Cool as a Sea Breeze – Nathan Outlaw Interview
Many chefs will begin the New Year determined that 2017 will be the year that they will make the best restaurant lists, get that five star review, and a ambitious few will even aspire to achieving the holy grail of restaurant recognition – a Michelin star. Chef Nathan Outlaw has taken an altogether more relaxed approach to his career.
“When I first came into the industry I didn’t know what Michelin was,” he admits. “To be honest I knew that they made tyres for F1, but I didn’t know they made a guide that told you where you should go to eat. It wasn’t until about 4 years into my career that I knew what they were!”
At Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, despite his seemingly nonchalant attitude, Nathan has gone on to awarded almost every possible accolade for his approach to seafood cookery. He goes into 2017 with 2 Michelin stars, 4 AA Rosette, scoring perfect 10 score and 2nd Best Restaurant title from the Waitrose Good Food Guide UK 2017, and having last year opened a restaurant in the seven-star Burj Al Arab Hotel, Dubai.
Meeting with the chef at restaurant Chapter One during his recent visit to Dublin to judge the Euro-toques young Chef of the Year 2017, it’s easy to see why this industry and public favourite is so popular.
Towering over this years’ Young Chefs during the post skills test photo call Nathan cuts through the tension with his warmth and witty banter. While Michelin is first and foremost about the food, his personality and focus on “making people feel special” through his cooking and hospitality have been a big part of the chef’s success.
“For me hospitality it what it’s all about,” he says.
“So for me it’s lovely to have all the accolades, but those guide books don’t necessarily bring customers.”
He insists that a third Michelin star isn’t something he is constantly chasing. “Only if it came along.” “I cook food that I like to cook, and my customers, the majority of them that come back they don’t necessarily come because it’s a Michelin starred restaurant, they come for the experience and they know that when they come through the door they will be remembered.”
“For me, I got first star in 2003 and it came out of the blue, I wasn’t really expecting it, and ever since I have just kept my style” – a laid back approach that has proved very successful so far.
“My take on Michelin is the more unique you are, the more consistent you are, and the more respect you have for ingredients the more chance you have to get a star. I think if you look to other people, and think you have to have to posh cutlery, I think that’s irrelevant. It’s more about your personality on the plate, and maybe making your personality coming through to the dining room.”
Every year as the latest edition of the little red book is released there are many in the industry and media who openly express their disappointment, dissatisfaction and dismay, and to an extent Nathan can understand their frustrations.
“I think most of the negative comes from people who probably haven’t achieved it, and I can completely understand that because it is probably very frustrating when you think what you are doing is good enough. The difficulty is the commission don’t give you any criteria, there’s not really any feedback. It’s very frustrating as no one has anything to measure against except other restaurants who have been successful with it.”
“It’s a funny old thing Michelin,” he adds with a cheeky smile.
Nathan’s signature pared-down style of seafood cookery can be seen right across his portfolio of restaurants, that includes two more casual eateries in Cornwall, and restaurants in London and Dubai, and he was glad to see the young chefs in Chapter One that day taking the same approach to the lamb they were tasked with cooking.
“I was expecting to see lots of wacky techniques, a lot of stuff that’s not my cup of tea to be honest, but actually they all showed a real respect for the ingredients,” he says. “I quite pleased that not one of them cooked anything in a water bath which is my pet hate. Maybe they read about me before, I don’t know!” he adds laughing.
Frills, fuss and foams are not his thing:
“I respect anyone that can cook a tasty plate of food and use the best of ingredients. And if you can pull that using all the foams then fair play to you, but for me a simple plate of food is best.”
He says that young chefs often lack the patience, skill and confidence to strip back their dishes and “put as little on the plate as possible.” “It’s not about the portion size but the amount of elements.”
“The biggest thing from the cooking point of view is to taste your food, that’s how you build up that palate, how you get your brain to develop that understanding. Sometimes you find with young chefs that they don’t taste the food as much as they should. Really you should sit down and try the whole dish, but unfortunately that’s not always possible to do that.”
