Stephen Harris: how my 'grotty rundown pub' The Sportsman became Britain's best restaurant

stephen harris in front of the sportsman in seasalter kent
Once an underpaid history teacher, Telegraph Weekend columnist Stephen Harris was crowned Cookery Writer of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers in June  Credit: Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

Stephen Harris's pub, The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, has been named 2017's 'National Restaurant of the Year' at Restaurant Magazine's annual Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards. It is the second year running that Harris, who writes a weekly Telegraph recipe column, has won the award. This interview was first published in 2016

'Are you a chef?” asks the taxi driver. Before I can answer, he adds, “We bring a lot of chefs to The Sportsman and then come back to pick them up. I’ve never heard one of them complain about the food or the service.”

I explain that I am a journalist on my way to interview Stephen Harris, the chef-patron of the Michelin-starred establishment and now an award-winning Telegraph Weekend columnist – Harris won best cookery writer at last week’s Guild of Food Writers bash.

“Well,” he says, as we pull into Seasalter, Kent, and in front of the “grotty rundown pub by the sea” (as its Twitter bio would have you believe). 

“Make sure you order the salt marsh lamb.” Why’s that? “Because it’s in the field over there looking at you.”

I taught myself to play guitar and how to cook. It’s the story of my life really

And so it is. The burgeoning reputation of The Sportsman has been painstakingly built by Harris and his brother Phillip since acquiring the premises in 1999, and Harris’s quasi-religious faith in local produce – he grew up in nearby Whitstable – and a preternatural talent in the kitchen honed by self-taught skills and an obsessive desire for perfection, explain why his establishment has just been named National Restaurant of the Year and Best Gastropub in Restaurant magazine’s annual awards, ahead of Le Gavroche and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.

“This area is drenched in food,” Harris smiles. “So I thought, 'I’ll create a menu with all the ingredients from the farm, the hedgerow, the beach and the sea.’

When I was living in Wood Green I craved authenticity when I went to a restaurant, I wanted it to be what it said it was. So it was very important to me that we could say, 'This salt is made from the seawater out there, all your meal is seasoned with it.’ It’s a romantic notion really, a background narrative to your meal, but it is one I believe in.”

Harris had a long time to work out what he wanted from his own restaurant, but the dream did not arrive via a traditional route: no catering college, no apprenticeship to a hectoring kitchen tyrant, just a determination to make wonderful food.

As he puts it, “If you’re in a band, you make an album; if you’re a writer, you write a book; if you’re a chef you come up with new dishes, and that’s where I get an awful lot of pleasure; new ideas, new ways of looking at the same things.”

It’s a romantic notion really, a background narrative to your meal, but it is one I believe in

But he wasn’t a chef, not yet. Having left university in the mid-Eighties he became a history teacher at the Spanish bilingual school on Portobello Road, exploring the local Greek and Turkish shops and reading about Mediterranean food in the books of Elizabeth David.

Then, for financial reasons (“I was earning £8k a year and couldn’t even afford to go out once a week”), he accepted a job offer from a friend in the City and worked selling bonds and pensions for nearly five years.

“I hated it,” he says now. “I hated being in an office, I felt like a caged animal. It seems strange looking back on it but because I was in that world, that is the only reason I would have eaten in restaurants like Nico’s.”

Ah, Chez Nico on Park Lane. In the film of the life of Stephen Harris, pausing briefly to take in the moment his punk band, The Ignerents, played the Marquee in the summer of 1977 (“I was 15 and it all went a bit over my head”), the story really begins to pick up speed when a lemon tart arrives at the table of the 33-year-old amateur cook and financial consultant.

“I just thought, 'Wow! How do you get to that standard?’ It was an amazing thing. I tasted it and I just started laughing.” He had discovered what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

He quit his job and began to work his way up the kitchen ladder. After several months as a commis chef in London, he spent the next few years looking for a restaurant to call his own. “I worked here in Kent, in friends’ restaurants, learning how they work, and that’s when I found this place.”

The much-garlanded Sportsman was, he says, an old men’s pub with no old men in it. “It was disgusting. There were wooden boards nailed up on some of the windows and net curtains and sticky carpets and a lobster tank in the main bar – which, funnily enough, we now wish we’d kept.”

Today, it is light and airy, a perfect setting for the brilliant, locally sourced cuisine that has made it such a destination.

“My other brother, Damian, had a record label in Brighton called Skint Records and he had just had a massive hit with Fatboy Slim’s [album] You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, and he lent us the money to buy it.

"We’re still paying it back,” he laughs, “but I knew it was right straight away. It might not look like much from the front, but people don’t come here to look at the front, they come here for the food.”

Which is, of course, remarkable. Every dish of the tasting menu, from the snacks of lamb’s liver with Bramley apple on brioche and pickled herring with gooseberry jelly on soda bread, to the cream of vegetable soup (a plain descriptive term that does nothing to convey the delicate tastes of sorrel, broad beans and rose petals from the garden at the back of the pub), to the poached oysters – oh, the oysters – and the mushroom and celeriac tart with hidden egg, the yolk so orange it comes as a surprise, is a treasured memory.

Every dish – including the salt marsh lamb from 30 yards away, the focaccia bread, the chocolate mousse cake with raspberries and raw cream – is sourced from within 20 miles and then perfectly cooked by Harris, the lord of all he surveys.

Local ingredients, from the beach to the hedgerow, are at the centre of Harris’s food philosophy Credit:  Andrew Crowley

“I suppose the word is autodidact,” he says. “I am self-taught and that’s the story of my life really. I taught myself how to play the guitar, I didn’t have teaching qualifications but became a teacher, and I taught myself how to cook.

"Most of the interesting chefs in the country are self-taught, people like Heston Blumenthal and Rick Stein, and the reason I think they’re more interesting is because you have to work it out for yourself – if you go to college someone will say, 'This is how you make a hollandaise sauce.’ But I’ll have five books out and will cross-reference between them, and you learn so much more from that process. My approach is a bit like cracking codes and it makes a big difference.”

My approach is a bit like cracking codes and it makes a big difference

There is a book on the way, The Sportsman cookbook with Phaidon (“It’s very much a chef’s publisher and they contacted me”). He writes like he is recording a two-and-a-half minute punk single. “I love the writing side of things,” he adds.

“I start the Telegraph column at 7am with a cup of coffee, I plan it, make notes and write it in about half an hour before editing it at length. Everything comes directly from my personal experience as a chef, that is unique to me: only I can tell that story.” Once again, he’s doing it his way.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, The Sportsman is full – of course. Families, couples and friends all being served by attentive staff who have a real intimacy with the food. It doesn’t feel like a Michelin-starred restaurant, but then it’s not supposed to.

“We do have chefs coming here and you can tell when they walk in, it’s a bit like that Raymond Chandler line about someone looking 'as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel cake.’ They think they’re blending in perfectly but we can spot them a mile off, but it’s all very flattering.”

The boy from Whitstable has indeed come a long way, baby. All the way back to where he started.