Interview with Nathan Outlaw, the chef obsessed with fish

For more than a decade, cornwall’s produce, climate and landscapes have inspired chef Nathan Outlaw at his eponymous two Michelin-star restaurant. His latest book offers a peek inside his kitchen.Thursday, 29 August 2019

What’s the story behind your restaurant?
Restaurant Nathan Outlaw has been open in various locations since 2007, but it’s now found a permanent home above the bay in Port Isaac. It serves seasonal, sustainably sourced fish and seafood from the waters around Cornwall. My approach to the food is one of simplicity, but with complex flavour combinations. I don’t like heavy sauces or anything gimmicky — the star of the show is always the seafood or fish. If it’s the very best available, it shouldn’t need much doing to it. Mind you, cooking like this means there’s nowhere to hide.

What makes Port Isaac the perfect setting for a fish restaurant?
Port Isaac is quaint and quirky, with a long history of fishing and seafaring — from the restaurant, you can watch the local fishermen out for their catch. I can source virtually all the ingredients I need from within a few miles of the restaurant, and they’re all of the quality I expect. For a fish and seafood restaurant, the setting is as important as the food. We could probably survive in an inland town, but it wouldn’t be the same. There’s nothing like looking out over the sea while eating a seafood dinner; it’s a no-brainer to have a restaurant here.

What’s special about Cornish ingredients?
Cornwall has its own microclimate. It’s warmer than the rest of the UK and temperatures are more consistent throughout the year — but it also gets more than its fair share of rain. All this means we have lush, green pastures where cattle can graze, and conditions that are ideal for growing vegetables, which tend to be ready slightly earlier here than in the rest of the country.

How crucial are local suppliers to your cooking?
All the producers, suppliers and fishermen I use have one thing in common: they’re passionate about what they do and see it as a way of life rather than just a job. They’re also all incredibly knowledgeable and when they visit to deliver the goods themselves, they tend to stand in the kitchen and have a chat about whatever they’re doing or the conditions in the fields or out at sea. I could listen to them all day. It’s great for the young chefs in my kitchen, because they’re being educated about the ingredients they’re cooking without even thinking about it. I have a very special relationship with these guys, and without them it would be very difficult to maintain the quality of what we offer in the restaurant. Sourcing fish sustainably is crucially important, too —  if we don’t, there’ll eventually be no fish to cook and eat. It’s that simple.

The book’s chapters are divided into seasons. Is it ever a challenge to cook this way?
Using only seasonal ingredients means I can have the very best produce in the optimum condition. It can be challenging when the weather is unpredictable, though. It means that veg might be early or late and fish might not be caught. We’re used to it, though — we have contingency plans.

What does the future hold for Port Isaac?
I’ve only been in the village for a few years, but I’ve seen it become busier. However, because of the limits of the place, such as available accommodation and parking, there’ll be a maximum capacity that it might reach. The history and charm haven’t gone, and I don’t think they ever will — most locals to want to keep it as it is. What I’d like to see is more visitors in the off-season months to keep all the businesses here going. It’s stunning in the winter, too.

When you’re not working, where do like to eat?
My absolute favourite treat is a crab sandwich from Fresh from the Sea, a couple of hundred metres away from us. Calum Greenhalgh and his wife, Tracey, own the place. Calum fishes for lobsters and crabs in his boat, the Mary D, and Tracey cooks them and runs the shop and cafe. They make the best crab sandwiches ever.

For Nathan's plaice with mussels and samphire recipe, click here. For strawberries, elderflower custard and strawberry champagne sorbet, click here.

Restaurant Nathan Outlaw by Nathan Outlaw (£40, Bloomsbury)

Published in Issue 6 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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