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Book review: The Sportsman, Stephen Harris

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Book review: The Sportsman, Stephen Harris

The Sportsman
By Stephen Harris
Phaidon, £29.95

It’s easy to forget just how unlikely a success the Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent,  has been. The self-avowed “grotty rundown pub by the sea” (check its Twitter bio) is some way out of Whitstable, perched by a sea wall on what can be rather bleak marshland. Until recently it was very much a traditional boozer, complete with sticky carpet and frosted windows.

The fact that Stephen Harris made the transition from financial advisor and enthusiastic home cook to chef-patron of a Michelin-starred mecca is remarkable in itself. But read his new book, The Sportsman, and Harris’s punkrock approach to cooking and his ambition to create a “jumble sale Michelin-starred restaurant” make perfect sense.

Harris is a chefs’ chef, so it’s fitting that his book is very much a chefs’ cookbook. This is no simple collection of recipes for the weekend dinner-party dabbler; it’s partly a history of Harris’s path to becoming a chef, partly a treatise on what he calls “total cooking”.

Harris questioned why it cost so much to open a high-end restaurant back in the days when to do so was tantamount to heresy.

Instead, he found an unloved pub, stripped it back to its original features, bought secondhand crockery, and combined refined food, rooted in the local terroir, with relaxed service. The fact that this approach seems so obvious now just goes to show just how much of an influence Harris has had on the British dining scene.

This is a book that demonstrates a clear passion for the Garden of England (the  recipes are divided by produce from the Kent coast, Kentish farms, and so on), as well as providing an entertaining account of the chef’s vision.

It’s no shock that Harris toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist. He writes so clearly and engagingly that, having opened the book for a quick flick through, I suddenly found I had read half of it, when I probably should have been writing  news for The Caterer.

Through the story of just one pub, this book charts in microcosm some of the  seismic changes to have shaken up the British culinary world over the past 20 years.

It’s one for the collection.

By Neil Gerrard

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