The Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn has been a magnet for seafood lovers since chef and restaurateur Ben Tunnicliffe took the reins in 2012. Now, with a new Head Chef supporting Ben and taking day-to-day charge of the kitchen, this humble maritime inn is developing an even more powerful allure…
Outside a cold and blustery westerly wind is gusting across Newlyn Harbour, provoking nautical rattles, tinkles and groans from the fishing fleet ensconced in port; only the largest and best equipped will be out at sea today. The nearby fish market, which I know from previous bleary-eyed experience would have been a hive of activity at 6am, is scrubbed and empty – the catch now making its way by various means across the country, and further afield to European destinations.
However, here at The Tolcarne Inn, the daily delivery is already being prepped ready for lunch service. Ben’s fish merchant dropped off hake, mackerel, ling and megrim sole on the morning of my visit, all of which has been crafted into an array of delicious dishes that are now being carefully transcribed onto the blackboard by Anne – mum to Ben and co-custodian of these thick, storm-repelling granite walls.
At a scrubbed wooden table next to a glowing wood burner, I’m joined by Ben and his new Head Chef, Matt Smith. Ben is a pioneer of the Cornish restaurant scene. He held one of the county’s first Michelin Stars at The Abbey in Penzance in the early 2000s, after which he was head-hunted to launch the food offering at Cornwall’s pre-eminent luxury hotel, The Scarlet. He then embarked on a solo passion-project, transforming a modest pub in a working fishing port into a dining destination to rival those of Padstow, Port Isaac and St Ives.
Seven busy years later, and with the pub firmly established amongst the upper echelons of the Cornish dining scene, Ben found himself ready to step back to focus on family life and new projects. Hence a chance conversation with an old colleague led to him recruiting a Head Chef to take day-to-day charge of the kitchen. Matt Smith, formerly of The Gurnard’s Head (Zennor) and The Old Coastguard (Mousehole), joined the team at the start of the summer and has proved an invaluable source of both creativity and consistency in his new-found role.
The two are chalk and cheese, personality wise. Ben is gregarious and outspoken, with an infectious enthusiasm and disarming honesty. Matt is more of an introvert; quietly eloquent about food and cooking, he grew up in Derby but settled in Cornwall because he fell in love with the local food scene. However, this unlikely duo share the same philosophy when it comes to creating an enjoyable dining experience; the best local ingredients, combined simply and instinctively, and served in a relaxed setting.
Matt and Ben agree that the casual pub setting is the perfect vehicle for their food, as Ben explains: “Good food served in unpretentious surroundings is always enjoyable. Fine-dining has its place, but the humble pub is where myself and my food are most at home.”
Ben and Matt worked together during the launch of The Scarlet in 2009; they found they had very similar approaches to cooking and kept in touch ever since. Matt explains why he jumped at the opportunity when he heard Ben was looking for a senior chef: “Ben and I think in the same way about food, especially how to construct dishes. Simple dishes, which highlight excellent ingredients – this is the best description of how we both like to cook. I spend more time removing components from dishes than adding them!”
Dishes like Scallops, roast cauliflower and Morteau sausage with a caper, raisin and pinenut dressing are intensely gratifying, as is a perfectly pan-fried piece of Hake served with cavatelli, chorizo, anchovy, pepper and organic courgette. With honest ingredients and effortlessly interlocking flavours, it’s no surprise that foodies in the know are heading here in droves. This formidable twosome are knocking out food which is good for the soul!
With Matt’s steady hand on the tiller at The Tolcarne, Ben is enjoying spending more time with his family. However, never one to rest on his laurels for long, he’s also searching for opportunities to replicate the success of The Tolcarne elsewhere. “We’d definitely like to open another pub, or a pub with rooms,” says Ben. It’s easy to see how the ethos behind the food here would extend nicely to an overnight stay and, with the wind still howling outside, I’d be tempted to haul up!”