Author interview: Stephen Harris

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Stephen Harris photographed by Toby Glanville

How did The Sportsman book come about?
I wasn’t planning to do a book at all particularly, but then I got an email from Phaidon. I thought, I quite fancy doing something with them, they make such lovely books. My motive really was to make a souvenir, a representation of The Sportsman and the work that we’ve done over the last 17 years, so it was as simple as that really.

I love a cookbook when it’s not just a collection of recipes, but also tells the story of the restaurant which The Sportsman does brilliantly.   
Oh, thanks, that was the plan. I’m the same, I think we’ve probably got quite similar tastes in that respect. Just another recipe, photo, recipe, photo book can be lovely, but if you cook a lot you don’t often need that and its quite interesting to have a story, isn’t it?

I was a little bit intimidated by having to write the whole story, so I tried to do it episodically. I can write 1000-1500 words but as soon as it goes over that I’m a bit out of my depth, so I wrote essays. It appealed to me because I like that kind of Pulp Fiction thing where you move around in the story. It doesn’t insult the intelligence of the reader, it allows the reader to work it out for themselves.

Having written for The Telegraph for two years, I often have to assume no knowledge or intelligence on the part of the reader because that’s part of newspapers, everything has to be crystal clear- recipes that idiots can cook and all that kind of stuff. It was really nice to do a bit where actually I didn’t have to worry about that. I had a bit more of a free hand.

What are your favourite recipes from the book?
A few stand out. The one I’m really loving at the moment, it’s just gone back on the menu, is the pot roast red cabbage, that feels like a very modern dish. Rene Redzepi did this thing where he took a whole cauliflower, and, like a lot of people, I thought what a lovely idea. It makes you question the nature of a chicken versus a vegetable and why do we treat them differently. I thought I’d try a traditional cooking method applied to a winter vegetable and the result was spectacular. I love that dish.

The slip sole with seaweed butter is always going to be a big thing with us because that feels like a recipe with all the loose ends tied up, everything seems to work. It’s a local fish, its seaweed from the beach outside the pub, its butter from the diary, its salt from the sea, there’s something almost holistic about it.

You see slip soles on a lot of other people’s menus these days.
I know, I’m so chuffed.  I love it, I think some chefs get annoyed when their ideas get copied but I actually see it as flattery.

Unusually, the book contains recipes for some fundamental ingredients, right down to salt.
That was the route that I chose twelve or thirteen years ago – to go elemental rather than poncey. We got to the point where the kitchen was quite well set up, I had a good team and I was able to start thinking about my own style. It was almost like a fork in the road; shall I go down the route that most two and three-star chefs do where they refine everything, and they trim all the fun out of the food and I went the other route which was to go a bit more elemental, to think about things like salt and butter and bread the very basics of restaurants and to try and elevate them and make them as good as they could be.

Then this whole idea sprang up that there were some things I could make in my own kitchen that were better than I could buy from any supplier.  I used to love Echiré butter that you used to get in posh restaurants like Nico’s, it was so delicious, but I couldn’t afford it. But when I made my own butter that made a lot more sense. I always have to remind people that nobody was making their own butter in restaurants back then, so it was a radical idea, but it was also fantastic because it was a reflection of the landscape as well.

Has writing the book clarified in your own mind what your style is or was that already evident to you?
It was already there, but yeah, you’re right. Whenever you have to reflect a bit, inevitably it crystallises things and makes them a bit clearer. In that respect it was good. It was more just having to dredge into my own brain really and allow myself to look at it from that point of view. I don’t know whether it was revelatory, but it was a fun process.

How would you describe your cooking, it’s very distinctive isn’t it?
I suppose so, yeah. The Sportsman is like two restaurants in one. I’ve never really said it and not many people have observed this, but we do an a la carte which is for somebody who lives in Whitstable and wants to pop out for lunch, and then we do a tasting menu and it’s the tasting menu that I’ve put most work into in the last 10 years. When I wrote about a style of my own that was really it.

Olivier Roellinger and those kind of chefs developed a certain style. So Roellinger, I give the example in the book, was very much reflecting the spice trade in Saint-Malo; Michel Bras with his foraging reflecting the landscape on the plate, and that’s what the tasting menu is about really, it’s a bit more kind of highbrow but at the same time I’m also very keenly aware of not alienating people. My palate and my taste are quite traditional, and I love really tasty food. I think that’s the style.

