up with him to learn more about his journey to becoming one of the country's best chefs.
Marcus Leach: What first got you into food Nathan?
Nathan Outlaw: I first started cooking as my father was, and still is, a chef. So as a young boy I grew up watching him and I knew from an early age it was what I wanted to do. I was about 14 when I first started cooking properly in the kitchen, but from the age of about eight I was already in the kitchen helping out on Saturday mornings. It's a way of life, and to be honest with you it's not a job, I do it and I love it, and I wouldn't want to do anything else.
ML: You're not the first chef I have spoken to who has said it isn't a job. You have to have a passion for cooking don't you?
NO: I would say desire as well. Passion is what you need to get into it, but you need desire to really want to achieve at it. Your passion could wear off so you need the desire to make sure you get where you want to get. At the beginning of it, when you come into it, if you didn't love it it's not a good career. It's hard work, it's long hours on your feet all day, the kitchens are hot and and it can be quite hostile, not in mine though, so you need that desire to see you through.
ML: So have you worked in some hostile kitchens along the way?
NO: Yes, but then I think all chefs have at some stage or another. There was an era, probably fifteen years ago, where it was quite raucous and quite inhumane in a way. It wasn't really a great environment, it was all about survival of the fittest back then and if you couldn't cut it you would quickly be on the rubbish dump. But, with the media side of things now, the popularity of food and drink, things on social media and being more accessible, there is less chance of people acting like that now. It is so open that people can't afford to be like they were back then. All of that has been good for the industry and I think it is a much better industry to be in now.
ML: It seems that the industry has changed a huge amount over recent years to the extent where it is now seen as a respectable profession, where as before it was maybe seen as the profession of the working class or those who didn't have many other options. Is that true?
NO: Very much so, and it's becoming more common for people to change their careers to get into cooking, especially more mature people who are in a job, and not in a life choice, where they are looking at the clock all day and wishing they were doing something they really wanted to do. You see people who are lawyers and doctors making the switch to be chefs.
ML: Is that possible though, what with the need to work your way up through the ranks and serve your time before you can be a head chef or run your own restaurant.
NO: You really have to want to do it, as you do still need to serve your time and work your way up, but it is possible if the desire is really there. There are those who are looking for quick fame in the industry now but you still need to have done your apprenticeship and learnt the knowledge that comes from years of experience. There are so many things you need to know in a kitchen and restaurant environment that you can't just pick up a book and read about it. There is no such thing as 'Restaurant Running for Dummies' and there never will be as it's all about experience and being the right type of person. Some people have just not got the skill to manage a lot of people in a calm manner. A lot of people like the idea of cooking from seeing it on the television.
ML: It's a romantic notion I think, to own your own restaurant, be able to do a bit of cooking and make a living from food.
NO: The amount of people who have said to me that they would love to have a restaurant by the seaside and to be cooking fresh fish from the market, it's not always the reality. But that's what they see, they don't know the hard work and hours that go into. There is no quick way around it, you have to work at it and give it the time.
ML: You mentioned the quick fame, obviously the world of cooking has changed and chefs are now enjoying a degree of celebrity status, is that something you have enjoyed?
NO: It's been a gradual thing. I have steadily been growing my profile and that has allowed me to get used to it. When you first start with the public speaking and television work you are always a little bit nervous, but it is one of those things that the more you do it, the more you practice it the better at it you get. Where I base my restaurants, in Cornwall, it is obviously very seasonal so I need to do a certain amount of media, PR stuff for the business. Everything I do at this stage of my life, and I'm 36 now, is for the future of the business. I've got another 25 years of cooking hopefully and I want to be cooking at a good level, that I'm happy at, for that time, therefor everything I am doing now is for that.
ML: And what of the future, do you have plans for more restaurants? Or is it a case of ensuring what you have is of the highest possible standard?
NO: I think at the moment it really is just consolidating on what we have. We have four restaurants and a pub at present so that's quite a lot already, and if I am being honest there has been no master plan for that it has been a case of opportunities coming up as we have gone along. That's not to say we won't expand in the future, we will just take each opportunity as it comes along, there is no blueprint for what we are doing.
ML: How do you manage your time across the five places?
NO: When I am in Cornwall I can get around every business in a day, and then I do service in the two Michelin star restaurant. By seven I am in that kitchen and that is then my focus. I am lucky that I have a very good head chef who runs that kitchen on a day-to-day basis.
ML: I guess you need to have a good degree of trust that the standards are going to be kept in your absence.
NO: You have to. To evolve as a person and a chef you have to let go and have that trust otherwise people don't learn and they don't get that responsibility that they need to develop. With the London restaurant I come up every week and I do two lunches and a dinner.
ML: Do they know when you're coming?
NO: My head chef, Pete, he will know but everybody else I like to keep them on their toes. It keeps things fresh then as the standards are kept the same all of the time. At the end of the day the reason I am here is to cook and run the restaurant, not for anything else, so it's good to just come and work with the guys here.
