Stephen Harris on terroir, growing his own and the future of The Sportsman

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Stephen Harris The Sportsman National restaurant awards Kent Pubs Fine dining Sustainability

The Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards' Sessions series kicks off with a detailed look at seminal North Kent gastropub The Sportsman.

Stephen Harris has spent the last two decades or so building a closer connection to his environment, refining his recipes for homemade products like air-dried hams, cured fish, butter and even sea salt, which he makes by boiling seawater.

The North Kent pub’s renowned tasting menu features ingredients found in the immediate vicinity, exploring The Sportsman's unusually bountiful and distinctive surrounds. 

"The area used to be owned by the kitchens of the Archbishop on Canterbury. It's been a food production area for the last 1,000 years. That led me into this whole idea of terrior," says Harris, who studied history prior to becoming a chef. 

Harris soon discovered an amazing larder on his doorstep, the interconnection between the sea, salt marsh and the fields immediately inland providing incredibly high-quality ingredients. He launched a tasting menu created exclusively from the produce, and it soon started to make waves nationally. 

"I suddenly realised I could not use the same ingredients as everyone else or the food would not be that different," he recalls. "So I started looking at the fundamentals. I made my own salt, my own butter and my own bread. Now if I tell people we make all these things in house they're not that impressed. But at the time very few people were doing it."

Harris has adopted the same DIY approach in his pub's garden. The Sportsman started with a small plot but has significantly extended its growing operation in recent years. In the summer months the garden can provide up to 90% of the The Sportsman fruit and vegetables. 

Harris says the overarching cooking philosophy of The Sportsman is concerned with an often misunderstood word: simplicity. 

"I don't mean being lazy. I mean simplicity for a positive reason. It allows you to taste more of what you are eating. When something turns up in front of me and it's got smears and flowers all over it i'm thinking the chef is doing it for the visual effect, they are not thinking about the person that is eating it." 

Harris also talks about legacy and the possibility of turning The Sportsman into some sort of cooperative. 

"We have amazing staff retention. My head chef Dan Flavell has been here for 20 years. We've been very successful, and that success is down to the people that work here. It would be nice to somehow pass it on. I love the idea of cooperatives. I'd like to do something like that, but how that will happen will become more apparent over the next 10 years." 

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