Woolacombe in North Devon has one of the most beautifully pristine beaches in the UK, drawing in crowds from far and wide during the busy summer months. Awash with surf shops, pubs, cafes and fish and chip shops, it’s not an obvious place for a 10-seater fine dining restaurant. But that’s just how Noel Corston likes it. Restaurant Noel Corston is a highly intimate Michelin-recommended restaurant, tucked off the busy main street of Woolacombe. Three nights a week, Noel welcomes 8-10 customers to sit at his chef’s table while he knocks out a 10-course tasting menu. Working alongside his wife Nora, the focus is very much on simple seasonal ingredients. It’s discrete, special and far removed from what the rest of North Devon has to offer.
“We did a pop-up restaurant about five or six years ago in Croyde,” he says, “and went with a fixed menu to see if anyone would buy it. It went really well, so we did another. And then I reckoned we could do it in a restaurant. A lot of people thought I was mad opening it in Woolacombe, but here we are.”
Prior to opening, Noel ran a 100-cover restaurant, The Courtyard, on the same site. Initially working with his parents and his brother, also a chef, it was hugely successful, winning best restaurant at the North Devon Food and Drink Awards 2011/12. Career flying high, you might think he’d open another restaurant to capitalise on his success, but that’s not Noel’s way. As a surfer and father of two, he realised that success wasn’t necessarily about scaling up, but rather stripping things back and making the most of what was on his doorstep.
“We went from a full brasserie to a chef’s table where we cook what we want to cook,” says Noel. “The whole menu is wrapped around where we are. There are some Mexican influences because Nora is from Mexico and we spend a lot of time there, but everything we do is connected to us.
“The food here is driven by nature, not by trends. We don’t copy what’s going on in London, we don’t do curly wurly tuille biscuits. It’s not my style. For me, if you cut the duck breast, the fat needs to roll onto the plate while the customer is eating it – that’s how it needs to work. That’s how I cook. Field to plate, or call it what you will – that’s what we’re doing.”
A lot of upcoming chefs are following Noel’s lead – switching the focus from sourcing specific ingredients for a particular dish, to crafting dishes using what’s in season and available. The food on the menu is dictated by nature’s larder, rather than a chef’s grand plan. It’s more sustainable and, Noel reckons, a simpler approach to cooking.
“For me, cooking really isn’t that complicated. There are four or five critical points on the menu, but the rest of the time you’re plating things. It’s about clever combinations.”
He goes on to cite a recent example of when he was out walking with his kids and they saw some elderflowers growing under an apple tree: “My daughter said that I should do a dish using apples and elderflowers, and that’s exactly what we did last year. Nature is literally offering up that pairing. Similarly, rabbits eat carrots and carrot and rabbit go together very well. I’m a vessel of delivery. Everything is here, it’s just putting it together. It’s about looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes and an appreciation and respect for ingredients. If you’ve got that, you can cook one piece of lamb perfectly.”
Unsurprisingly then, a lot of Noel’s time is spent outdoors foraging for ingredients, be it wild garlic in the woodlands or sea purslane from the shore. He sources a lot of his meat and veg from local farmers but says he’s not completely wedded to working solely with Devon food and drink producers. Hand-dived scallops from Orkney, Yorkshire forced rhubarb and Exton Park sparkling wine from Hampshire, for example, are some of the ingredients featured on a recent menu.
“I’m not afraid to go out of the county to get good ingredients. The quality has to be there,” he says. “What we do like to do, though, is have some form of connection, be that with the supplier or the place they’re from.”
Case in point: he traces his Corston ancestors back to Orkney, he was born 20 minutes from Exton Park, and the xocoatl on the menu is a nod to Nora’s Mexican roots. This might all sound a little hippy-dippy, but don’t be mistaken, Noel isn’t some laidback New Age chef, spending more time in the surf than in the kitchen. He’s driven and focused, with that steely edge typical of most successful chef-patrons. For all the talk of keeping things simple, each of his dishes are meticulously thought through and planned to the letter.
“So much preparation goes into it. It’s all done in such a way that it’s controlled. It’s usually just myself and Nora in the kitchen. We do 10-12 courses in two and a half hours, so I do 80 plus dishes in one night, but it’s calibrated so we can manage that. Doing things on a smaller scale you can get the creative juices flowing. Wednesdays are a full-on planning day – sometimes 9am to 9pm – so you’re tired but you’re prepared. I don’t need to be running around like a headless chicken any more. I’ve done all that.”
Thanks to his small but successful operation, Noel doesn’t have the headache that so many restaurants today have: a shortage of staff. But he’s all for helping to change the perception of working in a kitchen as a relentless and thankless slog. To do this, he reckons it’s about moving away from the culture of celebrated chefs and putting the focus back on the food: “We need young people to get on board and see this as a positive career. The only way you can do that is to teach respect for the ingredients, rather than for the person you work for. That sort of draconian authoritarianism doesn’t work any more. That’s not to say people shouldn’t be excellent in what they do and work hard for it, but – because we live in an age where things are super accessible – nobody needs to teach you, you can learn things through repetition. Everyone is doing a pop-up here, there and everywhere. It’s really exciting – but at the end of the day it’s event catering, and you just want these people to settle down, lock in and set an example.”
Despite his success, Noel comes across as a modest, down-to-earth guy, shying away from the wider food scene – the awards dos and the chefs’ dinners – preferring to stay local, surf, and focus on the job in hand. It’s a testament to his talent, then, that his restaurant is so successful. Having done very little PR or advertising, he’s booked out most weekends.
Looking to the future, he has a few irons in the fire. He’s got the potential to open rooms at the restaurant for diners wishing to stay over, plus he’s considering a new casual dining operation, – but nothing, as yet, is set in stone. For now, his focus is on doing what he does best and spending as much time as possible with his young family. It is, he says, about doing things on his own terms:
“Yes, I’d love a [Michelin] star, but I’m 41, been married 18 years, got two kids, I go surfing… This is what we do. We’re busy. My job is to keep relevant. I’m not going to start cooking souffles to get a star – that’s not who I am. I’d like to earn a star on my terms, rather than doing textbook Michelin star cooking. It would be lovely, but it should be because I’m doing something different. That would have value.”
Photos: Guy Harrop