Nathan Outlaw's Burj Al Arab mission
There’s nothing fishy about Nathan Outlaw’s success. Trained by famed chef Rick Stein, the British seafood specialist with two Michelin stars to his name has been impressing critics throughout his entire career with his simple approach to food that revolves around fresh and local ingredients.
Not content with merely dominating the British food scene, Outlaw is now bringing his signature seafood spread to the Emirates with the opening of ‘Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara’. Housed in the luxury of the Burj Al Arab, Esquire Middle East sat with Nathan whilst he took a much-needed break from tasting the potential menu for this weekend's official opening
ESQUIRE: How fast can you fillet a fish?
OUTLAW: Well, it depends what type of fish it is to be honest, but I can do it pretty quickly. I’d say it would take about 40 seconds or so on a good day.
So why did you choose Dubai? I mean, it's a little different from the Cornwall coast.
The offer actually came completely out of the blue. What happened was that the current general manager of the Burj Al Arab had been offered the job here about 18 months ago. But before he completed his move to Dubai he just so happened to come and eat in Cornwall. I didn't know it at the time but he went to both my restaurants when he was there and he obviously must have liked what he had, because when he came over here to sort out the dining options he gave me a call asking if I wanted to be involved. I thought it was a prank call and just one of my mates mucking around!
But eventually they invited me over to come and have a look at the space and inspect the produce – because that aspect is very important to me. I was a little dubious about what fish they would have because obviously in Cornwall it's all about what's right there in the sea. But I walked into the kitchen here and the first thing that was in front of me when I opened the fish fridge was six boxes of fish from my supplier in Cornwall! [Laughs] I mean, I don't know if they set that up on purpose but it was very impressive.
Your restaurants in the UK seem to be all about that sort of fresh local produce
Yes, and I’m trying to do the same thing here. I’m taking the ethos and philosophy that I employ in Britain and trying to incorporate it here in Dubai. Every time I come over I'm going to try and get out there with a few fisherman to see some of the markets and attempt to integrate what they have into the menu. Which, strangely enough, I don't think a lot of the places here have really done before.
It is strange. A lot of high-end restaurants prefer to import from overseas, yet they've literally got a fantastic sea right on their doorstep.
Yeah, exactly. There's quite a few different species of seafood over here in the Gulf and the fish is very protein-rich because the water is so hot. That sort of fish really lends itself to a lot of cured and raw dishes like ceviche which are really fashionable at the moment. So that's a good thing. We're also going to look at some of the Gulf lobster and a few of the interesting prawns around. One of my signature dishes is a Lobster risotto – which I’m using Cornish lobster for at the moment – but I'm going to try and incorporate that Gulf lobster into it as well.
You mentioned the heat of the water. How have you managed to adapt to the heat of the country?
[Laughs] Well I'm a ginger, so I haven’t even tried to go in the sun! I'd not been to the Middle East before I first came here and the weather is quite unbelievable to be honest with you. People were always saying it was hot, but I couldn’t believe just how hot. Everywhere is air conditioned though, so thankfully you don't really feel it. The kitchens are great here as well - they're very well equipped to deal with the heat. Which is good because otherwise I’d be the one getting cooked.
'Al Mahara' roughly translates to 'The Oyster Shell', I think it's safe to say there will be Oysters on the menu. What else can we expect to see?
Well the menu is going to be split into separate sections. So it's not the traditional Starter, Main Course, Dessert type of affair. In the first section we're offering about six or seven raw and cured dishes such as cured monkfish, cured brill. On the second section we've got the shellfish so we'll have some baked oysters and roasted scallops – that sort of thing. And the third section will be the cooked fish dishes involving turbot, sea bass, and cod. So yeah, there's a lot of fish but we have desserts as well.
Your father was also a chef. What’s that connection been like?
It’s been nice. My dad's still a chef now actually. He works for me in London which is quite a fun role reversal. I've got a restaurant, Outlaw’s at The Capital, there and he works in the kitchen. He's only 61 so he’s still young and he works in the pastry section making all the breads and afternoon teas. Obviously I can't be there all the time but having my dad so close is pretty cool for the both of us.
Did you ever consider being anything apart from a chef when you were younger? Or were you always focussed on going into the restaurant industry?
