Meet chef Nathan Outlaw at his first international restaurant, in Burj Al Arab
For the first time ever, Burj Al Arab has signed up a big name consultant chef to revamp one of its restaurants in Dubai, Al Mahara, in a bid to lure in local residents. 38-year old British seafood chef Nathan Outlaw has five establishments in the UK including his namesake, a two Michelin star restaurant in Cornwall. Al Mahara will shut shop over the summer to reopen at the end of September as a primarily British seafood concept, becoming Nathan’s first restaurant outside the UK. The addition of an outdoor deck will see lunch served, as well as dinner. When I interviewed the unassuming and jovial Nathan in Dubai earlier this month, he joked how he thought the invitation from one of the world’s most iconic hotels was a hoax, how lobster risotto became his signature dish, and his love for a Sunday roast, specifically beef and Yorkshire pudding. Read on 🙂
- So this is your first restaurant outside the UK. Why here? Why now? The thing is, I sort of said to myself, “why not?” When you get a phone call from such an iconic hotel, and you’re asked to come and do what you do in the UK, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Tony McHale, the Burj general manager ate in one of my restaurants in Cornwall before he moved here. It’s been 16 years since the Burj has opened and he wanted to jazz up the dining scene – make it better, more accessible, more affordable, and the first challenge was a seafood restaurant for him with Al Mahara. When he rang me up I thought it was a hoax! “Nate, I think you’re the right guy to come over and have a look at the restaurant. Knowing your food and how you operate, you’re level headed, you know how to run a good restaurant, so come have a look.” So I came over, and as soon as I saw the place and saw what could potentially be, I knew I had to do this. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The biggest concern I had, was the quality of the seafood, because obviously I have the best seafood you can probably get in the world where I am, but I got here, opened the fridge, and saw the seafood was from where I’m from anyway. Well, I thought, this isn’t going to be a problem. I can definitely do this, then.
- Will the name Al Mahara change? At the moment, it’s still undecided. It’s looking like Outlaw by Al Mahara (which means oyster shell), but it’s got to go right to the top level. We’ll see. It’s going to have my name in it.
- You’re from Kent, but did you grow up by the sea? Did you go fishing? I need to be by the sea – which makes the Burj Al Arab a great fit. I’m not great with land locked situations. As a kid, I always remember going to the beach as one of the most fun things to do. Fishing boats and watching fishermen go out and come back has always fascinated me. When I first started my career in London, I always used to gravitate at the fish station [in the kitchen] and that was back when Rick Stein was sort of reaching global stardom. And I wanted to work in the best place in the UK for seafood and at the time it was Rick’s and that’s where it just went. That’s where the passion kicked off and I just said, “This is what I want to do.”
- Do you fish much yourself now? I love sea fishing. So hopefully, that’s another thing I’d like to do while I’m here. I imagine a lot of stuff you’re catching here, you’re putting back. Even when I’m in Cornwall fishing and I am not going to eat that much stuff personally, then it always goes back. In Europe, there are different quotas and laws, so it is a bit of a minefield. I’m the sort of person that if I caught something that wasn’t sustainable, then I’d be put on the front of the papers, so I’m very cautious with it. I’m hoping that my head chef here Pete [Biggs] will be able to source some sustainable fish and see what we can come up with. It would be lovely to use some of the Emirati spices.
- What’s your favourite seafood? Mackerel. To cook and to eat. It’s got so many different ways you can prepare it, so many different ways you can cook it – you can have it raw, which is fantastic. It’s fun to catch as well. You go out in a boat and you’re guaranteed to catch a mackerel. They actually give you a little fight.
- Have you tried any of the local fish here? I have tried a few. What we’re going to try and do to start with, is stick to what I know and then Pete, who’s been with me 15 years, will start making contacts with the sustainable fishing suppliers in Dubai and the Middle East. We’ll start working with them and new species, you have to be very careful with the sustainability of something. I’m really something of a stickler with this, and with the profile I’ve got, I can’t afford to put anything that’s not sustainable, and I wouldn’t want to either. Not knowing the species that are here in Dubai, I really need to go and do my homework and make sure that hopefully there are a few species around in the Middle East that we can definitely serve raw and serve chilled. It seems to me that when you’ve got warm water, that cooking the fish isn’t the greatest thing. Colder water is usually better for the cooked fish dishes.