It’s interesting that you mention chefs like Roellinger and Bras because you’re in the same category but you’re in a pub on the Kent coast. Have you ever been tempted to move The Sportsman into swanky restaurant premises?
No, I’ve never had a problem with that. I’ve always thought that anything’s possible where I am. The elephant in the room is their three Michelin stars versus our one, but I don’t mind that, I’m enjoying watching the arbiters of the food world struggling with the modern definitions of what’s good. We’ve added to that in a way. It’ll take you three or four visits to the Sportsman to realise, “oh wait a minute, this is really quite a serious restaurant”.

I’ve never had a problem with the idea that a pub is basically just a building same as a restaurant is and you can do whatever you like within reason. We don’t have locals because we’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no village around us, so that helps us to do whatever we like.  The usual things that apply to pubs don’t apply to us. Because I have carte blanche then it’s just about what feels right rather than what anyone’s trying to tell you to do.

How has your cooking evolved over the time The Sportsman has been open?
I started off, I was a keen amateur and cooked dinner parties for friends. I loved everything-Chinese food, Italian food, I was a bit more ‘global-kitcheny’ as we all were back in the 90’s. Then I found a way to teach myself to cook by going to Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, La Tante Claire and all those places that were around in the 90’s and copying them.

When I was a kid of 14, I bought a guitar and to learn how to play it – it’s not like now, you go on Youtube and any song you want to play you can watch someone play it – then I used to go to gigs, stand at the front and watch the guitarist, watch what his fingers did and try and do it as soon as I got home. And I suddenly realised that’s how I taught myself to cook. I went to the restaurant, ate the food, then I understood what it was supposed to taste like so when I went home to cook it, with the aid of quite a lot of books, it was the memory of what it was supposed to taste like in my head.

So that style of copying Ramsay and Marco and Nico was the first five years of the Sportsman. We would knock people out because we got close. We weren’t some rank amateurs who were out of our depth, we were delivering. It’s just that I wanted a bigger picture. I noticed that all the great chefs find an angle and my angle was the surrounding history of this area. I didn’t want to copy old recipes, I just wanted the landscape and the history to inform the tasting menu more than dominate it.

I started almost closing in on myself. It sounds restrictive but the reason I did it was because it such a remarkable few miles. It was owned by the kitchens of Canterbury Cathedral in the Doomsday Book, so for a thousand years it was their larder. There’s everything you need here – fish, seafood, lamb, pigs, salt making, hedgerows, it just goes on and on. I wrote them all down once and I thought, that’s enough, that’s a menu. There’s a concept behind it rather than just whatever’s nice that day. The food, when we send it out, feels like it reflects the surrounding area.

What’s your involvement with Noble Rot in London?
It started out as a wine fanzine. Dan and Mark who wrote it worked in the music industry with my brother Damien who lives in Brighton. Dan was married to my cousin who had also been working for Island Records. I met Dan and we hit it off about wine because we both like those slightly nerdy, culty wines.

He came and had a look in my cellar and saw Raveneau and Leflaive and all these great names and we bonded over that. Then three years after doing the magazine they said they wanted to start a wine bar and I just said, let me know when you do it, because I didn’t want them to mess the food up. I said, I’ll help you, thinking that they’d get a little wine bar like Sager and Wild and of course they found a 50-seater restaurant, but you know, sod’s law.

I got the chef and gave them some recipes to use; I just go up every couple of weeks and keep an eye on it now. I think they’re going to do another one in which case I will get back involved a bit more heavily. We’re really lucky, we’ve got a great head chef and a good team and so far, there haven’t been too many alarms, but I didn’t want the call at eight in the morning saying we haven’t got any staff, I can’t get involved on that level.

So, you’re still based at The Sportsman?
I’m still here at The Sportsman, its where I want to be. I don’t want a chain of restaurants, this is where I’ll be staying. I still cook every day. It’s different to how it was because for the first 10 years it was quite easy. Although we were busy it wasn’t mad, and you’d get the odd shift where you were quiet.

Now its 100 plus covers a day, every single day and that starts to mean that you have to have somebody running a section. That really has to be their whole job because there’s a lot of things to think about, a lot of planning, ordering, making sure everything goes out right.