I've never seriously considered anything else. I sort of thought I could have been an animator or something like that when I was younger, but I'm actually pretty useless! Well, I'm not entirely useless - I can draw. But animating is one of those occupations where you simply have to be amazing at it. And I think what happened was I got this part-time job when I was about 14 years old working in a kitchen and I was just hooked by it. I just loved the camaraderie. I liked creating things and people being able to enjoy what I had created. It’s not too different from animation in that respect really. And still to this day, even from when I was that age to now - that's the reason why I do it: because I love it.
You have a family yourself. What are dinner times like at home?
Dinner times are quite simple in terms of the actual food. My style, even though it’s sort of classed as fine dining and Michelin star food, is more about the quality of ingredients. So there aren't lots of garnishes on the plate, and it is quite simple in appearance. We tend to stick with traditional things like Shepherd's Pies and food the kids will enjoy. I was a very finicky eater when I was younger actually, but luckily my children aren’t and both of them eat very well. They're 13 and 11 so they’re at the age where they have started eating out with me as well which is nice. My daughter wants to be a chef, and while I won’t talk her out of it I won’t actively encourage her either. I’ll let her find her own feet.
You're the owner of ‘Restaurant Nathan Outlaw’. Do you find that there's any extra pressure having your name so inextricable from the dining experience?
Yeah, well there's always this extra pressure from having your name on a restaurant because at the end of the day, if anything goes wrong, it’s always going to be your head on the chopping block. But I think it’s that pressure that keeps me going. I thrive on it really. I'm also lucky that I've got a lot of people that have worked with me for a very long time who are able to help me out with that pressure. Pete [Biggs] is going to be the head chef here, and he's been working with me now for about fourteen years on-and-off, and Sharon [McArthur] is going to be the general manager and she's been with me for over ten. They've both come over from the London restaurant and were at the Cornwall one before that. If you said to me five years ago that I'd have a London restaurant and a restaurant in Dubai at the same time I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. But because we've created this sort of work family it’s really allowed us to branch out. It also enables me a chance to reward the guys who have been loyal to me by offering them these great opportunities in return.
A lot of celebrity chefs tend to open up restaurants here but don't really come back and visit that often. How regularly are you planning to come back to Al Mahara?
Well, I'm going to be coming every six or seven weeks and I'll be here probably four or five days at a time, so that's actually quite often. I know some of the celebrity chefs that you're on about and I'm glad I won’t be doing that. Because of Pete and Sharon being my friends as well as my colleagues – I can really trust them to keep an eye on everything in the periods that I’m not here. In all honesty, I wouldn't have done this if I didn't think I could be involved enough.
What's your go-to meal for impressing a woman?
Firstly, it helps if they like fish! But I think that the lobster risotto which I've cooked since about 2003 would probably get you a second date if you were trying to get one. It's nice and simple but still feels special.
Is there any food you can't stand?
Bad food. [Laughs] No, but really, I don't like fussy food if I’m being honest. I don't like food that's needlessly complicated. I'm quite put-off by a serious hush-hush dining room. My wife's not a fan of that either so that’s a sign of someplace we probably wouldn't go. There's obviously a lot of restaurants around the world that I'd love to visit but I'm not really one for spending lots and lots of money on a sort of über fine dining experience. I think it can sometimes be a bit of a let-down. Deconstructed is not a word you'll see on my menu - I'll put it that way.
Say you've come home from a late night out - what food do you tend to tuck into?
Well, I'll probably get a kebab before I get home! [Laughs] But I could also probably blame most of my belly on cheese on toast, so that's definitely one of the things that's ruined me. After service and after a night out it's usually a bacon sandwich, cheese on toast, that sort of thing though. Stuff that you can do fairly easily. But nowadays I just get home and go to bed because I'm too knackered!
Final question, then. Who would win in a fight between you and Gordon Ramsey?
[Laughs] I'd probably have to say Gordon. He's probably a bit fitter than me. But I’m a bit younger, so you never know. We're probably both about the same height…but I probably weigh a bit more. I'm a lover not a fighter though. I would never try and fight Gordon, though I'm sure he'd have a go! I did use to do a bit of boxing when I was younger though, so I can certainly look after myself....
‘Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara’ opens September 24. 2016. Book here.