Nathan's happy to put success at mercy of the sea
Despite his many plaudits, top chef Nathan Outlaw says he owes it all to the bravery of fishermen, as
Eleanor Gaskarth discovers...
Humbleness is not a characteristic commonly associated with the world's top chefs, particularly when the success keeps rolling in. And Nathan Outlaw's success is not so much rolling as barreling like a colossal wave.
His more casual offering, Outlaw's Seafood and Grill Restaurant, recently scooped gold at the South West Tourism Excellence Awards, while Britain's only two Michelin-starred fish restaurant, also at the St Enodoc Hotel in Rock, continues to shine.
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In September the 34-year-old, whose friendly face has become familiar on our television screens, opened a seafood grill at one of London's most prestigious hotels and a new restaurant, Outlaw's Fish Kitchen, is under construction in Looe.
But despite all of these accomplishments, the married father-of-two remains firm about what it is that enables him to create the dishes that have brought this renown. He states, quite simply, that if Westcountry fishermen did not risk their lives daily to bring him the freshest catch, he wouldn't have a business at all.
"I'm very aware of where everything comes from," he says. "My father-in-law is a fisherman, a lot of my friends are fishermen, and the conditions they go out in and the pressures they are under are crazy.
"We support the Fisherman's Mission as a charity very closely and do a lot of fundraising for them.
"I think fishermen have the short straw. One of my good friends on the north coast, off Port Isaac, came very close to being pulled overboard by his winch, which happens quite often.
"The problem is that a lot of these guys are forced to go to sea alone to make their living, making it even more dangerous. I just think that for them to go out in these treacherous conditions to support people eating fish is very heroic. It's something I personally couldn't see myself doing, I always feel it's amazing."
Fishing reform is currently high on the public agenda after MEPs this month backed plans to overhaul the unpopular European Union's Common Fisheries Policy.
Nathan is firmly of the belief that something needs to change. "The biggest impact is the quotas," he said. "Sometimes they're having to go out in very dangerous conditions to dangerous areas to catch a certain type of fish that they're only allowed at that point.
"The fishermen I deal with, and have met over a 12-year period, have always been very conscious of the sustainability aspect of fishing. They are very forward-thinking – looking for new gear to use and different nets that are better for the catch.
"You always hear horror stories about the beam trawlers, but a lot of them really know the area and are not destroying things. A lot of the problem is foreign fishermen coming into our waters and not obeying the laws we set."
The chef, who started aged eight making toast in his father's industrial catering kitchen, believes his side of the bargain is to only cook what his fishermen can provide, rather than ordering in fish like any other commodity on a shelf.
He explains: "We purely buy what the fisherman has. We never demand anything, we're completely dictated to by the market and the fishermen. They're at the mercy of the sea and so should we be. If the market is bad we're very under pressure because we don't have the variety to offer, but I'm quite happy to stand there with one fish on the menu and say, 'Look, that's all there is.'
"I'm prepared to do that because it's an industry you should support and the only way I can support it is to continue to buy locally from smaller boats and make sure I represent it wherever I go."
Nathan says it's unfortunate that the best fish is caught "when the water is coldest and the weather at its worst," adding: "What we are getting is amazing quality at the moment – lemon soles, cod, gurnard, brill. It's the best at this time of year but there's not much of it because the fishermen can't always get out.
"The quality of fish in the South West for me is the best in the world. I can't think of better anywhere that I've travelled. It amazes me still that our fishermen are put under this pressure seeing as they're bringing in the prize catch."
In September last year, Nathan opened an Outlaw's Seafood & Grill within the Capital Hotel in London, giving him an outlet in the city for the first time.
He says it's not taking him away from the Duchy too much, adding: "I put a very good head chef up there, Pete Biggs, who has been with me on and off for ten years, the last four in Rock, so he can cook just as good as I can and runs a kitchen very well.
"I go up there once a week to make sure everything's fine and help him out. We've got a very good courier service from Cornwall that takes the fish daily and it's going well.
"We're trying to showcase the best fish of the South West in London. There's a lot of competition and plenty going on, but there still aren't that many fish restaurants."
Meanwhile, work is progressing on Outlaw's Fish Kitchen, at Buller Quay in Looe. "We're at a stage where we're still getting everything organised, with builders and boring business things like quotes. People have been really nice about it, there's a lot of local support, telling us they're glad we're opening in the area and that it's going to be great."
Paul Ripley, formerly head chef at Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant and a Michelin star holder himself, will be head chef in Looe. But Nathan adds: "The actual restaurant won't be Michelin-star style. What we're trying to do is make it a much more relaxed, communal-type thing, with an open kitchen."
When discussing the South East Cornwall venture, an even warmer tone creeps into the chef's voice. He admits: "I've got a bit of a special place in my heart for Looe. As a kid I went there on holiday but also, before I opened my first restaurant, I actually nearly bought a restaurant in Looe, so if things had been different I might have been there for ten years.
"I've always bought my fish from there so I know quite a lot of the people and the market. What we're trying to do is both support the area and also do something a bit different that Cornwall hasn't seen before."
For more information visit www.nathan-outlaw.com.