Dee Laffan chats to Nathan Outlaw about his recent Catey award and how he balances life as a chef as well as a restaurateur.
Nathan Outlaw may not be the first name that jumps to mind when you think of a restaurateur; he is renowned for his food and skills as an award-winning chef. Yet recently he was awarded Best Independent Restaurateur 2017 at the food industry Oscars Night – The Cateys.
“Winning was a surprise!” comments Nathan. “I was up for the award with some very stiff competition, so I really wasn’t expecting to win at all. It’s my first Catey, but I’ve been aware of the Cateys all of my career, so to win one is amazing.”
Organised by The Caterer magazine, the UK hospitality industry’s leading source of information for over 135 years, the Cateys have become a byword for quality, class and achievement since their inception in 1984. They are the awards everybody wants to win, shining a spotlight on the industry’s highest flyers, strongest performers and hottest brands. There are over 22 award categories including: Chef Award, Hotel of the Year (Independent & Group awards), Best Employer, Health and Nutrition Award, Menu of the Year and Sustainable Business Award.
“I’ve always wanted to run a restaurant.”
“Winning it for being a restaurateur rather than a chef is what made it better, if I’m honest,” Nathan explains. “It would be lovely win the Chef Award, but winning for being a restaurateur, from my point of view, is like – now I’m a grown up!” he laughs. “Even though I am a chef and I work as a chef every day, I do also run five restaurants, and it’s a completely different challenge. It’s nice to be recognised for that.”
From Chef to Restaurateur
Running a restaurant is a challenge that Nathan not only seems to love, but also excels at. His portfolio of five restaurants are:
- Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Port Isaac, Cornwall
- Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen, Port Isaac, Cornwall
- The Mariners Rock Public House, Rock, Cornwall
- Outlaw’s at The Capital Hotel, London
- Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara, Dubai
“I do love the challenge. ‘Restaurateur’ is the official term, but it’s really lots of roles rolled into one. It’s being a mentor and being the person that can support everyone as well as being a restaurateur, if that makes sense? Restaurateur is one word, but there is so much more to it than that.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to run a restaurant. I grew up in the industry. My father was a chef and my mum worked in the industry,she’s actually my PA now, so technically she still works in the industry!” he says. “It is something I have always been fascinated by. I opened my first restaurant in 2003, I was only 25 years old, and a lot of people told me not to do it, but if you’ve got something in your heart, you just have to do it.”
A Recipe For Success
Growing up surrounded by people in the restaurant industry has certainly given Nathan a unique perspective and knowledge of the business. However, running five restaurants is no mean feat, and maintaining standards is something that many chefs have struggled with when extending their brand. Nathan divulges the secret to doing this successfully, “It’s all about people,” he explains. “I’ve been lucky enough to have members of my staff – probably about a dozen – who’ve been with me for over 10 years.”
“I have my own secret rule, well it’s not a secret ‘cause I’m going to tell you” he laughs. “My secret to opening a new restaurant is I will only do it if I have a head chef and restaurant manager who have been with me for a long time. That’s the requirement every time. There are plenty of opportunities that come up, almost every day there is some sort of opportunity, but I say no to most because I haven’t got those people in place. The way I run restaurants and kitchens is unique and it makes it very difficult to employ someone from outside at a senior level. We do however take a lot of young people on as trainees, and give them the support and training they need to develop. You can’t rush that process because they don’t have the depth of knowledge.”
“It’s all about the people”
For me, there is no master plan for expansion or more restaurants, it’ll just happen if it happens, if it’s right. I’ll never jeopardize our name. A lot of people have worked with me for a long time, so it’s as much their name above the door as it is mine.” he says. “There is no plan to do more restaurants right now, but, I also said that five years ago before London and Dubai. If something comes up that’s interesting, that excites me, that’s going to be fun and if I know that there are people I can bring with me who can do it, then we’ll do it. If not, I’m not in any rush to do more. I am lucky, I don’t have any backers or investors so I don’t have any pressure that way. That’s usually why people expand, because they’re under financial pressure because they borrowed money, whereas I sit here now not owing a penny, which is great.”
Nathan won the Catey for Best Independent Restaurateur, but while running the business independently is obviously at the core of this, as he says himself, it is the people around him that help him make it a success. “The two restaurants in Cornwall are completely independent because there is no one else there that bought in, but Dubai and London are consultancies so the money from those comes back into Cornwall and supports our business. We have different aspects to our business, but as a whole it is independent and just run by me and my wife – that’s it,” he says.
“Having a wife that works in the industry really helped me. It’s very difficult for my chefs and with partners that aren’t in the industry; it’s tough for them because of the hours, they’re long and very anti-social. I’m fortunate from that perspective, my wife is from a hospitality background, so she understands and has been really supportive.”
Nathan’s Tips to Young Chefs
With such insight now of the industry after his 20-year career, I wondered if there was any advice that he would give to his younger self?
“Not to worry about over-complicating my food. I think when you’re younger you try and show everything you can do, which is only natural. But actually at the end of the day, the majority of people who come to your restaurant just want to eat good, simple food that is value for money. That’s a big thing. I’m not talking about cheap food when I say that, value for money could be £100 a head, you can still give value for money at that price.”
“People…. just want to eat good, simple food that is value for money”
“Other advice is to try to enjoy yourself! When I was younger I think I was a lot more stressed and a little bit more worried about what everyone thought. If you believe in something and you are happy doing it then everything else will fall into place. I really think that’s true. It’s the same with worrying about people coming into your restaurant, if you do a good job and work hard I think you will do well. Maybe sometimes it does take more than that but I’ve kept it quite simple all through my career and I think that’s helped. It’s good for your customers and good for your market. Chefs can have big egos, but you still have to fill your restaurant up with people who are going to enjoy themselves. You’ve always got to add that into your thought process. You have to think ‘Okay I think this is impressive and it looks great, but is it practical? And are people really going to like it?’ I think they are the sort of questions I would have asked my younger self, but I didn’t!” he laughs.
Photos courtesy of Nathan Outlaw Restaurants Ltd and www.cateys.com