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30 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Nathan Outlaw

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nathan outlaw 2012 - Nathan_Outlaw_2012.jpgAlthough Nathan Outlaw grew up in Kent, he is more often associated with Cornwall: his eponymous two-Michelin-starred flagship and the more casual Outlaw’s Seafood & Grill are both located in Rock; Academy Nathan Outlaw at Cornwall College opened earlier this year; while a new venture in Looe will launch in 2013. In October, the chef opened his first London restaurant: Outlaw’s Seafood & Grill at The Capital, in Knightsbridge. Square Meal caught up with the unstoppable chef.

You’ve changed direction at The Capital since you opened the restaurant in October – what made you do this?

I didn’t really know where to take things when I first took over. Originally, we were doing more seaside dishes: whole langoustines, whole lobster and shellfish platters. But in London, J Sheekey and Scott’s already do that sort of thing. Four weeks after we opened, we changed the menu to take into account feedback from regulars. What customers are looking for is an urban version of what we do in Cornwall. So we’ve started doing a straightforward à la carte menu with just five or six dishes. Because the two-star restaurant in Cornwall [Restaurant Nathan Outlaw] only serves a tasting menu and people said they wanted what we’ve got in Cornwall, we’ve introduced a short tasting menu. The good thing is that we’re more comfortable with the food we’re doing at The Capital now. It’s more me; the menu is full of things I’ve created that you can’t get anywhere else in London.

Having worked with top names including Eric Chavot, Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein and John Campbell, which chefs do you admire and why?

I’ve learnt something from everybody I’ve worked for. I think what I’ve taken away from a lot of kitchens is how to leave the bad things behind and only take the good things. I’ve trained all the staff at the kitchen we have in Cornwall, and I try to get them out on experiences with other chefs and other kitchens, so that they can see great food but also realise that the environment they’re working in is really nice compared to a lot of kitchens. And when they are ready to go then I help them move on.

Why were you drawn to fish?

I was always put on the fish section in every place I worked in. But I have always been passionate about fish; I loved it as a kid and we went to the seaside every weekend. When I realised I wanted to become a chef, I wanted to learn how to cook the best fish in the UK, so I decided to work for Rick Stein. In my two years there, for the first year all I did was prep fish. The happiest place for me is always prepping; it’s therapeutic.

What’s your take on the issue of marine sustainability?

The most important thing for me is to look after the fishermen; I’ve got a lot of friends in Cornwall who are fishermen and I understand the pressures they’re under within the industry. Lots of fishermen are down to one man, which makes their job very dangerous – a friend lost the top of his finger the other day.

It’s very easy for chefs to say they only buy sustainable fish without considering the pressure fishermen are under. Because I buy from smaller boats, I know the fishermen I buy from work in a very sustainable way, and their work couldn’t possibly have an effect on the major story of sustainability. Most of them are part of the responsible fishing scheme – but in any case, they’re not going to ruin their livelihood by overfishing something, because they’re thinking of the future. Overfishing is down to the super-trawlers that we never buy from.

What would you have been if you hadn’t become a chef?

When I was 12, I went to Walt Disney Studios and I got the forms to join its animation apprenticeship scheme in America. But my dad is a chef and I was already getting into cheffing, and once I started doing whole days in the kitchen, that was it. I love art and the creative side of cookery, the presentation. Cooking is my passion, but when I’m old and I can’t stand up any more, I’ll go back to art.

Would you encourage your children to become chefs?

My dad tried to discourage me – he made me work very hard over a six-week summer-holiday period and put me through my paces, giving me all the crap jobs. But I still wanted to be a chef. It’s the same with my kids: I wouldn’t discourage them but I wouldn’t encourage them. It’s one of those things that you’ve got to want to do – you’ve got to be passionate about it so that it’s not hard work. I don’t ever think of my job as work, and I think that’s how you’ve got to feel if you want to be a chef. There are easier ways to make money.

nathan outlaw 2012 - Nathan_Outlaw_2012_2.jpgWhen you heard that you had won your second Michelin star you were going on holiday to Tenerife, and your friend Jason Atherton joked that it wasn’t a holiday destination for a two-Michelin-starred chef. Where do you go on holiday now?

I’m always off work in January because that’s when we close the restaurant. This year I’m taking the children to New York, but it’s going to be very cold. We are fond of the Canary Islands because it’s the closest place you can go to get a decent bit of sun.

When I found out about the second star I was actually in a Premier Inn at Gatwick Airport. When Derek Bulmer [former editor of the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland] rang me up, I had my daughter Jessica on my shoulders and my son Jacob was kicking a bag along the hallway, and I was trying to calm him down. I didn’t know what the phone call was about, the kids were going mental and there was Derek Bulmer trying to tell me I’d got two stars. I put the phone down, put the kids down, then rang him back. It was a really nice surprise.

Would you say you value Michelin stars over any other form of professional recognition?

We’ve always been very successful with Michelin, but it’s not something I’ve ever really aimed for. I got my first Michelin star when I was 24, at The Black Pig [now closed]. We’d only been open eight months, I was the only one in the kitchen, I had no money, all my containers were the bottom of milk-bottle cartons that I’d cut off – I seriously didn’t have a pot to piss in. The last thing I expected was for someone from Michelin to come in.

I suppose Michelin is a form of recognition that you can’t tamper with. No one can really say they have an influence over it, there’s no sponsorship, you don’t know who the inspectors are – and I like that.

Do you have any golden rules in your kitchen?

I don’t like lying. If I ask one of my staff whether he put salt in that water, and he lies about it, there are a lot of chefs who would get really angry about that sort of thing, but I’m not one of those. What I saw in a lot of places I worked at was that if you were lower than a chef de partie, you were just shot down on sight by the head chef. I decided I would never be like that. Often when you take on somebody who worked for a chef who you know is hot-headed, you can see the same temper coming through in them.

The way I run a kitchen is very calm, it’s all about building up a team. Getting angry is only going to affect the morale of everybody – as soon as you do lose it, it all goes wrong because if you’re shouting, people in the team will get confused or upset and will keep making mistakes. I’ve probably completely lost it only once in the past three years.

Can you tell us about your biggest kitchen disasters?

One summer we cooked mackerel burgers at an outside event. It worked really well – we were the only ones selling food there, it was lovely weather, we sold loads of burgers and made a bit of money. We decided to do it again the following year, and we doubled the number of burgers. But on the day it rained, and when we arrived there were loads of outlets selling food. We must have had 1,500 burgers ready in the freezer, and in the end we couldn’t sell them all so we had to get rid of them. We learned that we should stick to what we know rather than branch out to outside catering.

A practical joke that nearly went wrong was when we had a delivery of 50 lobsters and I asked our new apprentice to cook them for me. I said to him, ‘What you mustn’t do is let these lobsters go red. If they go red then they’re spoiled and it’s going to cost me a fortune.’ So as soon as the lobsters hit the water they obviously all went red, and the apprentice went as white as a sheet and nearly passed out. All the boys were laughing. I did feel bad about that – but I’d do it again.

This feature was published in November 2012.

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