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Lunch With
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Lunch with Nathan Outlaw, Appleton's, North Cornwall

27 November 2016

A man better known for his work in England’s southwest as opposed to the Middle East, we meet the British chef who recently relaunched Al Mahara in Burj Al Arab, over lunch at Appleton’s at the Vineyard in North Cornwall.

Nathan Outlaw looks just like the chef of your imagination. Heavy-set with a broad face, topped with close-cropped brown hair, a full gingery beard and a dusting of white whiskers just below his ears. He has big, bushy eyebrows and a jolly countenance.

He arrives in Appleton’s at the Vineyard, the restaurant near Padstow in North Cornwall he’s chosen for our lunch, wearing a box fresh pair of blue Adidas Gazelle trainers, black jeans and a dark green parka.

Like most celebrated chefs used to commanding a kitchen brigade, when he walks into a room his presence is felt – but he’s not brash like Gordon Ramsay or perky like Jamie Oliver. His hands are buried deep in his pockets – he doesn’t demand to be noticed. He will tell me later that while he accepts that being a public figure – appearing on popular BBC television shows including Saturday Kitchen and Great British Menu and indulging members of the public who engage him in conversation during his five-hour train journeys to and from his Michelin-starred London restaurant, Outlaw’s at the Capital Hotel – is necessary to the success of his business, he is not an “entertainer”.

Outlaw can’t watch himself on television. He was once offered a lot of money to produce recipes for a range of celebrity chef-endorsed dog food; he turned it down, as he has turned down many other lucrative opportunities. The 38-year-old, who will later beam with child-like excitement when he discovers treacle tart on the menu, has a collection of 700 cookbooks, including first editions (“it’s my thing”). He loves cooking – and he takes it seriously.

Following a friendly chat with Engin and Liz Mumcuoglu, the owners of the Trevibban Mill Vineyard and Orchard – where muddy sheep, destined for the Appleton’s pot, graze on the grass sprouting between the rows of vines – he explains that he has chosen this restaurant, opened in March 2016 by chef Andy Appleton and his partner Lyndsey Marshall, because he admired the food Appleton produced during his nine-year stint as Head Chef at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall.

“In Cornwall there is massive support for each other, because it wasn’t always like it is now,” says Outlaw, referring to Cornwall’s transformation, over the last decade or so, into a must-visit destination for food lovers from around the world.

Like his mentor, Rick Stein, the chef, restauranteur and television personality who also built his restaurant empire and reputation in Cornwall, Outlaw is an outsider. Born and raised in Maidstone, Kent, he learned his trade in his chef father Clive’s kitchens, where he was a constant presence from the age of eight. Graduating from Thanet Catering College at 17, he began his career in London, working with acclaimed chefs Gary Rhodes and Éric Chavot. “It was a good time to be [a chef] in London. Very rock ’n’ roll,” says Outlaw.

Nevertheless, after just two years, the 19-year-old decided to move to Cornwall, where, as a child, he had enjoyed camping holidays. “I was walking down Tottenham Court Road, and in the window of a bookshop I saw Rick Stein’s Taste of the Sea,” recalls the chef. “The next day I handed in my notice, caught a train to Cornwall, knocked on the back door of The Seafood Restaurant, Rick’s restaurant in Padstow, and said, ‘Have you got a job?’ Luckily for me, they did. I instantly felt at home.”

Outlaw lived in a caravan and surfed between split shifts at the county’s most famous restaurant. He fell in love with the Cornish lifestyle; the sea, and the fish the local fishermen pulled from it; the rugged landscape; and his future wife, Rachael, who also worked for Stein. There was a brief stint in the Cotswolds, or “Middle Earth” as he calls it, after he left The Seafood Restaurant, but Outlaw has called Cornwall home since he was 25. His two children – Jacob, 13, and Jessica, 11 – were born in Cornwall and it is home to three of his five restaurants: Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen in Port Isaac and The Mariners Rock Public House in Rock.

We are presented with a selection of deep-fried “crispy bits”, battered anchovies, a hit of salty fishiness; crunchy crocchettes, generously filled with braised oxtail; breaded balls of olive and smoked almond; and battered oysters from nearby Porthilly, served in the shell with a daub of spicy nduja.

