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Since parking up his caravan two decades ago, Nathan Outlaw has called the Duchy home and now, with a new restaurant, bountiful suppliers and an enviable food scene, he’s more in love with the county than ever before
Back in the late-1990s, on a campsite overlooking the golden sandy arch of Harlyn Bay in Cornwall, home to surfers, kitchen staff and holidaymakers, there was one caravan that had definitely seen better days. It was there, when he wasn’t either in the sea or by the stoves, that you’d have found a young chef from Kent called Nathan Outlaw.
Having grown up in a town called Snodland, Nathan moved to London for the first two years of his culinary education, and it was while in the kitchens of Eric Chavot that the idea of Cornwall was first put into his head.
‘Two of the sous chefs where I worked had friends in Padstow, and they told me about a job with Rick Stein. I didn’t know who he was, but I’d seen his book kicking around London bookshops. ‘I was into surfing,’ Nathan continues, ‘and I went down there for a work experience day, and a month later, I had the perfect job, combining my cooking in a seafood restaurant with my passion for surfing.
‘The reason I came to Cornwall was because I always used to come here as a kid. We used to camp down in Hayle,’ he says. ‘I knew city life just wasn’t for me.’ He soon got his own pad, on wheels. ‘I bought myself a caravan for £15, so you can imagine what state it was in,’ he says. ‘I think it was £550 for a whole eight months’ pitch in Harlyn Bay – a couple of bays along from Padstow – and that was for the electric, too. That was a fantastic summer. I then met Rachel [now his wife] and because she’d never left Cornwall, we decided to try somewhere else.’
They moved to the Cotswolds, where Nathan first worked at Lords of the Manor and then at The Vineyard at Stockcross. But a return to Cornwall was always on the cards. ‘Rachel is Padstow born and bred, so we knew we’d come back to have a family. I don’t think she realised how much she loved Cornwall until we moved away.’
At the age of 24, with no money and living with Rachel’s family, Nathan opened the Black Pig in Rock. ‘I paid myself 12 grand a year – it’s bananas,’ he admits. ‘If a young kid told me they were going to do that now, I’d probably be the old boy saying, “I wouldn’t do that.” But sometimes you’ve just got to believe in yourself.’
And with the success of the Black Pig, and then the subsequent two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, he helped change the Cornish food scene, taking it from ‘St Austell Brewery pubs, Rick Stein and a lot of bad copies’ to one of England’s gastronomic hot spots.
‘The landscape hasn’t changed since I first arrived all those years ago; it’s still beautiful, it’s still got that feeling of space, and even though it’s busier it feels like there’s room for everyone,’ he says. ‘But the food and drink scene is unrecognisable. There are so many good places that you’ve got food tourists coming here for a week or two and eating in different places every night.’
And while he gives a nod to firm favourites Paul Ainsworth (‘nobody ever says anything but good things about his restaurants’) and Stein (‘you’ve got to eat in one of his places – they’re all good’), there’s also a flood of quality comparative newcomers. ‘Prawn on the Lawn is supposed to be really good,’ he says. ‘So good I’ve not even been able to get a table! Emily Scott is brilliant, and then there’s Coombeshead Farm – something like that wouldn’t have been sustainable back then.
‘It’s more than just the food on the plate,’ he says of the farm. ‘They’re growing everything – they’ve got livestock, they’re a bakery, they’re like mad scientists of farmers which is really, really cool. The chef is Tom Adams, who we know from the [London barbecue joint] Pitt Cue days, and he’s incredible.’
Innovation is definitely on the up. ‘People have realised that the touring parks have all this space, so they put up street food stalls and pop-up restaurants; it’s a bit of a movement. There’s a really good street-food company called Craftwork who are using shipping containers and holiday parks for space at Wadebridge, Newquay and Padstow. ‘And there’s Paul Ripley,’ he continues, ‘who was head chef at Rick’s when I arrived. He’s got a new place called Behind the Bike Sheds – amazing for breakfast – in Wadebridge.’
