Meet the Man Behind Britain's Best Restaurant

Courtesy Phaidon

In his debut cookbook, The Sportsman’s Stephen Harris describes returning home to Kent’s rugged seaside to find his culinary voice.

A slip sole caught just offshore is broiled for three minutes and then rested for another three. The butter burnishing along its flanks was churned in the same kitchen, from yellow cream supplied by a dairy on the pasture to the south. Seen through the north-facing windows, clutches of seaweed dot the beach just beyond the sand bar, less than 100 yards away—inside, dehydrated flakes in turn dot the butter.

The dish is seasoned throughout, as are all produced here, with salt crystals boiled down from the salt-marsh water winding in on the shore. At The Sportsman, which Restaurant magazine has crowned Britain’s top restaurant two years running, each ingredient speaks to the others in the kitchen because it speaks to them outside—in the water, on the beach, in the hedgerows lining the grassland.

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In this way, chef Stephen Harris, who opened The Sportsman 18 years ago within the shell of a decaying seaside pub, not only represents on his plates the northern coastline of Kent’s Canterbury District, in southeast England—he layers it into them. “The romantic narrative of this restaurant, kind of a quite wild restaurant, by the sea, surrounded by all of its ingredients, cooking the terroir—that felt right to me,” he says.

It was an idea that wouldn’t have occurred to his younger self growing up in Whitstable, about four miles down the coast. He left for London at 18 and didn’t return for 15 years.

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In a sense, Harris began his culinary training in 1992, when he ate his very first Michelin-starred meal, at Nico Ladenis’s Chez Nico, in London’s tony Mayfair district. (He would win his own Michelin star in 2008.) A 30-year-old history teacher-turned-financial advisor and an avid home cook, Harris found his culinary ambitions inflamed by the meal’s perfection. He started visiting all the top restaurants he could, studying the food, “carrying that flavor memory home,” and recreating the meals for guests.

“My teachers were all the best chefs in London,” he says—Gordon Ramsay (“before anyone knew about him”), Marco Pierre White, Richard Corrigan, the Roux brothers. At 33, he left his financial career behind to take up as a commis chef at the Fire Station, a gastropub in Waterloo, making just £8,000 a year. Three years and three restaurant jobs later, Harris returned to Whitstable, where he wound up stopping into The Sportsman, on the outskirts of nearby Seasalter, with an old friend.

As Harris writes in his debut cookbook, The Sportsman ($49.95), which was published by Phaidon in September, the restaurant originally catered to hunting parties in the early 1900s, and then to “caravanning tourists” in the ’50s. By the late 1970s, when a teenage Harris was practicing with his punk band down the road, it had run into disrepair. But on Boxing Day, 1998, Harris recognized its potential. “I edited out all the bad stuff,” he says, “and just saw the romance of the area.”

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When he refinished and reopened the property a year later, The Sportsman was a local success. But the food continued to reflect how Harris had learned to cook, an emulation of the London greats. “After about four years,” he says, “I’m thinking, will I ever develop a style of my own?” The answer came on the food trips he and his partner, Emma, would take around Europe. Through them, Harris began to understand the importance of each destination’s narrative, which is how he came to differentiate the chefs behind them—“the gardener,” “the jazz musician,” “the forager.”

When he visited Olivier Roellinger’s now-closed Maisons de Bricourt, on Brittany’s northern coast, he encountered an angle he knew well: history. By integrating new spices into his food, Roellinger was embracing the area’s history as the nexus of France’s spice trade, says Harris. “Suddenly, he’s cooking dishes that are unique to him,” and unique to that place. It got him thinking.

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Harris knew Kent to be the garden of England—less rain and more sunshine make it habitable to fruits and vegetables that won’t readily grow in other counties—but his subsequent research showed it had been so for 1,000 years. The Domesday Book, a comprehensive audit of Britain commissioned by William the Conqueror and published in 1086, lists Seasalter as its own borough owned by the kitchens of Canterbury Cathedral. “I had to ask myself, why [is that]? Naturally it was an area of outstanding food sources.”

One day, during this research, Harris stood on the beach and looked toward Maldon, a coastal town renowned for its sea salt some 50 miles across the estuary, and it dawned on him to try to make his own. Then, a chance encounter with an archeologist friend who happened to be writing about the area’s agricultural history solidified the reality that he was surrounded by a self-contained ingredient ecosystem: fish in the sea, shellfish in the estuary, seaweed on the beach, wild berries and flowers in the hedgerows dividing up the fields, the farmed lamb, beef, and chickens out on the pasture, the ducks, geese, and other wild fowl flying overhead—all within a stretch of land and beach he could traverse in the course of an afternoon. 

“There was the menu,” he says. “Why would you go any further?”

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