- For your UK restaurants where is your seafood sourced from? With the two Cornish restaurants that have the Michelin stars (Restaurant Outlaw has two, and Fish Kitchen has one star), 95% comes from Cornwall, with 5% coming from somewhere else in the UK. For the London restaurant, Outlaw’s at the Capital hotel in Knightsbridge, we source seafood that can arrive in the kitchen within six hours. I’m hoping I can do the same thing here, embrace the local fishing scene, and see if I can find some stuff that can evolve my cuisine.
- So you have nothing on your menu from outside the UK? No. Nothing. Everything we’ve got in all restaurants is from people I know. I’ve got just one single menu with no choice, and I’ve probably got up to 15 fish suppliers or fishermen that I buy from. It’s taken me 13 years to build these relationships. If you’ve ever dealt with a fisherman, they can be a quite funny bunch [laughing]. You do have to barter and you have to be careful. For me that’s all part of it. It all goes back to your earlier question, it’s the whole environment of seafood, not just the cooking.
- Have you tried the homegrown caviar we have in Abu Dhabi that is sustainable? I haven’t, but that’s great! That’s the sort of thing exactly that I’ll be looking for. I love to support anybody that’s doing stuff that’s sustainable and helping the local economy. That’s what we do in Cornwall.
- So what will your signature dish be here? One of the dishes you’re eating tonight is one of our signature dishes, the oysters with the oyster sauce [see photo here on the top right]. Funnily enough, the oysters we’re using are from Ireland, where I visited in October last year. I was quite surprised to find them here but they are a great oyster. Another signature dish is a lobster risotto, which is something I did when I opened my first restaurant, when I was 24, on a bit of a shoestring – I had about GBP15,000 to spend on a restaurant. So, I spent as much as I could on the front of house. I had to collect milk cartons so I could keep my prep in. We were in a location which is quite an affluent area in Cornwall, so people expected to see luxury ingredients on the menu, but I couldn’t afford to put them on. So I created the lobster risotto – when you buy a lobster from a fisherman, the specimen sized lobsters and the ones you would serve whole fetch the highest price. I couldn’t afford that and my customers that were coming in at that point, wouldn’t pay that, so I had to think outside the box. So we bought the big ones, the ones that were odd sizes and then we’d create that dish. It’s quite nice to know that something that was with me when I was 24 years old is still going to be with me now when I’m 38 years old, and doing something with the restaurant here. It almost defined the way I think in terms of cooking. It sort of made me use the whole animal or the whole fish. There’s no wastage. I think it’s a great way to work and there shouldn’t be wastage and it should be sustainable – those are the things I stick to.
- At your two Michelin star restaurant, you only offer one tasting menu. Given the trend towards more casual dining, has that impacted you? Will you change that strategy? What about here? It’s become a destination restaurant. The reason why we do a tasting menu is because I want to display the seafood I could get from the local fishermen. None of my restaurants are a blueprint of each other, they are all different – as is the customer base. Here [at Burj], we will go for a four course menu with a set menu price – six to seven choices for each course that will change seasonally. The reason I wanted to do that is I wanted a cold seafood section, a starter and a fish main course. I don’t think people would want to sit around for too long in restaurants. I think in the future the tasting menu in most restaurants won’t work, so I’ve gone for that menu based on the fact that we will be doing up to 120 people per service. If you have a tasting menu, it limits how many people you can get into the restaurant. I’ve eaten here four times and I’ve visited Dubai three times to check out the scene. The casual thing, yes, it’s doing well at the moment – but I think people will get bored with the casual scene. I think people still want value for their money and still want to get looked after. Even with casual dining, it can get a little bit relaxed on the service and on the standards. They start buying cheaper ingredients and when it comes back round, everything’s in fashion. For me, classic good cooking, looking after your customers and great hospitality will never go out of fashion. The biggest challenge is to make it attractive and to bring people in for lunchtime as well. There will be decking outside and a lovely terrace [replacing the submarine]. It’s very exciting. Nothing’s impossible in Dubai, I’ve been told.
