Great Pub Chefs - This sporting life

By Nigel Huddleston

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Chef

'Another Way to Make your Day'
'Another Way to Make your Day'
On a stark piece on Kent coastline sits a pub with a huge food reputation. Nigel Huddleston meets Steve Harris. Steve Harris can sit in the...

On a stark piece on Kent coastline sits a pub with a huge food reputation. Nigel Huddleston meets Steve Harris.

Steve Harris can sit in the conservatory at the Sportsman and point across the road to the field where his cabbages are grown. Like many chefs he's proud of using local ingredients, but Steve is a bit different from the crowd because he rates what you do with them as more important in the overall mix. "I've seen perfectly good ingredients destroyed by poor technique,"​ he says. "We use local produce, not just because it's nearby but because it's sustainable. We're not responsible for those huge pantechnicons on the road. It's also accountable; if something happens we all know where it comes from. And it's got to be local and good. I use French cheeses because the local ones just aren't very good. "It's important not to be too dogmatic. What happens if there's a recession? I'm not going to stand there with the good ship local going down."

The Sportsman, a Shepherd Neame pub, stands on a stark piece of Kent coastline a few miles outside Whitstable, amid halfforgotten caravan sites, clapboard houses and chunks of concrete sea wall - it's remote, wild and, in Steve's own words "a bit weird". It's an unlikely environment to find a gastro pub with a reputation to match any in Islington or Notting Hill. In league with various family members, Steve took over the ailing Sportsman five years ago and he insists the location was one of its attractions. "It was a dead duck.

Nobody wanted it, but to us this is a fantastic place because it's so weird. "People come here and go through all that sense of doubt and uncertainty as they approach, but when they do that, and get a meal that's better than 80% or 90% of restaurants, it's very rewarding."​ Steve became a chef after growing tired of the grind of being a financial adviser in the "Smoke". "I hated being in an office and wearing a suit, the whole nine-to-five lifestyle. It was a toss up between journalism and becoming a chef. "I'd done subbing shifts on The Guardian sports desk. I was tempted by that but I felt it wouldn't be doing something creative, I'd be talking about what other creative people do." The upside of financial services was the chance to take clients out to lunch at the likes of Chez Nico in Park Lane or Marco Pierre White's. "Nico (Ladenis) just blew my mind. I tried to copy all the dishes at home. The spooky thing was I used to be able to get it right a lot of the time. Obviously friends will be nice about your food, but I realised I was getting pretty close. "I'd always been into food. When I was 18, I'd do dinner parties for friends or do the pizza when the football was on the TV."

The path to the Sportsman took in spells in various restaurants and gastro pubs across the south of England, where he learnt different ways of doing things. "It's all in the books that restaurants and chefs produce, but you've got to be able to read between the lines. You've also got have a good palate and to intellectualise what's going on."​ Information and inspiration often came from unusual sources. "I'd learn from reading the ingredients panels on packets of food. The sodium content was always 1%, so therefore I thought when I was making a soup if I weighed all the ingredients and chucked in 1% of salt I'd have seasoned it properly."

While West End restaurants were a blueprint for the food, there were other aspects that were less welcome. "I just wanted to concentrate on the way they cook the meat and the taste of vegetables. I didn't want all the crap around it, carrots shaped like torpedoes and sneering waiters."​ The Sportsman fitted the bill. Close to fashionable Whitstable but far enough from London not to have to compete with its more precious eating habits. But the pub itself was unloved. "It had had crap refit over crap refit but it was right for us. It was by the sea and it was a pub that no one drinks in. You don't want to transform someone's really nice boozer. If something works and it's a good backstreet pub don't mess around with it. Why gastro pubs are now getting a bad name is because they're taking perfectly decent pubs and poncing them up. The idea is that it should be a redundant site that isn't working in its previous incarnation. Necessity is the mother of invention, not ponciness."​ Or in other words, don't destroy the right ingredients by poor technique.

Chef's CV

Name:​ Steve Harris Experience:​ After spells as a teacher and financial adviser he started work in a friend's restaurant, Bryce's in Ockley, Surrey. After that he had short periods with the Fire Station in Waterloo, Argo in Canterbury, and the New Flying Horse in Wye, Kent, where he was head chef. Took over the Sportsman with help from brothers Phil and Damien in 1999.

The Sportsman - fact file

Menu philosophy:​ "Understatement. I hate long winded menus that promise you the earth and deliver nothing. We go the other way. We say 'cod in parsley sauce' - that's all you need to know really, isn't it? Although it will probably be the best cod in parsley sauce you've ever tasted." Number of covers:​ 50 Covers per week:​ 400 Number of wines on list:​ 34 (15 white, 19 red), plus six sparkling and two dessert wines Average spend per head:​ £25 lunch, £30 dinner. Wet:dry split:​ 30:70 And another thing:​ Steve's brother, and one of the partners in the Sportsman, is Damien Harris, boss of Skint Records, Fatboy Slim's record label, and a dance music artist under his Midfield General alias.

In the hot seat

What do you think of the modern gastropub movement?​ It was like in music where you couldn't become Pink Floyd or Emerson Lake & Palmer because it cost millions of pounds to get the stage act together and eight months to record an album, so there was this backlash when punk came along with bands getting together in five minutes and playing with no decent gear. Gastro pubs were the equivalent of that, which was people who wanted to cook but couldn't afford the silverware and everything, so they did it on a budget. That's why I like it, because you can see that it's like punk, only with cooking.

Is cooking a science or an art?​ It's becoming more scientific, but the reason it wasn't in the past is because we didn't know the science. Now there are facts you can't ignore. Some chefs hate it. It's a bit like telling Van Gogh that if he brightened that yellow a bit, the picture will be better. He'd have said you can't prove it, but in cooking you can, because if you cook a piece of pork to an internal temperature of 60°c it's cooked properly, but if you take it to 75°c it's overcooked. Every chef should have a meat probe thermometer.

What inspires you?​Originally, I wanted to invent "dogma food" after the idea of dogma films. It was a group of film-makers who decided they were going to go back to the basics of film-making based on all these rules. So there was this dogma, this code, where you were only allowed to use hand-held cameras, you weren't allowed to use fast cutting, you're not allowed to use lighting and so on. I thought it would be great to do the same with food, where you were only allowed to use ingredients from within a five-mile radius, for example. Unfortunately, no one makes good olive oil round here, so I never quite got to put it into practice.

On the menu at the Sportsman

Starters:​ Rock oysters and hot chorizo - £1 each Whitstable native oysters - £2 each Crab, crushed peas and tomato salsa - £6.95 Smoked eel, sodabread and horseradish - £6.95 Pear, Roquefort and walnut salad - £5.95 Bresola: beef cured in wine and spices - £5.95 Antipasti for two - £11.95

Main courses:​ Crispy duck, smoked chilli salsa and sour cream - £11.95 Chicken

Related topics Chefs

Property of the week

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more