How to be a professional chef: Nathan Outlaw
Keen to kickstart a career in the food industry? Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw shares his experience of working in professional kitchens, and gives his top tips for climbing the culinary ladder.
He's been awarded Michelin stars, AA Rosettes and awards, runs several sought-after restaurants and has written and released two books. Here Nathan Outlaw shares the secrets of his success, from his early years flipping toast to the adrenaline rush that sustains him throughout a non-stop service.
How did you start out in the food industry?
I started cooking at home with my mum when I was very small, making the usual cakes and jam tarts. When I was 8, I'd go into my Dad’s big industrial kitchen and flip toast for the breakfasts - I was hooked. I loved the excitement as it neared service time. I did a Saturday job at a local pub and golf course, and when I left school I went to Thanet College. My first ‘real’ job was with the late Peter Kromberg at the Intercontinental, Hyde Park Corner, and I’ve never looked back.
What do you like most about your job?
Unsurprisingly, cooking! I can’t stay away from the stove - even when I’m at home I end up cooking. I love seeing what the fishermen and my producers will send next and devising ways to show it off beautifully. Other favourites include working alongside my team, seeing happy customers and spending time with the young chefs in my academy at Cornwall College. Oh, and the view from the window at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw.
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Do you cook at home on your days off?
Yes, sometimes. As I said, I find it hard not to! In the summer I really like to barbecue. The preference would be mackerel straight from the sea and always cooked over coals, not gas. Indoors, it’s usually traditional family food - often something my daughter can help with as she’s proving to be a great cook in her own right.
What would your advice be to young people looking to get their foot in the door?
Watch, listen, ask questions and be realistic. Working in a kitchen is not easy - you will start at the bottom doing the menial jobs. The hours are long, you’re on your feet all day (and night), and when you start, the money isn’t brilliant. However if you keep at it and give it all you’ve got, the rewards are endless.
What skills does someone need to develop in order to be a successful chef?
Teamwork, initiative, discipline, willingness to learn and resilience. These days it’s no longer a job where you stay in the kitchen, so the ability to talk to people and to be able to stand up in public is very useful. It’s very scary at first but you get used to it!
Which courses or qualifications would you recommend?
I do think that people need to learn the basics on a good college course, but after that, it’s down to experience. While it's always important to go to the best place you can, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the trendiest or the most upmarket. Just look for somewhere that produces very good food and has people who are willing to invest time, effort and patience showing you how to do it.
What is the biggest misconception that people have about being a professional chef?
It’s all about shouting and screaming! It’s not. In fact, if it was like that, I wouldn’t be a chef. A well-run kitchen should be calm and organised - there should be no need to shout and scream.
There’s a perception that professional kitchens are extremely frantic and highly pressured – has this been your experience?
I have worked in places like that but I didn’t stay long. However, there certainly is pressure, because you need to get dishes out on time and to the highest possible standard. The adrenalin kicks in about half an hour before service - you can feel the atmosphere change and we all thrive on it!
Do you have any guilty food pleasures? We won’t judge…
I will admit to tinned hot dog sausages, cheese on toast (thick bread) and any kind of cake. That’s all!
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
Work in kitchens that give you experience across different cuisines, not just ‘Franglais’. Be open to lots of new ideas, and never be afraid to ask questions.
Whatever your skill set, we've got plenty of insight into kickstarting a career in the food industry:
Find out more about Nathan and his restaurants.
Credit to Stephen Perez for the photograph of Nathan above.
Are you currently working as a chef, or are you looking to develop your kitchen skills to a professional standard? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below...