I have chefs on each section and my job is to go through everything with them, taste all the stuff, monitor the food that’s coming out, coming up with new dishes, finding new ingredients, I like to meet the farmers I use and all that sort of stuff. That’s more my job, but that doesn’t preclude me from being in the kitchen every day, but I just tend to get in the way now. But it’s still great, it’s lovely. As I get a bit older it suits me better than working a section and doing 13-14 hour days.

My head chef has been with me 17 years my sous chefs have been with me for 10-12 years, it’s a bit of a family business as well, my brother is here, Emma my girlfriend works up front and does various things for the restaurant, although I’m the only one that tends to get mentioned. That was another thing in the book, I wanted to let the others share a bit of the blame, that’s why I put the interviews with them and let them talk to the editors, just to share it rather than it all being on me.

Talking of being in the spotlight, have you ever been tempted to do TV?
There’s been a couple of television companies sniffing around, but it’s all the same old shit – amateurs cooking and you judge them. It’s like, ‘haven’t you made enough of these programmes yet?’ I wouldn’t mind doing something interesting, but I think I’m a bit too old now, I think I missed the boat. Ten years ago I would have been a good choice, but I’m not bothered, that’s cool.

Chef’s Table came here a while ago to do a recce but we haven’t heard anything back from them. I like their stories, they’re a bit more interesting than your average one and I think that’s what Phaidon were drawn to, the story. You might be a really great chef cooking, knocking out three-star, two-star food but if you haven’t got much of a story, what kind of a book are you going to do? And I think that’s the same with Chef’s Table.

This is your first book, will there more?  
I don’t know, I don’t think so. Actually, that question came up because when I wrote down all the recipes there were nearly 250 and we only had room for 55 in the book, so there is a lot of stuff left over. You can knock out a hundred of them because they’re dated slightly, but there’s still a lot that’s not in there so it’s possible. I don’t know how it works, if they ask me I’d have to think about it but no plans at the moment.

Read the review

Buy the book
The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
£29 Phaidon

Cook from the book
Salmagundi
Slip sole in seaweed butter
Warm chocolate mousse

The Sportsman by Stephen Harris

The Sportman

The Sportsman is a remarkable book about a remarkable place run by a remarkable man. Stephen Harris is a former punk rocker, turned history student, turned financial advisor, turned (mostly) self-taught cook, turned publican, turned Michelin starred chef. He runs what he once called ‘a grotty rundown pub by the sea’ in Seasalter on the Kent coast, but which to many is a place of serious culinary pilgrimage.

If you haven’t heard of Harris or The Sportsman, or come to that Seasalter, this is a wonderful introduction to all three. If you’re a fan, you’ll be especially delighted by the effort Harris has put into this, his first book, with a series of insightful and fascinating essays about his own personal history, the story of the pub, his approach to cooking and the heritage and produce of the region, making it so much more than simply a collection of recipes.

Not that you’d be disappointed with a collection of recipes from the Sportsman. There are 55 of them here, arranged under headings reflecting what Harris calls the ‘Kentish terroir’ that drives his menus. The signature slip sole in seaweed butter (‘I liked the idea of serving the fish alone on a plate. It was a statement of intent’ says Harris in the recipe’s introduction) appears in the The Sea: The Kent coast and North Sea and salmagundi – an English mixed salad that’s presented as more of an essay than an actual recipe with specific ingredients and a method – in a chapter titled The Gardens: The Sportsman Allotment and Isle of Thanet.

Harris takes inspiration from chefs around the world including David Kinch from California whose ‘Tidal Pool’ prompted Harris to create Rockpool, a collection of local sea vegetables and seafood served in a fish stock and seaweed broth; and Michel Bras in Laguiole in Southern France whose multi-ingredient gargouillou salad is the inspiration for salmagundi. But dishes such as baked cod with chestnuts, parsley and bacon; pheasant with bread sauce and rose hip juice and greengage soufflé with greengage ripple ice cream are unmistakeably English; the food is so specific to Kent that to call it British would be too much of a generalisation.

But you don’t have to live in the same county as Harris to cook his food. Unless you live by the sea, his recipe for salt is going to be tricky to pull off (transporting buckets of sea water any distance is always going to be a challenge) but the majority of the dishes can be easily adapted to produce more easily available near to where you live. They’re mostly straightforward to prepare, although he’s not adverse to a few long ingredient lists (his roast lamb gravy has 17 of them, including home-made chicken stock) or cheffy flourishes; smoked mackerel with cream cheese, apple jelly and soda bread with mackerel velouté is a properly complex restaurant dish.

