The chef proprietor of the UK’s only two-Michelin starred seafood restaurant tells Rosanna Rothery why we need to recognise our role as an island nation and get the next generation hooked on fish
We are a nation surrounded by sea, an island nation, yet our consumption of fish and seafood is astonishingly low. It’s a contradiction that’s not lost on Nathan Outlaw.
‘What’s really sad is that we are surrounded by some of the best conditions for seafood in the world, yet we don’t know our own strength. Go just across the water to Normandy and Brittany and there’s a massive respect for seafood in the diet,’ says Cornwall’s most decorated chef.
Outlaw, whose eponymous Port Isaac restaurant took the number one spot in The Good Food Guide 2019, believes our indifference to the glut of delicious food swimming below the surface of our coastal waters often stems from bad experiences of eating fish in childhood.
‘Buy a piece of fish from a supermarket in the middle of England and you’re probably not going to be eating something fresh. Take it home, open up the packaging, wait until the next day before you cook it and it’s not going to smell too nice. Feed it to the children and they’ll have a really bad image of seafood.’
According to Outlaw, a thriving UK fishing industry is dependent on introducing the next generation to scrumptious seafood and engaging them in issues surrounding sustainability. Teaching kids about oceans, marine life and the role of fishermen is key.
‘To a certain extent these issues are lost on adults,’ he argues. ‘Your average person has a lot more to worry about than fishing and sustainability, but children take it in at a young age. Once they know how sustainable fishing is carried out and how to cook and eat fish, it will remain with them throughout their adult life.’
Children are the torchbearers when it comes to environmental issues and Outlaw believes the curriculum should have a much greater focus on sustainable food.
‘Take the subject of plastic: kids today are putting their parents under pressure. We’ve all heard children in supermarkets say: “don’t buy that, it’s covered in plastic”. The revolution is not going to come from adults.
‘The most important thing you can do in life is to know how to feed yourself properly. It’s more crucial than any other academic subject – education doesn’t work unless you feed the brain.’
Outlaw admits he’d also like to see the day when you would find a sustainable fish restaurant in every port.
‘I’m a bit of a romantic and I love the idea that when you go to the seaside you eat in a fresh-fish restaurant. One advantage we’ve always had in Port Isaac is that our restaurants are small, which has allowed us to buy fish sustainably and to know where it comes from.’
An island nation, he believes, should not only be making the most of its fish stocks but doing more to feed itself – a goal that involves taking a more local and seasonal approach to diet.
‘That kind of self-sufficiency would have to be a progression and it certainly wouldn’t happen overnight – or even in the next couple of years,’ he says. ‘Again, it starts with education.’
His foodie predictions for 2020 suggest that the South West is already moving in this direction: ‘I think we’re going to see a continuation of small producers and growers creating unique produce in the region. There are a lot of things coming on to the market but it’s always the unique ones that survive. I also think we are going to see more convenience products created in an ethical way.
‘Hopefully, we’ll also see more restaurants sticking to their guns and not buckling under the pressure of Brexit.’
After successfully managing to steer his own restaurants through the last recession, he has these words of advice for restaurateurs: ‘Have faith in what you are doing and, if you are doing it well, you’ll be fine. That’s all we’ve ever done.
‘People in the food industry in the South West should be very proud of what they’ve achieved. I started cooking in the South West in the late 1990s and the evolution of food production from then until now is amazing. I do believe the South West is the leader in the hospitality sector.’
And his personal new year resolution?
‘It’s just about finding a new balance in life. There’s a danger in letting work run away with you. I still like cooking as much as the day I started, so I’d like to do more cooking and more gardening – other than that, I’m not that worried.’