How a Rundown Seaside Pub Became a Michelin-Starred Restaurant
When chef Stephen Harris’ took over The Sportsman 18 years ago, it was a sticky carpeted boozer with peeling wallpaper. Now it’s one of the best restaurants in the UK.
Toutes les photos sont de l'auteur.
The Sportsman is in the middle of nowhere. Situated on the edge of the north Kent coastline, the pub is four miles in each direction from the nearest towns of Whitstable and Faversham. The long whitewashed building, fronted by a glass conservatory decked out with simple wooden tables and chairs, is slightly set back from the winding country road that connects it to civilisation. A journey to the pub ends in a gravelly, nondescript car park that backs onto a small, grassy dune. Walk a few steps along the dune and you'll find yourself on a stony beach.
On a muggy, cloudy August day, this is where I meet Stephen Harris. He stands against a moody backdrop of dull clouds and the grey North Sea. Patches of seaweed carpet the beach and wooden groynes jut out at intervals. Harris has been head chef of The Sportsman since he took over 18 years ago but he can just as often be found here, or in the surrounding fields. The area around the pub is his larder.
"We get 80 to 90 percent of produce used in the restaurant from the surrounding area," says Harris. He looks down at his feet and picks up a handful of seaweed. "Look, this is the main ingredient for the seaweed butter we make. And the butter goes into our slip sole dish. Then the fish comes from out here as does the seawater which we make into salt. That's the area on a plate."
It's this incredible attention to hyper-local, seasonal, and artisanal ingredients for which The Sportsman has become known—and famous for. In 2008, it gained a Michelin star and for the last two years, has been crowned the best restaurant in the UK at the National Restaurant Awards. Not bad for a grotty, rundown pub by the sea. Harris' words, not mine.
"When Twitter came along, I thought, here's a chance to pre-empt the comments so we had 'grotty rundown pub by the sea' as our bio. We knew it was rundown. Then people couldn't complain." says Harris. "The chairman of Shepherd Neame, who own the pub, would get a bit embarrassed by it, especially now they've done up the toilets and put the conservatory in."
Upmarket touches like the fancy soaps and cotton hand towels now found in the bathroom are also a far cry from Harris' first encounters with the The Sportsman. In his recently published cookbook, The Sportsman, he talks about growing up in neighbouring Whitstable and remembers well what the pub used to be like.
"The Sportsman was that weird building on the edge of town. It was always a bit strange. My memories of it was that rather sad building that had seen better days," says Harris, as we make our way off the beach and towards the pub building. "But I had lots of connections with it."
He continues: "My brother Phil had his first drink here, when he was 14-years-old or something. Down the road, there's a village hall that we hired when my punk band were rehearsing for an album. Our producer was Stuart Copeland, who wasn't well known at the time, but later became famous as the drummer of The Police. We used to come here after rehearsals and talk about our plans."
As the years went by, the pub went into decline.
"When we got here in 1999, it was an absolute dump. Sticky carpets, cheap refit layered over another cheap refit. They had an advert up that if you could eat all of their 35 ounce steak, it was free. It was that kind of food. The kitchen was just full of deep fat fryers and microwaves. So that gives you an idea about the food."
Harris started cooking in professional kitchen just four years earlier, having previously worked in finance. In the book, he says that his cooking style is influenced by London's top restaurants. So how did he go from cooking, in his words, "good, local food" to award-winning fare?
"After about four years here, I had to take a week off because I wasn't very well. I had a week of doing nothing. I started looking into the history of the area and I bumped into a friend of mine who's an archaeologist. I rumbled that this was a really special area for food," says Harris. "As I looked more into it, I found out that this land, which the pub is in the middle of, was owned, according to the Doomsday Book written in 1086, by the kitchens of the Archbishop of Canterbury."
Harris pauses his story to show me a rosehip bush growing in the car park. The bright red fruit will be made into a syrup to serve with game, when the season comes around.
He continues: "I started writing this list down of everything that was growing in the area and the most incredible larder just appeared, there was the menu. In that sea, there's turbot, bass, mackerel, soles, cod. All the really good Northern European fish. Out there I've got lambs grazing on the marshes. Up on that farm, they've got pigs, chickens, and ducks. In your trip from Faversham station, you'll have passed hops, apples, pears, cherries, and plums. There are elderberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, sloes. Behind you there's a tree full of apples. Next to it is a tree full of pears. Next to that is a tree full of quinces. If you go down this road, there are wild crab apple trees and cherry orchards."
"Then it made sense that the Canterbury Cathedral kitchens owned it."
Nothing around here goes to waste, either. Pointing to some apples on the ground which have dropped from the branches, Harris comments: "I'll take those to the farm for the pigs."
We walk into the pub and settle into a corner table of the conservatory. Some bread and butter (with a sprinkle of that homemade salt) is brought to the table.
Harris explains: "I was into the idea of cuisine de terroir—food that reflects the landscape around you. If lambs are grazing on the salt marshes, you always have lamb on your menu."
Does he think ingredients like the salt taste better for having been sourced so locally?
"No, not particularly. I've never made that claim. Salt is salt. I've never made the claim that the salt tastes better or different. It's as much about the background of the restaurant and area," says Harris. "I think it also gives your cooking direction and focus."
For as much as Harris talks about the local area, it strikes me that The Sportsman is not for the local people. When I tell my taxi driver from Faversham station that I'm headed to the pub, he says that The Sportsman seems like a nice place but that he'd never been there—"quite pricey." And Harris himself admits that a lot of his customers come down from London. Places like Whitstable have seen rapid regeneration over the last decade but seaside towns remain among the most deprived communities in the UK.
"Whitstable was very different. I can't emphasise that enough. Whitstable was a working town and that was quite obvious by the atmosphere. When I was a kid, we used to play on the beach and all the buildings on the front were either derelict or boat builders. The oyster industry was derelict," says Harris. "Then there was the Whitstable Oyster Company which is a restaurant on the beach and a family who started growing oysters again. Not many people in Whitstable actually appreciated it. But lots of people in London did and from the late 1980s, early 1990s, people started coming down for the day."
He continues: "I love the people coming from London. Sorry, I have a different view to everyone else. Everyone else gets all teary-eyed about it. I don't. I really like the fact that all these Londoners come down with their sophisticated ways. I prefer Whitstable to how it is now. Also, we're a bit on the edge of town. I've never really wanted to be part of anything. We've never advertised. The book is a little bit uncomfortable because we're putting ourselves out there. I've always thought that I'm going to send out food and whatever happens, happens."
Although what happened was the aforementioned string of awards and high praise from the UK's top restaurant critics, Harris admits that, of course, such success doesn't happen by chance.
"No one really knew how ambitious I was. It was going to be one of the best restaurants in the country. I was going to apply my brain to it," he tells me. "I'd got into food via the girls at The River Café or Alice Waters. They would apply the rules of the season, using produce that was as fresh as possible."
But there was still an element of Harris' early visits to The Sportsman entrenched in its reopening.
"I just thought, 'Why don't we do what we did when we were a punk band?' Which was do it ourselves. You take a building with four walls and a roof. It took £20,000 to get everything done which we borrowed off my brother Damien who had a record company. We got in on November 1 and by November 8, we were serving food, and it looked like it does now. Don't moan. Just open the doors and start sending food out. It's the same as when I was a kid. Get a guitar, learn how to play it, write some songs, get on a stage, and play."
Well, they say chefs are the new rock stars.