There are many pearls of wisdom, from Harris’s treatise on what he calls Total Cooking (‘we are constantly questioning our processes and trying new ideas’) to his analogy of music and cooking (‘When I am finishing a sauce or soup, I can’t help thinking like I would if I had a graphic equaliser and was balancing something in a song. The treble is like acidity’) to detailed descriptions of his preferred ingredients (thornback rays are superior to the blond variety because ‘rather than the texture being open and woolly when cooked, the flesh of the thornback was denser and stickier on the teeth).

Even if you never prepare one dish (trust me, you will), you’ll be a better cook for reading The Sportsman. How many cookbooks can you say that about?

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 5 stars

Buy this book
The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
£29 Phaidon

Cook from this book
Salmagundi
Slip sole in seaweed butter
Warm chocolate mousse

Read the author interview

The Clatter of Forks and Spoons by Richard Corrigan

Forks and Spoons

Reading London-based Irish chef Richard Corrigan’s second cookbook The Clatter of Forks and Spoons is a pain in the neck. Holding the monster-sized tome that weighs in at over 3lbs for extended periods of time doesn’t help, but its the constant nods of agreement that are the real problem.

“Philosophy of life, politics, religion maybe – but cooking? It’s just people trying to sound more meaningful than they really are.” (Nods reflectively) Couldn’t agree more.

“What is good cooking all about? Knowing your ingredients, and understanding what goes with what.” (Nods knowingly) Yes, absolutely.

“What’s the use of chefs at all, I sometimes wonder, when there is food as simple and gorgeous as Dover sole or a native oyster out there?” (Nods vigorously) Oh, someone get me an Aspirin.

Although primarily aimed at the home cook, there’s so much culinary common sense crammed into the book’s 400-odd pages that no chef should be allowed within a mile of a professional kitchen without reading it.

A cookery booked named after a quote from The Dead by James Joyce with a picture of a sink on the cover was always going to be a class apart. Numerous articles, essays and extended introductions along with the evocative landscapes, still lives and portraits by photographer Kristin Peters break the usual recipe/photo mould.

Corrigan underlines his ingredient-led approach by profiling some of his favourite producers or “extreme artisans” as he calls them. A veritable Irish Mafia of “stubborn, cranky people” includes cheesemaker Bill Hogan of Schull in West Cork and the Seed Saver Association in Country Clare that conserve heritage varieties of fruit vegetables and grains.

Despite his enthusiasm for artisan produce, Corrigan resists being too prescriptive with his recipes. Apart from a general exhortation to spend less in the supermarket and more at the butcher’s shop and farmers market, you won’t have to search too hard to find ingredients for the majority of the dishes.

A love of cheaper cuts such as pig’s trotter and ham hocks and relatively inexpensive fish including mackerel, hake and gurnard means you won’t have to break the bank to cook from the book (although there’s plenty of luxury produce like wild salmon, lobster, grouse and foie gras too).

An eclectic range of dressings and sauces including Italian salsa verde, Catalonian romesco and North African harissa, and dishes ranging from Mediterranean influenced stuffed baby squid with chorizo and feta style cheese to Thai crab and mussel soup reflect the globetrotting style prevalent during the 1990’s London restaurant scene where Corrigan first made his name.

The Clatter of Forks and Spoons also tells Corrigan’s own story, from growing up on a farm in County Meath to the recent opening of his posh new Mayfair restaurant. Although Corrigan’s time cooking in the Netherlands, working with Stephen Bull and opening the Lindsay House restaurant in Soho are all covered, you can’t help feeling that there must be more to say about such a larger-than-life character (try reading Stephen Bull’s side of the Fulham Road restaurant story in his excellent Classic Bull: An Accidental Restaurater’s Cookbook and you’ll see what I mean).

With the assistance of Shelia Keating (“without whom,” the author admits in his acknowledgements “the words wouldn’t be on the paper”), Corrigan has produced a volume that more than bears comparison to modern classics such as Alastair Little’s Keep It Simple and Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson. The book embodies much of what is great about British cooking in the 2000’s, and by doing so guarantees it will be used for decades to come.

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 5 stars

Buy this book
The Clatter of Forks and Spoons: Honest, Happy Food
Richard Corrigan
£30 Fourth Estate