June 4, 2015
Our First Chef Stephen Harris
Stephen and Philip Harris are brothers who more by accident than design came together at the right time to take advantage of the old pub that had been part of their childhood. The Sportsman was a place that everyone knew, it was a run down old pub in the middle of nowhere. Philip stopped for refreshment one day on his bicycle, at the age of 14 in his school uniform and was served his first pint no questions asked. Stephen used to drink there with Stuart Copeland who was the drummer with The Police but more importantly the manager of Stephen’s punk band back in the ’70’s when they used to rehearse loudly in the village hall. Seasalter seemed so remote back then, so far from anywhere that it was a place of smugglers, immigrant landings and criminal refuge. Sightings of the Krays were confirmed by Philip and Stephen’s mother who spotted Reggie and Ronnie playing badminton more than once at the nearby Alberta Caravan Park.
Leaving Whitstable Stephen went to Kings to study History and Philip went on to sample so many different jobs that he lost count at number 28… Philip loved restaurants, a passion which started at the age of 13 when he helped set up the first Pizza restaurant in Canterbury and he always wanted to open one of his own, but like so many of us, he was sidetracked by other things, one of which was his love for motorbikes, and following his heart and employed by Harley Davidson he set up branches for them across the country and ended up in Saudi until the bottom dropped out of oil in 1999 and he returned to Whitstable.
Meanwhile Stephen taught for a while but after three years moved into financial services which was where he started to experience fine dining. One day he went to Nico Ladenis’s restaurant which had 3 stars and he was blown away by the food but he thought to himself if you take away all the fluff and just concentrate on the taste and presentation maybe I could do that… He started working as a chef in London, Canterbury, Wye and finally The Whitstable Oyster House, he kept a notebook of every fish he ever cooked there (about 35) and started looking for a restaurant of his own.
Boxing day 1998 he sat in the back bar of The Sportsman, looked around and realised that this could be the place. He kept an eye on it and in April ’99 Philip came back from Saudi, in June the pub came on the market and on Monday November 1st they got the keys. With the ok from the bank, some investment from brother Damien, a trip to France to buy ovens from the wholesaler and a crew ripping the old trappings from the pub and refurbishing and restoring it, they were up and running by the following Sunday with the first food served on Tuesday November 9th. 3 Starters, 3 Mains and 3 Puds.
This partnership, Philip’s understanding of business and running of the pub meant Stephen was free to concentrate on his craft and developing his own style as a chef and for him this needed to happen quickly, he was in his thirties, he needed to make this work. He felt this was his last shot, he had to come up with food and tasteful presentation that worked and got people coming to this run down old pub in the middle of nowhere.
In 2001 in the search for his own style he went to eat at Thomas Keller’s restaurant ‘The French Laundry’ in California, a magical place on the other side of the world. He then started eating around the world, seeing it as an investment in the business, he would go everywhere and try to understand what was happening to international cuisine.
In 4 or 5 years they were using the local farms for their ingredients, nearly everything was coming from the area. Then Stephen made a discovery in the Doomsday Book, that Seasalter used to be a borough, which meant it used to be important, it was under the control of and providing supplies to, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s kitchen, because the area was rich in all kinds of fish, meat, fowl, seeds, fruits, funghi, vegetation and of course salt. Salt was made by boiling sea water in great vats, and medieval peasants were granted permission from the King to enter the forest in Blean to cut enough wood to provide the fuel to boil down the water to make the salt… if you add all this together you have a larder. This for Stephen was a starting point and he began to make his own salt.
It was logical for him to do that, he was in Seasalter and it gave his tasting menu a romantic narrative that brought him international attention from the Gourmet Magazine in America, who in 2006 made a series about food around the world and The Sportsman was the only restaurant in the world that made it’s own salt. People took notice and more people came to eat at the run down old pub in the middle of nowhere.
Now they have 6 chefs in the kitchen, and their ingredients are consistent and consistently amazing, they balance what pushes the food and experience along and for them linen tablecloths and crystal don’t add anything except more overheads. They want to keep the prices sensible and the food amazing, you can spend a little or a lot and still have a wonderful experience. One of his heroes is Rene Redzepi of Noma who probably best sums up Stephen’s attitude to his cooking:
“In an effort to shape our way of cooking, we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.”