Western Outlaw Cover Interviews

Nathan Outlaw was born in 1978 in Maidstone, Kent. He started his career aged 14 working for his father, Clive, who is also a chef. He worked with Gary Rhodes when he launched a restaurant in London, before going to work with Eric Chavot. In 1998 he moved to Cornwall and Rick Stein’s restaurant, whom he credits for inspiring his love of all things from the sea. He then went on to chef at the Michelin two-star Lords of the Manor with John Campbell, who made him head chef at The Vineyard at Stockcross aged 22. He opened his first restaurant, The Black Pig, aged 24, in Rock, Cornwall, before opening Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in 2007. Hemet his wife, Rachel, while working for Stein and they have two children: Jacob and Jessica.

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It’s been a busy few weeks for Nathan Outlaw. Last night, he collected Food and Travel’s marquee award for Chef of the Year. Two weeks ago, his restaurant was named number one in the country, and shortly beforehand he was named Restaurateur of the Year in the leading trade magazine for the hospitality industry. When we said goodbye to him at 4am – glass of champagne in hand – as the afterparty drew to a close, we clinked flutes to the fact that it’s been a year worth celebrating for the big man from Kent.

Despite the Michelin stars – two at his flagship and one a piece at two of its offshoots – a restaurant in Dubai in one of the world’s most glamorous hotels, an eponymous restaurant at Knightsbridge’s Capital Hotel and a growing empire in the south-west to rival Rick Stein’s, Outlaw remains down to earth. He comes from a household of cooks and keeps business in the family. He has recently employed his father to run the pastry section at Outlaw’s at The Capital and his brother rattled pans for most of his life before recently switching careers to become a plumber. ‘Which is great,’ says Outlaw. ‘Every restaurant group needs a good plumber.’ It’s all very much a family affair. His mother, Sharon, handles his PR and admin from his HQ down in Rock and tells her son where he needs to be and when. ‘I need to clone him, ASAP,’ she says, only half-joking.

These family values permeate his entire infrastructure. His head chef at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Chris Simpson, has been with him for 15 years. Tom Brown at The Capital has worked with Outlaw since 2012 and Pete Biggs, who is executive chef for the whole group and manages the restaurant in Dubai, started with him in 2003. ‘I trust these guys as much as I trust myself. I know that I can rely on them 100 per cent to make the same decisions as I would at the pass.’

‘Pete has been with me since I opened The Black Pig with no investment and no capital. We’ve been in it together since the beginning,’ he says. Indeed, Outlaw is one of the few chefs who has refused investment at every turn. ‘I was taught the value of things at an early age. We didn’t want for anything as kids, but we didn’t have loads of money. Dad was the only one working and mum was studying to become an English teacher. They taught me the importance of independence and being able to love what you’re doing and to keep autonomy where you can.’

Reach for the stars

‘In 2003 with The Black Pig, we had nothing. I was 24 and Rachel had just had our son, Jacob. We were living in her brother’s spare room and my kitchen equipment was a joke. My containers were cut-off milk cartons, the pans were cheap and the rest of the kit was raided from dad’s garage,’ he laughs. The Michelin inspectors clearly didn’t find it funny. They loved it. The restaurant won a star just eight months after opening.

Was the frugality in the kitchen kit applied to the dishes he produced? ‘It was then and it still is now,’ he says quickly. ‘Those tough times made me realise the value of simplicity and it’s something I’ve stuck by all my career. Michelin clearly saw something in my style of food. I was lucky. I had no PR; didn’t tell anyone I was opening. There was no Twitter, no Instagram. Someone must have heard that I’d moved from The Vineyard and that I’d come second in the Roux Scholarship or something, otherwise there’s no way they’d have come to Rock to check out a tiny, 30-cover restaurant.’

‘Some of the dishes I served then are on my menu today. There’s the lobster risotto and the pork belly with plums and onion I’ve got at The Capital,’ he grins proudly. ‘The belly’s had a couple of tweaks, but the risotto is exactly as it was. It’s funny, as we’ve seen trends come and go but stuck at what we do. Foams came and went and I still hyperventilate when I see someone touching a blowtorch.’

‘I find the whole foraging thing funny, too. It didn’t have a name when I started doing it. I’d be like “Oh, there’s some wild fennel over there. That’s free. I’ll have that.” Likewise sea buckthorn and wild garlic. If I’ve got wild garlic, I make it into a butter then serve it with a whole turbot and some new potatoes, and it’s tasty as hell. But putting it on to a plate for no reason, just so you can say you foraged it – why?’

It’s this kind of local knowledge and experience that Outlaw believes sets his restaurants apart. ‘I’ve been using the same lobster fisherman since 2003,’ he says. ‘Just one bloke on his own who goes out with his boat and brings me back the best lobster I think you can get. I do believe that I get the very best seafood in the world down in Cornwall. There’s no better.’

His diners agree. As the accolades continue to fall at his door and his worldwide reputation booms, the softly spoken seafood giant from Kent has plenty of fish left to fry yet.

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