Stephen Harris, The Sportsman, Whitstable, Kent

The Staff Canteen

Stephen Harris started cooking professionally in 1996, and quickly took over The Sportsman gastro pub, wich holds a star in the Michelin Guide UK, in Whitstable, Kent with his brother Philip in 1999.

Stephen did not officially train anywhere, and he started working in restaurants to learn how they worked because he knew he wanted to open his own restaurant. He developed his own dishes at home in preparation for this. The Sportsman has one Michelin star. Its culinary style is cuisine de terroir and Stephen’s signature dish is Salmagundy, a salad with a poached duck egg, ham and vegetables from their garden cooked in homemade butter spiked with curry powder. Stephen now runs the pub with his partner Emma, who is in charge of the front of house.  

Stephen thank you for inviting us in to the wonderful Sportsman Give us in a paragraph an overview of what the Sportsman is?

Because we've been here 12 years it’s been a few things in its time but I suppose what it’s become is quite an unusual restaurant because firstly it’s a pub. There's a lot of prejudice in the world of food against pubs, even though there's pubs with Michelin stars there's a lot of people who think pubs shouldn’t have Michelin stars.

But is this because a lot of people see, and I don’t want to pick on any pub group, but you know the pub groups that are doing frozen food?

Maybe, all I would say is judge us by what we do. No it’s just quite an interesting world because with Tom (Kerridge) getting a second star last year, somebody showed me a debate that was going on online about why Michelin awarded stars and it’s quite clear that even chefs don’t understand why Michelin award stars or they don’t award them. How I understand it and if I'm wrong I'm sure people will correct me, it’s about the food on the plate.

So in other words if I have a transport caff with plastic plates and plastic crockery but I was serving the food that I am at the Sportsman I'd get a Michelin star. Now people seem to find that hard to believe but I think that was maybe a catalyst for me almost for what we do, in other words I'm not a professional I didn’t train… I'm just somebody who wants to cook and therefore this is where I choose to do it. I've been to El Bulli, I've been to Noma five times, I go to Arpège regularly, I've eaten at Faviken, in Sweden and Massimo Bottara from Modena. I've been to all these places  for… inspiration from those places and bring it back here to The Sportsman. Some people think that’s absurd, what in a pub?

And I've lost them instantly. The fact is that I also went to Tokyo, I went to Japan and I went to three star sushi bars and they have got no luxury about them at all and really so the Sportsman is just serving what everyone wants it to serve but what’s unique.

Stephen it appears to me that your location here is the nucleus of your menu and everything that is around you, you take influence from and it appears on your menus?

I'm not in London, if I was in London the idea of basing your menu on what’s around you is absurd but if you’re out in the country and you want to do eye catching food but for the right reasons, for taste I just ended up using what’s around me, so on my beach which is 50 yards away, we go up there three times a week and we pick sea purslane, we can pick sea lettuce, sea vegetables, sea beet, sea aster. We've got all the hedgerows around here, so we've got a lot of wild food and it’s now called foraging and cool, I'm happy with the fact that foraging is a fashion but here it’s a way of life.

But hasn’t foraging become the new chervil? You know in the 90s it was chervil on everything and now it’s sea purslane?

That's very true but that's because people are following fashion, I'd like to think we're not. There's a trendy ingredient oyster leaf, I had it in El Bulli in 2008 and now gradually it’s appearing everywhere, even really respected chefs, well I don’t use it because we don’t have it around here but we have sea purslane. So yes it’s terroir, in other words the surroundings of the pub are what dictate what we eat and I think it’s really difficult because you have to come in and have our tasting menu, that's the other thing about the Sportsman it’s kind of two restaurants  in one, you'll see a lot of people coming in for lunch today who are just locals who just want something nice for lunch so they eat off the blackboard menu which is what you would call the à la carte menu in most restaurants and the blackboard menu is just six starters, six mains, six puddings and it’s 30, 40 quid like it would be in just any decent restaurant.

