After parting ways with his UK pub and Dubai hotel restaurant, and the closure of his restaurant in the Goring hotel, it’s all change for Nathan Outlaw
With his focus squarely on his two-Michelin-starred Port Isaac restaurant, Nathan Outlaw tells James Stagg how he’s now transforming it into something completely new…
You’ve changed Restaurant Nathan Outlaw to Outlaw’s New Road. Is this something you were considering pre-coronavirus or is it a practical decision based on what’s possible with social distancing?
It was something I’d been thinking about for quite a while. Probably three or four years ago I realised the simpler food is what I prefer. That said, I’ve always had a simple style to my food and kept it down to three or four ingredients maximum. There’s not much to it if you look at it, as I was much more interested in the technique and sourcing of the ingredients. It resonated with me that what I’ve been thinking about for the past few years is what I should do. It was solely my decision – but supported by my wife and general manager. Because I haven’t got restaurants in London any more or the pub [the Mariners in Rock, now run by Paul Ainsworth], and it’s just two restaurants in Port Isaac, I can be very selfish in the sense that I’ve got to make myself happy to make everyone else happy. I’m a great believer that it comes from the top – if I’m not happy, it will show and they won’t be happy.
So the plan is to cook with a bit more freedom?
When you have a fine-dining restaurant and two Michelin stars, there are so many unwritten rules – that incidentally, nobody has ever shared officially – they’re just rumours and industry gossip. I just want to come to work, enjoy being with the team and serve great food on the plate. Nothing will change in terms of standards – the fish I was buying for the two-Michelin-starred restaurant will be the same.
What were the unwritten rules that you were keen to ignore?
There were all sorts of rumours that used to fly around. When I opened my first place at 24 years old, everyone said you had to have certain crockery or glassware. The same with the rumour that you had to have five canapés and five petits-fours to get five AA rosettes. If you’ve got a kitchen with three or four chefs, you’re just putting yourself in trouble and adding to their day. I’ve just got to the point where I listen to my heart and my colleagues.
This is where I think people have got into trouble in the past. Now they’ve run out of choices, but all these unwritten rules would make people lose sleep. Front of house was under so much pressure thinking they could only serve one way.
Can you give us a sense of the new menu?
There are no rules. It all depends on the weather. We’re aiming to support the fishermen and suppliers that we have a good relationship with. So if there’s good weather we’ll have a bigger menu. That was one of the other things that were always said in the past. Your menu has to be solid, it has to have structure. Bollocks to all that. We’re going to get the best ingredients we can get and stick them on the menu so they’re in front of people as quickly as possible.
Are you freer to do what you want now that you don’t have the pressure of partners in London and Dubai?
I was very lucky. You could probably say those opportunities came about because of the awards – you get noticed and written about. But, luckily for me, everyone I’ve been involved with – be it the Capital, the Goring or Dubai – that has never been the focus. They know that’s not what I’m about. First of all we look after the staff and then we make sure the customers are happy.
For 20 years I’ve been aiming for things that actually don’t really matter to me. I got into cooking because I love cooking – I had no idea about awards and accolades. I’m lucky to have achieved these things with my team, but I’ve got to the point where I’ve done everything I can do, so now it’s making the offer more accessible and fun for everybody.
Do you think the change in style will have an impact in terms of accolades?
In terms of stars, I think we will dropdown. The food on the plate in my view will be far better than what we were doing before, but that’s just my view because I enjoy eating a simple piece of turbot that’s cooked on the bone, or a crab and lobster salad. For me, that’s better than some of the dishes we did before with some pointless garnishes on them. You put them there because you thought you needed to put them there.
Now the untrained eye could say that my Dover sole is the same as any other Dover sole – but I know it’s not. In the eyes of a guide what we’re doing is simple – albeit with the best seafood we can get.
Does the new style lend itself to more covers too?
The difference is now, because of the business pressures, we need to make up for the last four months. We only have 10 weeks and we’re into winter again. Previously there was only one sitting in the restaurant, but that’s not going to work now as we only have five tables. I couldn’t ask people to pay £140 for the menu and only sit there for two hours. Now you come to eat my food, and I’ll be cooking in the kitchen with the guys, you’ll pay half the money – or even less – compared to before, the ingredients will be the same and the only thing I’m asking is that after two hours, can you go, please?
So the restaurant will be more accessible in terms of price?
I’m gambling that by being more affordable, we’ll bring in more local business and people who we may have alienated before due to cost. What we’re offering is a celebration and the best of Cornwall, which will resonate with people in the southwest. We may have been a little out of reach, but I’d be happy if we were more affordable and busier through the winter.
Will you miss tasting menus?
For the last five years, I’ve not eaten in a fine dining restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, I respect what people are doing, but I don’t want to sit at a table for more than two hours. I’m happy to have a drink in the bar before or after, which is something we’ll be able to offer when fully open again. I don’t think I should run a restaurant that I wouldn’t sit in myself.
What kind of impact do you think it will have on the profitability of the restaurant? Presumably, this will reduce spend per head but maintain covers?
Part of the reason for changing the restaurant is because I want some longevity in the business. I’m committed to what I do for the rest of my life. I don’t have any desire to sell up or build a brand to sell on. After reflecting on things, I’ve realised that if I can create the heart of our business as a fun and happy place, I think long-term we’ll be better off.
How will the increase in covers affect the way you operate?
Previously we’d do around 30 covers a day and now we’re looking at anything from 50 to 70 covers in the restaurant and up to 60 orders going through takeaway, so it’s quite a turnaround. The prep load is much more – for a start the takeaway portion is bigger than you’d do in a restaurant.
The way we set the kitchen up now is less like a French partie system and more an American line cook system. We have four chefs – two on cold, two on hot – who do everything for delivery and the restaurant. Then at the back of the restaurant, we have a prep area, with two chefs full time, prepping all day. So there will always be six in the kitchen, including me.
What about the Fish Kitchen? With 18 covers is it viable to open under distancing requirements?
The Fish Kitchen doesn’t work because of social distancing and the safety of the staff, so we’ve had to turn that into a private dining space. In the restaurant, we can’t really take larger tables, so any bigger tables that enquire may well get sent down there with a chef – probably me. But it’ll be the same menu as New Road to start with.