There I was, awkwardly lurching across the edge of a beach in Seasalter by the mouth of the Thames Estuary. The short walk from my taxi to The Sportsman, the number one gastropub in the UK, wasn’t helped by my crutch repeatedly getting stuck between endless stones as damp seagulls circled overhead, clearly laughing at my slow progress.
I’d broken my foot on a night out in Canterbury just two days before my latest stage but, little did I know, things were about to get worse for me on the salty Kentish coast.
The day before, I had left East Kent Hospital with my new crutch and moved into a cottage in the nearby town of Whitstable owned by a former waitress at The Sportsman whose husband had actually planned to start a blues band with the chef-patron, Stephen Harris – the ex-punk rocker, history teacher and financial adviser.
The Sportsman takes around a dozen stagiaires a year and I’d booked mine months in advance. And, quite amazingly, my godfather Trevor is one of the KPs at the pub. That morning, I had texted Trevor to say that, because of my foot, a taxi was the only way in for me. The taxi company couldn’t get me a car until midday so I said I would arrive at 4pm for afternoon prep and dinner service.
I’d let the kitchen know of my disability the day of the accident and all seemed well. Hell, the one-legged, crutch-baring Long John Silver was hired as ship’s cook aboard the Hispaniola in Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless classic, so surely I’d be fine? Shame I didn’t have a talking parrot.
Trevor, who I’d not seen for 12 years, was covered in soap and sported a pink bandana when I fell through the doors that afternoon, already exhausted. He laughed at my crutch, gave me a hug and dropped a bombshell.
Stephen Harris had just finished for the day and was apologetically inching out the door to collect his children from school, leaving dinner in the hands of his trusted head chef, Dan Flavell. It turned out that Trevor’s phone was in his locker so he never got my message, meaning Stephen had assumed that after I didn’t show for 9am, I wasn’t coming at all.
It seemed that I might have to come back another day as a packed dinner service loomed large. The Sportsman caps covers at 50 per service, and with 40 expected that evening, my assumption that Trevor would see the message I sent looked to have cost me dearly. That was until the kitchen took pity on Long John Stagiaire and provided a commis, George, to teach me how things go at The Sportsman.
Relief flooded through me as I hopped into the modest prep kitchen at the back of the pub to learn how to make home-made salt. The chefs, of which there are 10 in total, take buckets out past The Sportsman’s prized polytunnel (which they’re using to grow ingredients for the kitchen and to house a rogue 4ft British grass snake) and onto the beach to get six litres of salt water from one of the rock pools.
The Thames Estuary is grotty-looking at the best of times but that grot sinks to the bottom of rock pools leaving much cleaner water. The salt water, first drained through J-cloths, goes onto the stove in a big pot in the main kitchen. Dan, the head chef, was making a staff lunch of beef fajitas as I took a look – lunch that I’d also enjoyed previously with the chefs at The Waterside Inn.
The water is boiled down to about one litre and then sits in a tray above the hot stove to complete the evaporation process, which takes around six hours in total. What you’re left with is stunning, ice white chunks of salt which the chefs pair with their home-made butter and one of three homemade breads from their baker Teresa.
Next was a crack at raw oysters as George started on a Bramley apple granita for the poached, à la carte rendition. Whitstable is known as the oyster capital of England and they feature quite heavily on the menu at The Sportsman. In fact, one of Stephen’s oldest combinations sees oysters simply paired with home-made fried chorizo. There’s even an oyster mayonnaise on the salmon fillet dish.
Native oysters were the first thing on the two-and-a-half hour long tasting menu that day, which also included turbot with smoked pork and Stephen’s classic slip sole in seaweed butter. The oysters needed to be opened 30 minutes before service, which is not a simple business as they are alive before shucking. The shell needs to be checked, as does the inside for parasites, with the correct smell, moisture and cleanliness all vital.
Timing is key with oysters, and indeed with stagiaires as I reminded myself while limping to my taxi after a farewell pint with my godfather, who’d finished his shift. The peg-legged chef wasn’t required for a rammed dinner service.
I may have learnt how to make my own salt at The Sportsman but I’d not had the chance to show if I was worth mine. Rule number one for any stagiaire: make damn sure you know when you’re expected, broken foot or not.