Well all I can say is thank god Stephen Harris changed his mind and wrote this book; it is perhaps the most remarkable and personal cookbook I have read. Somehow it fills you with warmth – oh, and a little, check that, a lot, of jealousy.
To appreciate the Phaidon published book, you need not have been to The Sportsman but, if you have been and tried the remarkably pure and simple food of what has been named the UK’s best restaurant, it brings home their achievements and philosophy all the more. Its a philosophy that is clear not just from what Stephen Harris says in the book, but the very way it’s written, structured and the warm pictures of the team at The Sportsman that fill the early stages of the book.
The journey undergone by a run down grotty pub by the sea covered in beer stains and sticky surfaces, to a stripped back pub with Molton Brown hand wash, a condom machine in the men’s loo and a conservatory that’s known to flood in bad weather, that serves Michelin starred food and has twice been named the UK’s best restaurant, is down to the vision of Harris, his brother and the dedication of the team they have built over the past 18 years.
Through the incisive, welcoming and jovial short essays by Harris, a picture emerges. It is one of a restaurant that, long before it was popular, pioneered a way of cooking and working that today so many chefs follow and aspire to: cooking local seasonal vegetables in a simple stripped back manner appropriate to the area’s history.
After training himself to cook professionally by dining at Michelin starred restaurants and then trying to copy the dishes, Harris started developing the notion of a Kentish terroir. At heart it’s a simple and old concept imbued with the history of the Kentish coastline that The Sportsman sits on. But, when Harris started to form it, it was new. No one had done anything like it for decades, if not for a century, as the style, a requirement then, had died away thanks to modern farming and food preservation. Now, however, the concept is at the heart of what almost all of the world’s top chefs strive for and what many a home cook would live to achieve.
The production of their own salt, the allotment next to the pub (now about to dramatically increase in size thanks to taking over the abandoned caravan park next door), the churning of their own butter from local cream, and the decision to buy fish practically straight off the trawler, and to buy and butcher whole carcasses from local farmers, is at the heart of The Sportsman’s menu and philosophy. It means they always have the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients to work with, and this has shaped the menu accordingly.
As Harris points out, if you’re buying a whole carcass you need to use it all, so you need dishes not just for the prime and popular cuts, but for the offal and the off cuts and bits you don’t have obvious dishes for. This has lead The Sportsman to produce its own bacon, and create dishes like lamb’s kidney on brioche, lamb breast and mint sauce, and seaweed butter and salt crusted gurnard. Having such an approach to their ingredients has meant that they serve simple yet creative and subtly complex dishes; there is never anymore on the plate than is necessary. It may sound odd but there is clearly a great freedom in the way they work.
What comes across equally strongly is the sense of family that runs through The Sportsman. Not only is the restaurant owned and run by Harris and his brother, but they managed to open with the help of a loan from their other brother. Many of the staff have worked there since the opening, some have had children who have gone on to work there, the Head Chef, Dan Flavell, knew Harris from an earlier job, and the Pastry Chef, Sarah Kay, started working at the restaurant, washing pans, at the age of 15, before working through to her current role.
What’s lovely is that the section on working at The Sportsman isn’t written by Harris but is a collection of short pieces by a number of the team. Their love and respect for Harris is clear. He’s undoubtedly a caring and supportive boss who takes an interest in helping them develop: he’s pushed some into new challenges and has even taken his chefs to some of the world’s top Michelin restaurants for them to learn – I can’t think many “pub” owners would do that. What’s all the more delightful is that this sense of family and supportiveness is palpably evident when dining at the restaurant.
This all causes the book to ooze and envelope you with the same warm atmosphere as the restaurant. I’ve never known a book do this quite so well. Nor have I ever been made so jealous by a book. Mildly envious, intrigued, thrilled and inspired I have been, but never so jealous. What Stephen Harris and the team at The Sportsman have created is remarkable, and something that many of the world’s top chefs strive to create, and no doubt a few home cooks as well.
Published by Phaidon
Photography by Toby Glanville