As a young chef himself, Nathan put in the hard work to master the basics and build up that confidence; spending an entire year just prepping fish at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant.
“For me it’s all about basics, it’s the fundamental part of cooking. You need to master every skill, and it takes time to do that you can’t just rush that. A young chef competition like Euro-toques is somewhere you could see that inexperience, but today the technique was generally very very good. I expected at least one of them to go off the rails but they were good.”
Just as Rick Stein and his father, also a chef, mentored him, Nathan will act as mentor for the Young Chef of the Year winner Maeve Walsh, who was awarded the opportunity to do a stage at the Michelin starred restaurant.
“I think the teaching part is the most important part of being a chef. It’s about sharing knowledge. That’s why competitions like this are so important,” he says, and luckily for Maeve he adds:
“I run a kitchen in a very calm way, it’s quite organised but there’s no screaming and shouting. It quite down to earth. I’m too big to throw my weight around.”
Only 23 years old when he was first appointed head chef, at The Vineyard in Stock Cross, aged 24 he opened his own restaurant with wife Rachel, and in the same year the couple welcomed their first child, Jacob. Two Michelin stars and a daughter, Jessica, were all to follow before the age of 27.
How did he get the balance between work and family right?” I query, “I didn’t,” Nathan says bluntly. “It was all over the place. I am lucky that my wife is from the industry, and I have family from the industry. It’s very tough for anybody who doesn’t work in this industry to understand the way that chefs work because they are a very rare breed!”
A rare breed that is willing to put up with the “hard knocks” that come hand in hand with the life of a chef. “Yes it is long hours, and yes it is physically not great for your body standing up all day, but your are doing something you are passionate about and you have a great desire to do it, so for me that’s very important because I couldn’t be in a job where I looking at the clock all day.”
Though he does admit that the chef’s lifestyle needs to change to make the career more attractive and sustainable going forward. “I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to make it better for everybody. It’s very tough because cooking amazing food and having an amazing restaurant doesn’t go hand in hand with time off. It’s the opposite. It’s always about finding balance. Nobody wants to work the hours that we work, but you can’t cut corners at the same time.”
With family ties to County Cork, he has enjoyed the work engagements that have brought him to Ireland, and says that he uses Galway oysters in his restaurants in London and Dubai, and both Clare Island and Glenarm Salmon, as well as Irish cheeses across the board.
While Nathan may appreciate the quality of our seafood he is keenly aware that the Irish themselves are sometimes reluctant to cook with it and, like in the UK, that we ship much of this rich resource abroad.
He has a personal mission to help people overcome a fear of fish cookery, and in 2016 released his latest book Everyday Seafood to share his simple principles to perfect fish.
His first pearl of wisdom to get your hands on some fresh, good quality fish. “I think a lot of people are put off by the smell or by something that’s off, and then there’s the association with school dinners. The older generations, the fish they would have had was really poor quality and the only time they probably had fish was when it was overcooked, bland, in a thick floury sauce, or in batter with chips – which by the way is my favourite fish dish ever.”
“For anybody who wants to start I think get a fillet, I wouldn’t get it on the bone because who might not like the eyes or the bones, and just cook it really simply, just steam it or grill it and use a simple sauce, or just a bit of lemon even.”
And when it comes to choosing which fish to cook with? “People just say ‘fish is fish’, but actually every species has a different taste, smell, and texture,” he says. “Mackerel is my favourite, because I think it’s very versatile; raw, cured, smoked, barbecued it’s delicious, and I think it’s a beautiful looking fish as well, especially when you see it coming out of the sea.”
Though even what he calls “the ‘naff fish’, the ones that are overused like cod and salmon,” hold a place in his heart.
Nathan Outlaw proves that Michelin stars are not always born out of ego and embellishment. Just like a dip in the cold sea, chatting to this humble, down-to-earth, gentle giant who puts the ingredient and the customer first is stimulating and refreshing – though definitely more enjoyable.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.