ML: You mentioned the fact you have two stars, was that always a goal when you were younger?
NO: When I came into the industry I didn't actually know about Michelin stars, so they were never really an issue for me back then. The reason why I came into cooking is because I love cooking, it was never for anything else, not the fame, not the awards. The industry has changed and obviously there is a degree of fame and there are the awards now, but ultimately it is the cooking that has gotten me to where I am. And that's what my advice would be to any young chef coming into the industry, just let your cooking do the talking and hopefully everything else will take care of itself.
ML: If you look at your own cooking over the years you have been a chef would you say it has changed a huge deal?
NO: I have become more confident over the years and therefor more inclined to put less on the plate with a belief that what is there is good enough. That's something every chef goes through, at first you're a bit nervous and unsure of yourself so you compensate by putting more on the plate. You see that when a new restaurant opens, sometimes the plates of food are so complicated and that's due to a lack of confidence. As you cook more and more your confidence levels increase.
My food is very much ingredient lead, and obviously seafood is my passion and what I do so for me it is about focusing on that and mastering it, not over-complicating matters with all manner of sauces and other ingredients. The hardest thing now, having been cooking for twenty years, is actually rounding up all of the ingredients, the cooking part I should know by now. The ingredients is the biggest battle, but also the most thrilling one as well because you are always searching. One you want to find the best quality ingredients and then secondly you want to find new ingredients too, something somebody else hasn't got because once people cotton on certain ingredients become the fashionable thing for a while.
ML: Is there anything you've got ingredient wise at the moment that others haven't?
NO: The seafood I get in Cornwall is the best seafood you can get in the country and I honestly believe that. I ended up in Cornwall because I wanted to work for Rick Stein, as he was doing the best seafood cooking in the country and where better place to learn than with Rick. And my wife is from there so we settled there and I love it.
ML: Where did the love of seafood start originally then?
NO: When I was a kid I was always fascinated by fisherman, sea fishing, the whole industry really. Naturally then I was more interested in cooking it and for me it is a challenge on a daily basis. Not to say I don't like cooking meat, because I do, but it doesn't challenge me as much as cooking fish does. The margins for error with fish are a lot smaller and it requires, in my opinion, a lot more technique to cook it properly.
The question I get asked the most is what advice can you give to people cooking fish at home? The majority of fish cooks in three or four minutes, so in many ways it is a type of convenience food as it cooks so quickly. So my advice is always to get everything else ready first and then at the last minute cook your fish, otherwise your fish is done and everything else is still cooking and by the time it's ready your fish is ruined. When you are cooking fish you need to pay attention to it at all times and use your eyes.
ML: You mentioned convenience food there, and if you look at society now it seems that more and more people want that convenience. Do you think there is a danger of cookery skills being lost because of that?
NO: I think we have already seen it in society where the skill base is being lost. The government took cookery off the curriculum about ten years ago so now kids are coming through, and I see it with the work I do with kids at schools and colleges, where they just don't understand basic ingredients. Children should leave school not only with their core subjects like English and maths, but also with life skills, of which cooking is one of them. If I was Prime Minister I would say that the schooling system, until the age of fourteen, should all be about life skills, and then you should look at the more traditional subjects after that.
Most kids coming out of school don't know what a APR is, that's the sort of things they need to be learning so that they don't come out of school and start getting into money troubles and they understand life better. And cooking comes under that category, kids should be able to cook a decent soup for themselves, they should be able to roast a chicken, boil an egg, fry an egg, scramble an egg, basic things. It doesn't take long to learn these skills but they are invaluable. I'm not saying more traditional subjects aren't, but there needs to be a bigger focus on life skills.
ML: Do you do a lot of cooking at home with your own children?
NO: In the week my wife does most of it but I like to get involved at the weekends, and I enjoy cooking at home. I don't think many chefs will say that, but I just enjoy being with my family and cooking things like shepherds pies and lasagne with them.
ML: And what fish would you say is tour favourite to cook with?
NO: Mackerel. I think it's brilliant, from being raw, BBQ'd, smoked, it's just a great fish. What I like about it is there are so many things you can do with it, but they key is for it to be fresh. It has to be consumed as soon as possible after being caught, no more than twenty-four hours really, which is why you need to be eating it on the coast and not somewhere like London.
ML: Away from the restaurants how do you spend your free time?
NO: Obviously spending time with my family, taking the dog for walks and I love my music. The good thing about being a chef is you can have music on most of the day in the kitchen so I do get to listen to a lot of good music.
ML: So I guess the last question then is what are you listening to at the moment?
NO: I've just got the new Royal Blood album, which is really good. I saw them at Finsbury Park earlier this year when they supported Arctic Monkeys, which was a brilliant day out.
Photos courtesy of David Griffen.