Cornwall’s seafood virtuoso reveals the life lessons he’s learnt in lockdown, and shares why he’s taken his eponymous restaurant in a new direction
What have you learnt during lockdown?
I’ve gained a clearer vision and I can see I was (previously) very stressed and that the pressure was getting to me. In this industry there are so many demands you can get tunnel vision and only think about yourself.
The first lockdown put things into perspective and I spent it considering what to do with the business. I realised I still really enjoy cooking but have got to be happy doing it. That led us to change the restaurant completely [Nathan and his wife and business partner Rachel closed two-Michelin-star Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in Port Isaac and reopened it as the more casual Outlaw’s New Road]. It turned out to be a really good move: it gave us a brand new outlook and a fresh challenge. September was the best month we’ve ever had.
Plenty of people told me it was a bad idea but I’ve always walked my own path.
Are you driven by gut instinct?
I’ve not got a mentor or someone I specifically look up to. I’ve always had my own drive and ideas as to what I’d like to do – and I change my mind a lot, so I’m a bit of a nightmare in that sense. Sometimes it’s tripped me up, but it’s also how I worked out what I – and my team – wanted, which was to change the restaurant. What we do now is better than we’ve ever done and I’m excited to continue when we reopen.
People think restaurants have to follow certain rules because that’s what wins awards. I wouldn’t say anything bad about Michelin – I think they’re great for the industry and give people goals to aim for – but I see my restaurants as being different from that now. I think our new structure and format has longevity and is a way of working that’ll produce more money in the long run, which means better pay and career opportunities for our staff. I’ve got a good feeling about it.
What’s your creative process?
Some chefs sit down and draw pictures of dishes and plan what they will be. I’m not like that – I gather ingredients which have come in and make it up on the spot, so there’s a spontaneity to how I create dishes for the restaurant. Sometimes little things you’ve done will trigger something and make you think ‘Oh, I’ll try that idea again’.
What do think the future of the South West food and drink industry looks like?
I’ve witnessed the West Country go from not having much going on to being the best area in the UK – and one of the best in the world – for food and drink, and I see that continuing. When I first came to Cornwall in the 90s there were no more than ten places that were talked about, now there are hundreds. People have become more passionate about food and drink and the general public has become more aware, which keeps the industry on its toes.
Food may evolve with fashion and the use of latest cool new ingredient, but when it comes to service I believe people want a simpler, more relaxed eating environment – done with professionalism. I think front of house is where we’re going to see a big improvement – and the industry needs to support that so it’s seen as a serious career option and not just a summer job.