But we also serve, during the week a tasting menu which is 15 small courses and again a lot of prejudice against tasting menus, people go, “Oh I hate tasting menus,” well my attitude is I love good tasting menus and I dislike bad ones, and the tasting menu to us is a narrative, a story almost of this area and when people come and have it they’re quite often really blown away and what’s very interesting is that most of the chefs who have eaten in the Sportsman So René Redzepi’s been in here and had the tasting menu twice. Magnus from Faviken has been here, David Chang from Momofuku has been here, Daniel Patterson has been here. Massimo Patano has been here.

Do you take credit from that?

It’s the biggest compliment that I get, is really great people in the world of food and that's writers as well.

Because those guys could go anywhere, in the nicest possible way, couldn’t they? They could eat in any restaurant they wanted to.

It’s like well what’s happening in England and it’s nice that we're regarded as one of the things whereas of course in England we're always fighting that prejudice and I don’t really mind because I find it quite amusing but we're fighting that prejudice where people think it’s a pub.

You’re full lunch, you’re full dinner, chefs from all around the world are coming, the bloggers know you, you’re on the map but has it always been like that or was there a point in the early days where you thought, “You know what sod it I'm just going to start doing chilli and rice."

No, I’m a self-taught cook so I learnt by going to the great restaurants in London in the early 90s, Nico Ladenis in 1992, I went and had a meal there, it was so good, he had two stars, going on for three, it blew my mind and I thought, I'm going to teach myself how to cook this well, because I was already a good cook and I thought it must be possible. I went to Nico’s, I went three times in one week. I went ten, 12 times overall. I went to Marco Pierre White’s over and over again. I went to Koffman’s a lot, I went to all the Roux Brothers restaurants.

So basically I taught myself to cook by buying a cookbook of somebody, going and eating a dish in their restaurant and then coming back and cooking at home. When we first opened I think something in the back of my mind told me I was maybe a little bit exceptional, it’s hard to say that because you sound like you're boasting but I think 12 years down the line, the fact is we opened this place in the middle of nowhere with no advertising, we never spent a penny on advertising, no PR, now a lot of people, I know that there's people that think that we've got some kind of PR company and that's why we get written about, well really sorry to say it but the reason we get written about is because we're exceptional.

The Good Food Guide found us, Hardens found us, Michelin found us and with no PR and absolutely no advertising. All the press is organic and natural and the people who, I know there are writers like Diana Henry and Jay Rayner, Tom Parker Bowles who rave about us, it’s all genuine, it’s because they love it and we never asked them for anything.

That's the best recommendation you can get isn’t it is genuine recommendation. Last question for you, you are self-taught we've some wonderful self-taught chefs, Raymond Blanc, being one of them, is that an advantage or a disadvantage and what advice would you give to somebody who’s maybe thinking of embarking on a career as a chef would it be to do some training or just go and do what you did?

It depends on your personality I think that people who make good self-taught chefs are slightly remarkable people because they’ve obviously got some kind of self confidence and sometimes it’s misplaced self confidence because there are some bad self-taught chefs out there I'm sure, we just happen to know that Heston, Raymond Blanc and all these people are exceptional people, I mean they are…

Who would probably excel doing whatever they were going to do.

You know I'm sure Heston (Blumenthal) would be a great debt collector. He'd be brilliant at whatever he does because that's his mindset. So yeah I think being self-taught is great if you’re that type of person and if you've got some chops about you whereby you've got to have confidence and sometimes as I say it’s misplaced and people think they’re good chefs and they’re not and that could have been the case with me and gradually over the years you get a Michelin star and then you get kind of number five in the best restaurants. All of a sudden you’re on this list, you’re in that guide with

All of a sudden you’re on this list, you’re in that guide with top rating and so slowly it’s almost like people are saying to you, “With this award I anoint you a decent chef,” that's good enough for me.

I'm happy with that and I think what we do is quite unique. I like to think that by applying a certain kind of intelligence to what we do and also mixed in with travel and the fact the world is changing, the food world’s changing and maybe people who were brought up in the old school find it quite hard to see the world through a new lens so maybe there are some chefs there who are thinking, ‘Oh shit do I have to read that science book, that's 400 pages long can't I just cook a nice rack of lamb?’ to which my answer is yes just cook the nice rack of lamb.

Well on that note thank you so, so much for today. Thank you.

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Editor 25th October 2012

Stephen Harris, The Sportsman, Whitstable, Kent