- What’s the price going to be? We’re aiming for a lunch at AED450 and dinner at AED650. It’s a bit cheaper than what it is now. We’ve looked around at other restaurants and I think that we will be more competitive to what’s on in other hotels. I like to think that we are reassuringly expensive. You are going to have a good time with some of the best ingredients you can get in the whole of Dubai.
- Given this is your first overseas venture and that you won’t be as much in control as with your other restaurants, will your chef here have a free hand? What’s great about the world we’re in now, Pete can message me a picture and I know what it’s going to be like. The repertoire we’ve built together over the many years working together is vast. We’ll probably come in September with at least 50 dishes that are tried and tested and we know are going to work here, and then we’ll go from there. There’s a lot more to it than just cooking, obviously. We have to train the staff – there’s a lot to do. That’s the stuff I get out of bed for.
- How many times a year will you visit? It’s looking at about six or seven times a year – every six weeks to two months. I know a lot of the other celebrity chefs here probably don’t come as much as that, but I think it’s vital, and when I am here, I will be in the kitchen, not in the dining room drinking champagne with the guests. I think it’s important that chefs who work with us and the customers know that I’m prepared to get my hands dirty. I wouldn’t have done a restaurant like this if I wasn’t able to do that. I’m lucky because I have 100 per cent control of my restaurants in the UK. I don’t have any investors or backers; it’s just me and my wife. My two star restaurant is shut three days a week. It’s only open Wednesday to Saturday. For two of my trips here, I’ve left on Saturday night from service, got on a plane and then back on Wednesday night for service in the UK. So it is possible. In an emergency, which I’m sure there won’t be, then I can get here. And it is in the most iconic hotel in the world…there’s only a little bit of pressure there! I’m proud to be asked, so I want to make it work as much as anyone else. The support has been fabulous from all the staff at the Burj Al Arab as well. I’ve never been made more welcome anywhere, really.
- What is the most interesting off-menu request you’ve ever had? Someone’s asked for a portion of fish eyes. It always surprises me when we get the odd guest, sort of the classic vegetarian “but I eat things that fly.” So you’ll eat game, but not anything else? We’ve had all sorts.
- Have you dined out much in Dubai? I’ve tried quite a bit, but not as much as I want to – there’s so many restaurants. I think the best meal I’ve had so far was at La Serre. Pete used to work for the chef [Izu Ani] in London. That was lovely – if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not just about great food, but great surroundings, a buzzing restaurant and that all adds to it. No one wants to sit in a hushed restaurant any more. Coya was nice, a concept I’m familiar with from London. I’ve tried JG Kitchen, but I still want to eat in the formal Dining Room. I went to Ossiano at the Atlantis with the big aquarium – unfortunately, it was very quiet in there. I’ve not stepped into Bread Street Kitchen yet. Gordon’s a friend, and Jason’s [Atherton] a good mate as well. I saw Tom Aikens yesterday. They’ve all got restaurants here, I’m sure I’ll get around. Literally, when I’m here, I plan to get cooking – might have to be one of those usual chef things – at about 10.30 I’ll get a taxi over for last orders.
- Do you think Dubai offers Michelin standard food or is there a long way to go? I think it’s not far away; there is potential for Michelin to come here. Michelin is a business like any other business. They are not going to start a book here until they know they can sell copies, but there are plenty of good standard restaurants. If it’s in Macau and Hong Kong, why wouldn’t it be in Dubai as well? Still, there’s really good cooking here. It’s one of the things that really excited me about the opportunity, as well as being at the Burj Al Arab, was the fact that it’s a buzzing scene now. When Gordon [Ramsay] came with his first restaurant [Verre at Hilton Dubai Creek], I don’t think there was as much then as there is now. It must be very hard if you’re a resident of Dubai to know where to go eat. Like London, there’s not enough days in the week to eat in a new restaurant.
Whilst I wholeheartedly support home-grown concepts, I do believe Burj Al Arab needs to invest in international talent and a reputable chef to elevate its food and beverage, and attract the local community. Do you think this move is a step in the right direction, or not?
— FooDiva (@FooDivaWorld) March 29, 2016