Looking good, but taste comes first
James Nathan, The Green Room at the Retallack Resort.
It’s the third time I’ve interviewed James Nathan for this magazine and each time we meet up he is up to something interesting. Last year it was a pop-up kitchen in central London off the back of his time on MasterChef, this year he has been foraging and cooking for an advertising campaign for the new Galaxy Note 4 phone.
How has the season gone so far? “ I’ve been very restaurant focussed this year, it’s been way more busy, a much more buoyant year.”
Which is good news for James and reflects the experience across the industry in Cornwall. Despite a patchy summer for weather all the chefs I’ve spoken to say business is strong and that people seem happy to spend money again.
What trends does James see in the food industry at the moment: “It’s all about street food right now, anything from American to Asian stuff is really what it’s about. Fish and chips is rocketing, the Cornish equivalent of street food.”
James echoes the experience of many I’ve spoken to that there is a chronic shortage of chefs in Cornwall at the moment. He thinks TV may be to blame: “It was glamorous for a bit, but that’s sort of dying, it’s not so rock and roll now. But we are lucky around here because we have a lot of good chefs, too many of us!”
James has been at the Green Room, Retallack for a few years now and says this time has allowed him to develop and improve the menu: “The nice thing is that you get into the rhythms of the seasons and it’s fun to see them change. Lobsters are around at the moment so I’m doing a lot with them. It’s great fun having a repertoire to turn to. Before I came here we didn’t have a track record, didn’t have any recipes, I’d just been a chef and cooked other people’s recipes and suddenly found myself having to come up with recipes all the time. Now we’ve done it for a few years we’ve got a rhythm and the chefs know the recipes so then you can start to tweak them and make them better and better.
“But for me the most important thing is not to get away from the taste thing. I don’t want to be a chef that goes for the look, I want it to taste nice. I think you know instinctively, I can look at something in the pan and know instinctively what it’s going to taste like.”
James points out that Cornwall is at the start of the supply chain for fish and other fresh ingredients meaning that he can work with fresher ingredients and talk to suppliers directly to see what is available and what is good. And being known helps too: “The more we’ve been here and established the more people come to you and offer you things. We have a guy, Rob, up the road, he only produces about six different ingredients, chard, potatoes, carrots, rhubarb and really nice cabbages. He pops in and tells us what he’s got. Having someone produce like that is really good.”
And when it comes to foraging, James is looking no further than his own garden for some of the ingredients in this recipe. For this year’s festival James is making a variation on a salade niçoise, James explains: “It’s a very easy dish to make, that’s why I love it!”
The salad has an anchovy and olive oil emulsion over quails’ eggs, shrimp, tomatoes, French beans and sea vegetables. To these he adds some micro basil and nasturtiums and viola flowers from his garden. Giving yet more colour to this bright summer dish are purple-coloured vitelotte potatoes: “They have a really high sugar content so they are quite sweet and look really sexy so this dish has masses of colour.”
For presentation the plate has a smear of squid ink, which is available from fishmongers. James explains: “If you try and prep squid yourself you end up looking like a 19th century oil worker, just a little bit of it goes everywhere. Our maître d’ is a rock guitarist and he thinks there’s not enough black in cooking!”
The fish is lemon sole which James says is much underused. It is fried without flouring the skin, just a little weight on the middle of the fish to stop it curling up as it cooks skin side down: “I don’t use butter to cook fish. Chefs often put a knob of butter in at the end, but that adds a lot of wet and steam and I don’t want that.”
We have been fortunate to have James demonstrate at the festival for the last two years and he is a natural entertainer, but he admits it is sometimes hard to explain the finer points of his craft to other people: “It’s really intuitive cooking fish, when someone asks me how I do it I realised, I didn’t really know, I just do it! I was teaching someone to cook croutons recently, there’s a real knack to it but it’s hard to explain. You have to start really hot and then lower it down a bit. You are just watching the bubbles in the butter all the time. Trying to explain to someone the finer points of cooking is actually quite hard, because it just seems really obvious.”
Cooking is an art form, the reason we go to a really good restaurant like James’s is to experience the experience of food, be surprised by ingredients, combinations and flavours that we can’t or wouldn’t think of creating at home. A chef dedicates themself to this art form and embarks on a journey of discovery and we as diners get to hitch a ride with them from time to time.
As we admire the finished plate and our photographer goes to work James adds: “It’s not a very complicated chef dish but I love it. I think that’s a good point, that so much cooking by chefs is to impress other chefs, but I’ll happily stand by this dish.” n
See James’s demonstration at this year’s festival, 1pm, Friday, September 11.