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Meet the chef: Michelin-starred Nathan Outlaw talks food with Natasha Heard

Nathan Outlaw

Nathan Outlaw may just be the nicest chef in the business. The Michelin-starred restaurateur and fish expert talks to our food and drink editor Natasha Heard.

Who has been your greatest inspiration?

I’ve been inspired by every chef I’ve ever worked with. Some have taught me amazing things. Some have taught me how not to do things (even if they haven’t realised that!). I suppose if I had to pin it down to one person it would have to be Rick Stein. He was the one who inspired me to learn about, and cook fish. His enthusiasm is infectious. When I see him nowadays, albeit not that often, he still has something to say that amazes me!

Why fish …. and is there one that that best expresses your style?

I like a challenge and cooking with fish is always a challenge. People don’t realise that fish are seasonal and if the conditions in the sea aren’t right they don’t come. They also don’t see fish as wild animals. Each one has lived differently and eaten differently and that affects the final product. This means that no two fish ever cook in exactly the same way so you have to keep your wits about you. It’s also a challenge from the point of availability. I only use responsibly caught fish from small boats and if the weather is bad, the fishermen don’t go out so there’s no fish on the market. It can get interesting at times!

If I had to choose one fish that expresses my style it would be the mackerel. It’s my favourite fish. It looks beautiful when straight out of the sea and it’s really versatile. It can be used in lots of ways. I always think of it as an ‘unsung hero’.

Outlaw’s at the Capital holds a coveted Michelin star

What was behind your decision to open in London and why The Capital in Knightsbridge?

It wasn’t so much about being in London as the size of the restaurant. I wanted somewhere that was sustainable, not too big. Somewhere that was big enough to get a decent atmosphere but small enough to be intimate. I think Outlaw’s at The Capital does that. When I opened five and a half years ago it was also important that it was family run. I liked that. It’s the way I run my business too. It seemed the right place at the right time…still is.

You’ve got 4 Michelin stars – two for Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, one each for Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen and Outlaw’s in London. What do they mean to you personally and to the running of the restaurants?

It’s more important to be busy than have a Michelin star. Of course, it’s very nice to have them though but I’ve never courted them. I just do what I think is right and what I think my customers want. My restaurants are built around what I would want from a restaurant if I were the customer; amazing food, exceptional hospitality and somewhere I can relax. I can’t stand restaurants where you’re scared to move and the waiting staff look down their noses at you!

All the accolades are recognition for the hard work of my teams, not just me. After all, without them I wouldn’t be able to run the restaurants!

the capital hotel london
The 5-star Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge

You became a household name during Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen; did you enjoy working on TV?  What were the highs and lows?

I like doing TV but I much prefer it to be live. It’s more fun because more can go wrong! Pre-recorded programmes are ok but the hanging about can be boring. I only do TV that represents what I’m about. I don’t go in for gimmicky stuff.

The highs are that you get to meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s also useful as a way to show off my food and what I’m about.

The only low is the time it takes, especially pre-recorded shows. You have to remember that I’m based in Cornwall so it usually means extra journeys into London that take upwards of 5 hours each way. Sometimes I have to come in on the night train because I have to do service at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw the night before. That’s a killer!

Do you use a food thesaurus and are there any combinations you would ban?

I am a food thesaurus! I can’t help it. The only books I read are cookery books or things related. I’ve also had 22 years of talking to fishermen and producers!

In my view, the only things that should be on a plate are those that are edible and ‘belong’. I don’t do gimmicky. I don’t do smears and foams and fiddly bits. I do food. I think chefs need to be tasting their cooking much more too. I’m sure if they did they’d realise they sometimes overcomplicate things.

You recently launched your 4th cookery book – why the departure from exclusively fish?

My son turned 13 and I realised that it wouldn’t be long before he would be out on his own so I decided to write a book with my children in mind; something they could take away as a companion when they leave home and that would see them through. That’s where the inspiration came from. That’s not to say that everything in it is simple. There are some more challenging dishes. Something for everyone really. Oh, and I wanted people to realise that I can cook more than fish!

Lemon Sole
Nathan’s outpost in the city boasts an array of unique dishes created using British seafood caught predominantly around the coast of Cornwall

What advice do you have for someone wanting to open their own restaurant?

It’s all too easy these days for people to watch TV programmes and think ‘I can do that’. Believe me, there’s nothing more important than experience. Without it you can make some very expensive mistakes. It’s a tricky business and no matter who you are, even if you think you’re ready, you’re not! My advice on opening would be not to overspend on setting up. Make do to start with and upgrade things as you become more successful. When I started we cut milk cartons in half to store food in as we couldn’t afford to go and buy proper storage boxes! It worked. I’d also say that people appreciate those who give it a go independently. People don’t like show-offs. And it’s better to under promise then over deliver. That wows your customers! They like to see you progressing. I have customers who still come to the restaurant now who started coming when I first opened. That’s really lovely.
What would be your desert island dinner?

That’s easy. Freshly caught mackerel, preferably barbecued over coal (never gas!) on the beach. Good sourdough to mop up the juices and some crunchy salad. Then a good old English trifle maybe with some Cornish clotted cream. Oh, and a pint of lovely cold Guiness to wash it all down! Magic!