You may know that Mark Dodson has held a Michelin star at The Mason’s Arms, his Devon pub, since 2006. You’ll probably also know that he’s a former head chef of The Waterside Inn. But you may not realise that he’s the only Brit ever to hold that position or that he spent a total of 18 years at the restaurant. And you almost certainly won’t have a clue that his favourite film director is Quentin Tarantino and that he has a huge collection of vinyl and gig ticket stubs.
You’ll discover all this and more reading his debut cookbook (the obscure title is explained by the cover strapline ‘I believe that every good chef has a cookery book in them…this is mine) which includes a glowing introduction by Michel Roux Snr (‘I look upon Mark as I look upon my son’) and a brief but illuminating biographical section.
Dodson describes his cooking style as ‘good honest food, featuring local ingredients wherever possible presented with style and taste’, neatly summing up the 70 recipes that are categorised into soups, starters, mains and desserts. In addition, there’s a section dedicated to game, a passion of Dodson’s with preparations ranging from classic roasted grouse with bread sauce and a crouton spread with farce au gratin (a sort of pate made from grouse and chicken livers) to wood pigeon with curried brussels sprouts.
Dodson has been cooking since the 70’s and his classical background is reflected in garnishes like turned and Parisienne-balled vegetables, fanned duck breasts and chicken cooked in a brick. There’s also a fair amount of 90’s-style stacking of food, but there’s a nod to modernism with dragged purees and pickled and smoked elements. Dodson also looks far beyond Britain and France for inspiration; smoked chicken comes with Thai-style salad and salmon is marinated in soy, mirin and yuzu.
The book won’t win any prizes for design with a dated and unimaginative layout and oddly lit photography that makes some dishes look washed out and unappetising. The editing could have been improved too with recipe introductions not delineated from the method and no instructions on how to prepare some ingredients in some recipes, making for a frustrating read at times. However, the book does offer an invaluable opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge accrued by one of the UK’s most respected and experienced chefs. This is Mine should also be yours.
This review was originally published in The Caterer magazine.
Cuisine: Modern European/French Suitable for: Confident home cooks and chefs Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars
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.
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
River Cafe 30 commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most influential restaurants in London. Before Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray opened what was a nine table lunchtime-only canteen for the architects and designers who work in the converted Thames Wharf warehouse in Hammersmith that houses the restaurant, there were only fake trattorias serving generic Italian fare. The River Cafe introduced the notion of regional Italian cooking to the UK; of new season’s olive oil, cavalo nero, Tuscan bread soups, hand made pasta and the infamous flour-less Chocolate Nemesis cake, a recipe that no home cook it seemed could master, me included.
Taken purely as a collection of recipes, there is much to recommend River Cafe 30. This is simple, delicious, ingredient-led food requiring, in most cases, minimal skill from the home cook. If you can’t afford the premier league Italian produce that the restaurant’s reputation stands and falls by, then you’ll still derive a huge amount of pleasure from knocking up dishes like linguine with crab; spinach and ricotta gnocchi and pork cooked in milk. The ‘salsa’ chapter alone could transform your repertoire with killer sauces like bagnet made with capers, anchovies, bread, parsley, garlic, eggs, vinegar and oil.
However, this is not a book for the faint of wallet. The basic pasta recipe requires 13 eggs and that chocolate cake, one of a number of recipes recycled from the restaurant’s famous ‘blue’ cookbook from 1995, calls for well over half a kilo of ‘best quality’ dark chocolate. Follow River Cafe 30 to the letter and you’ll be bankrupt and homeless, although you will have a bit of extra fat to live off before you have to sell your extra virgin olive-oiled body to the night.
River Cafe 30 is a beautiful object with a vivid colour scheme inspired by the restaurant’s bright pink wood-fired oven, yellow pass and blue carpet. There are reproductions of menus drawn or painted on by artist fans that include Cy Twombly, Peter Doig, Damien Hirst and Michael Craig Martin along with evocative black and white photography depicting life in River Cafe’s open kitchen (one of the first in the country) and a moving tribute to the late Rose Gray by Ruth Rogers.
But where is the celebration of the countless chefs that have passed through The River Cafe’s kitchen? Not one word about Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall or Theo Randall, to name but three of the most high profile alumni. Three decades of culinary history are condensed into two brief pages of text plus some architectural drawings, a sample of one of the first menus and an article published in the New Yorker magazine in 1996.
Recipe introductions are sparse with little information about why dishes have been singled out for inclusion, their regional derivation or how they fit into the restaurant’s history. There isn’t even so much as a hint of how to use all those salsas.
Despite high production values, there is more than a whiff of cash-in about River Cafe 30. No doubt it will sell by the bucket load, especially to special occasion diners in search of a memento (River Cafe remains an exceptional place in which to eat your tea), but I can’t help but feel that this is a missed opportunity to properly celebrate one of Britain’s true culinary landmarks.
Cuisine: Italian Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars
Buy this book River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers, Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli and Rose Gray
Food Photography by Matthew Donaldson
£28 Ebury Press
300ml Chicken Stock
150g unsalted butter, softened
1 medium red onion, peeled and chopped
1 head celery, washed and finely chopped
300g risotto rice
750ml Amarone di Valpolicella wine
150g Parmesan, freshly grated a little double cream (optional)
sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Heat the Chicken Stock and check for seasoning. Melt two-thirds of the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan and gently fry the onion and celery for about 20 minutes or until light brown. Add the rice and stir to coat with butter.