Nathan’s got plenty of his own tried and tasted recommendations, such as Bodmin’s St Kew Inn. ‘I’ve known the landlady Sarah for ages and it’s where we go whenever I have friends or family down to stay. I love Porthminster Beach Café, too. It’s the one place in the county I would absolutely love to own because it’s right on the beach – what a location.’
They’re all fuelled by the best produce, and not just the fish. ‘That’s the secret weapon we’ve got in the restaurant,’ he says.
‘The dairy really is something else. If I make an ice cream in London with whatever dairy comes into the restaurant, the comparison with using the dairy here is unbelievable. The same recipe will be completely different.
‘The real core, basic ingredients, which make a big difference to the end result, are so good,’ he continues. ‘There’s a couple of really great butchers and meat people like Warren’s [Philip Warren Butchers], a family butcher in Launceston. I’ve never tasted any meat better. And it’s not like they’re doing anything trendy or being cool or anything, it’s just a solid butchers and they’ve been doing it for years.
‘Another thing I’ve noticed in the last ten years is the amount of small growers there are now. We’ve got one lady that just does asparagus and three people who do our honey because you can only take so much from them. ‘We’ve got the guy who grows the majority of our veggies. He’s 70 and has been doing it since he was a kid, but it’s not one of the posh places – it’s just good onions, good carrots, all the fundamentals that make food great. That’s where we’re lucky and I only see that getting better.’
And there’s another new restaurant benefiting from the bounty – Outlaw’s New Road, which he opened after deciding to close his iconic eponymous restaurant. ‘I wasn’t enjoying cooking for about three or four years,’ he admits. ‘Partly to do with having to meet a certain expectation all the time when you’re charging £140 for food. Even when I say it, I feel a bit bad about it, but it evolved into this…’ He pauses. ‘Not exactly a beast, but just with so much pressure. My wife said to me, “You’ve not been happy for a long time, and I’m not talking weeks, I’m talking years.” And I was like, “Bloody hell, really? That’s what you think?” And she said, “Yeah, you’re not the Nathan I know,” so it was the perfect time for a change.’
Food at his new place is half the price, ‘more accessible’, he says, and, as you’d expect, fully booked all the time. ‘A lot of people, thought, “What is he doing?”, what with the two Michelin stars and that, but it doesn’t matter, you’ve got to enjoy what you do. I’m 43 now, but I plan to do this for another 20 years, and now I feel like I’ll get to the end of the marathon, when before I was on the path to burning out.’
He’s appreciating just living in Cornwall, too. ‘You take it for granted sometimes,’ he admits, ‘but take last night: one minute I was on the sofa, then 15 minutes later I was in the sea swimming with the kids [Jacob, 18, and Jessica, 16] and Rachel.’
‘This restaurant,’ he says, finishing up on the topic of New Road, ‘shows how I feel about restaurants and cooking. I’m enjoying it, people are enjoying working there and people are enjoying eating there. I just feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders.’
Coombeshead Farm, Lewannick
They’ve got 27ha of land, and it’s a restaurant, guest house, working farm and bakery all in the heart of Cornish countryside. Tom and Lottie Adams are perfect hosts.
St Kew Inn, St Kew
A great pub housed in a 15th-century inn, where Andi Tuck is cooking some really good modern food, centred on the charcoal grill. On a sunny day there aren’t many better places to eat outside.
Behind the Bike Sheds Wadebridge
Paul Ripley and Stephen Morley’s newly opened takeaway. Two seasoned chefs cooking proper food for a wide audience. Breakfast is fabulous!
Trewornan Manor, Wadebridge
Super bed and breakfast, close to everywhere on the north coast of Cornwall. They have seven rooms set in a stunning Manor House within 10ha of gardens. A perfect couples’ getaway at any time of the year.
Words by Alex Mead.
This interview was taken from the August/September 2021 issue of Food and Travel magazine. To subscribe today, click here.
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