Outlaw himself is known for creating fish dishes marked by their simple presentation, subtle flavours and respect for locally-sourced ingredients. “When I got into the kitchen fish intrigued me because it is the hardest thing to prepare and cook – you really have to look after it, you have to be a perfectionist to get it right,” he says. “I found it a challenge. Unless I’m challenged, I’m bored.”

This desire to be challenged, to learn, comes from his father. Now 62, Outlaw senior works in his son’s London restaurant. Outlaw’s mother, Sharon, a former secondary school English teacher, is his PA. His wife does his accounts. His daughter, Jessica, who wants to be a chef, is already cooking dishes from Outlaw’s cookbooks without her father’s help. His son, Jacob, who wants to tread the boards in the West End, is the odd one out, but he enjoys eating out, has been taught “the basics” and washed dishes at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw in his summer holiday. It’s a family affair.

To start, Outlaw orders purple sprouting broccoli and I order sardines. For mains, he goes for duck ravioli, which the waitress has described as “Christmas on a plate”, and I order fish stew. “The only thing I ever wanted to be, other than a chef, was an animator,” says Outlaw. “But I have always been very honest with myself, and I just wasn’t good enough.”

Cooking was a different matter. “It sounds bigheaded, but I have known from an early age that if I did it, I’d do it properly,” says Outlaw. “There’s no point in working the long hours and giving up everything you have to give up if you’re not going to be good at it. I’m very determined to get my point across in terms of how I like food to be.”

“I’m tough on myself,” he adds. “I’m almost 40 now and I still think, I haven’t even started yet.” He refuses to just “do things by the book” – something he says he learned from Stein – and is always “searching for a better way”.

His main concern, other than continuing to grow as a chef, is building a sustainable business. “The whole thing is a balancing act,” he says. “Cooking is the nice bit.” He adds that the biggest part of his job is mentoring; he treats the people who work for him as an extension of his family, and he will never accept a new opportunity, no matter how much money is on offer, unless he has the staff to ensure it is a success.

Our starters arrive: purple sprouting broccoli served with three halves of breaded quail’s egg with beautifully runny yokes drizzled with melted truffled taleggio cheese; and three shimmering sardines, rolled around handfuls of pine nuts, served with charred potatoes, fruity confit tomatoes and salty samphire.

The latest opportunity Outlaw has accepted is Al Mahara in Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai. It is not a move anybody would have expected him to make, but he had the right staff for the job – Head Chef Pete Biggs and General Manager Sharon McArthur – and it just felt right. “I don’t think I would have done it if it was anywhere else,” he explains. “If I like something or somebody I will just go with my gut feeling. When I met Tony [former Burj Al Arab Jumeirah General Manager Anthony McHale], I liked what he said. He wanted to bring it down to earth, he wanted my style. He didn’t want to change what I did. He wanted to change what they were doing.”

“I’m feeling quite happy about the way it’s going,” adds Outlaw, revealing that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who he had cooked for in London as an 18-year-old novice working in the InterContinental London Park Lane, has been in for lunch and given it the “seal of approval”, a handshake and a thank you.

Closer to home, Outlaw still has a desire to win a third Michelin star for Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, (it currently has two), but says he wouldn’t give up if he lost a star. “Unfortunately the downside to Michelin is that you don’t think, is it good enough? You think, is it right? Is it what they want to see? As I get older I have less and less patience with that, and I just think, I’m going to do what I want to do.”

Our mains arrive and the conversation becomes more eclectic. I devour what is a superlative seafood stew – mussels, king prawns and meaty chunks of a white fish I can’t identify, swimming in a rich dark-red tomato broth, spiked with harissa and thickened with fregola – as Outlaw eagerly spears fat yellow pasta parcels stuffed with duck, coated in a thick chestnut sauce and topped with slivers of burnt clementine.

Desert – that treacle tart for Outlaw (“Treacle tart’s my favourite”) and a gooey salty-sweet chocolate pot for me – comes and goes, and it’s time for Outlaw to get back to his kitchen to prepare for evening service.

Watching Outlaw drive off in his Honda Civic, I am reminded of something he said during our lunch: “The endgame for me is to be an old man in Cornwall cooking in a kitchen I own and not having to worry about money. Not driving a Ferrari but able to buy the best ingredients and the best wine and enjoy what I am doing. I know I will never retire.” In truth it’s a modest dream for a modest man. A modest man who now has a restaurant in the world’s only seven-star hotel.