Increase the heat and gradually pour in 500ml of the wine, slowly letting the wine be absorbed by the rice. Then add the hot stock, ladle by ladle, stirring all the time and only adding more stock when the rice has absorbed the previous addition.
When all the stock has been absorbed and the rice is almost cooked, gradually add the remaining wine, stirring. The rice will have taken on the colour of the wine.
Add half the Parmesan and the remaining butter or a little cream and season, taking care not to overstir. Serve with the rest of the Parmesan and a drizzle of cream on top, if using.
Extracted from River Cafe 30 by River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers, Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli and Rose Gray
£28 Ebury Press
I liked the idea of serving the fish alone on a plate. It was a statement of intent. And it was provocative – I knew I would get people saying it needs some vegetables or potatoes. But I disagreed, people just needed to concentrate on the fish, reunited with seaweed on a plate with the help of a bit of butter.
Oil, for greasing
4 x 250 g/9 oz slip soles, skinned and heads removed
8 x 15 g/ ½ oz discs Seaweed Butter [see below]
When ready to cook, preheat an overhead grill (broiler) and arrange the slip soles on an oiled and lightly seasoned griddle pan. Cut thin slices of the seaweed butter and arrange a couple of slices on each fish. Place under the grill for 3–4 minutes. Baste at least once to ensure each fish is completely covered with the butter. You should see some signs of shrinkage at the bones.
Remove the fish from the grill (broiler) and leave to finish cooking on the hot pan for a further 3–4 minutes. Season very lightly and serve straight away.
This is the amount of butter we make at the restaurant. It keeps well in the refrigerator for up to a week and freezes very well, but you can also scale down the recipe to your needs.
Makes about 1.5kg/ 3 lb 5 oz
100 g/3½ oz fresh gutweed or sea lettuce (enough for 20 g/ ¾ oz dried seaweed)
2.5 kg/ 5 lb 8 oz (10 cups) crème fraiche, chilled
22.5 g/ ¾ oz (4½ teaspoons) sea salt
After gathering the seaweed, wash it very carefully and then dehydrate for 3 hours at 80oC/175oF. Check carefully for any shells or foreign objects, then put into a food processor and pulse to small, rough flakes. Store in an air-tight container.
Put the bowl of a stand mixer into the refrigerator to chill. Put the cream or crème fraîche into the cold bowl and beat at high speed with the paddle attachment. After about 5 minutes the cream will really stiffen up and you will hear a splashing sound as the buttermilk separates out from the buttermilk.
At this stage I turn down the speed and cover the bowl loosely to prevent liquid spraying everywhere. Continue beating until the buttermilk and butterfat separate completely. Be patient as it may take another 5 minutes or so.
Turn off the machine and strain off the buttermilk. Rinse under cold running water and strain again. With the machine on its lowest setting, mix in the salt and dried seaweed until fully incorporated.
Knead the butter between two pieces of wax (greaseproof) paper to squeeze out the last of the buttermilk. Finally, shape into a cylinder or a round pat, wrap in wax (greaseproof) paper and store in the refrigerator.
Extracted from The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
£29.95 Phaidon Buy the book
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a salmagundi. I love the word itself – it’s the seventeenth century name for an English mixed salad – and of course I’m very keen on dishes that are truly seasonal, as it means I can focus my efforts on selecting produce at its very best, ideally straight from my own garden, instead of having to source ingredients from a supplier, which might not be up to the same standard.
Back in the early days of The Sportsman, while I was still dreaming of the perfect salmagundi, I visited Michel Bras’ restaurant in the Aubrac plateau of France. One of his most famous dishes is the gargouillou – a salad that contains up to twenty different vegetables, all prepared separately. The waiter explained that the name comes from a traditional peasant soup, which can contain many different ingredients, depending on the season. I knew immediately that this would be the blueprint and inspiration for my own Sportsman salmagundi.
Back in the restaurant kitchen I gathered together as many ingredients from the restaurant kitchen garden as I could find, all in their prime. It was early July, which meant I was spoilt for choice: there were baby peas, broad beans, French beans, courgettes (zucchini), tomatoes and many other things, as well. And then it was a question of playing around with bits and bobs from the different sections of the kitchen. I selected some vegetable purées, a handful of fresh herbs and flowers, crunchy soda breadcrumbs, a buttery sauce, and I started to have some fun!
I began by decorating the plate with some artful smears of purée and topped them with a cooked baby carrot and a few cubes of roasted summer squash. Next, I flavoured the buttery liaison with a pinch of curry powder and warmed through my freshly picked vegetables: my aim was to maintain their intrinsic ‘snappiness’ – they didn’t need to be cooked, just barely warmed through – and I wanted their sweetness to be enhanced by the earthy flavour of the curry. I arranged a poached egg on the plate, spooned over the warm vegetables and finished the dish with some leaves and flowers and a scattering of breadcrumbs, to represent soil from the garden. The end result was a visual delight, as well as being utterly delicious.
The joy of a dish such as this is the way it can be adapted to what’s best during each season. Summer’s glut provides a bounty, of course, but in the winter it works just as brilliantly with root vegetables and a smoked egg yolk. I thought about writing a recipe for this, but in the end, realised that it would be impossible. The best version will come from using this as a rough guide to create your own version from what you have available.
Extracted from The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
£29.95 Phaidon Buy the book