Stephen Harris: "I get the frustration felt by good chefs outside London"

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

The Sportsman Kent's Stephen Harris on his new cookbook
The chef-patron of The Sportsman will release his first cookbook later this month. Called simply ‘The Sportsman’, the book contains 50 recipes and charts the north Kent pub’s transformation from run-down boozer to world-renowned establishment.

You're on record saying you planned to die before writing a cookbook - what happened?

Yeah, I did say that. I was a bit bitter about the world of cookbook publishing. Everyone seems to have one these days, some chefs even release them before they’ve opened a restaurant. When Phaidon approached me, I didn’t feel it was something I could turn down. I was flattered, particularly as I’m the first British chef to write a book for them.

You and Phil (Harris' brother and business partner) keep a low profile at The Sportsman...

Yes, we do. We don’t really seek publicity. I don’t have a PR company or an agent. I’ve got a lovely restaurant in a lovely location, that’s full all the time and I really like the people I work with. It’s the lifestyle that I want. I’ve been writing a food column in The Telegraph​ for the past couple of years so when it came to actually putting the book together earlier this year I’d got used to the process. I really enjoy writing in The Sportsman’s bar early in the morning.

We notice Marina O'Loughlin wrote a rather lovely foreword despite recently claiming not to like eating in pubs...

I know what she means about eating in pubs. The Sportsman is still a pub but we don’t have locals and the atmosphere is more restaurant like than most pubs. Marina was a very early customer at The Sportsman before she was a critic. She was living in Whitstable and just happened upon us. I nearly cried when I read that intro because she captured the early days of The Sportsman so well.

Your unusual location doesn't seem to hold you back. What's your secret?

Staying in one place for a very long time has really helped. A lot of chefs move around and that often means they drop off people’s radars. It is tough and I get the frustration felt by good chefs who work outside London. We only had two reviews in the first 11 years we were open.

The-Sportsman-seasalter

Is it true that you still use the pass that you inherited when you took on the pub nearly 20 years ago?

Yes. It was pretty much the only thing we kept. I find it amusing that it was once used to serve frozen ready meals and is now being used to knock out ultra-local, seasonal food. We were skint in the early days, in fact we still were until quite recently, so we kept it.

Are the recipes in the book identical to those at The Sportsman?

Absolutely. Unlike some cookbooks by chefs associated with terroir cooking, most ingredients are easy to find. The Noma book is great but you can’t cook from it unless you have access to obscure Danish produce. I’m self-taught so cookbooks were important in the early days. I’d go and buy one by Nico Ladenis or Marco Pierre White, go to their restaurants, eat the dish and then go back to my flat and try to cook it. Because I learnt so many of my basic techniques from cookbooks when I was starting out I wanted to keep it accessible. That said, the book does require a certain skill level. We’ve put in a small disclaimer to that effect.

How much has the food changed since you opened in 1999?

It’s changed a lot but it’s gradual. We don’t want to alienate people – we’re only trying to make the things we’re serving better. We’re not going to make you drink lovage juice, which is fucking disgusting and nobody can tell me otherwise.

And what about the building. You've made quite a few changes recently...

Phil and I jokingly describe The Sportsman as a grotty pub by the sea. A year or two ago, I bumped into the guy in charge of Shepherd Neame (the brewery that owns the pub). He’s proud of the pub and what we’ve done with it, but a bit embarrassed about the ‘grotty pub’ tag so they’ve made investments, including an extension that now houses our toilets. The brewery has also helped us install six accommodation ‘pods’, so I’ll be writing a breakfast menu. We’ll be serving eggs laid that morning and our own home-cured bacon.

Sportsman-Exterior

Would you and Phil like to buy The Sportsman from Shepherd Neame?

We could have bought it and much of the land that surrounds it when we first took it on for £200,000 – £100,000 less than the house I bought in Whitstable that year. But we would have struggled to borrow the money because the area is prone to flooding. It is odd not to own the building we’ve made home and we won’t have an asset at the end of it all. Perhaps when Phil and I are past it, some of the younger people at The Sportsman can take it on. I’d love to see it become some sort of co-operative.

The Sportsman is published on 25 September (Phaidon, £29.95)

This interview first appeared in the September issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK’s restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.

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