Chef Stephen Harris describes his restaurant, the Sportsman, as a grotty seaside pub. It’s in a former hotel on the Kent coast. The nearest neighbour is a rundown caravan site.
And it’s recently been named the United Kingdom’s best restaurant in the National Restaurant Awards.
Mr Harris, 54, spent much of his career selling pensions, insurance and bonds with City Financial Partners, but he’d always harboured dreams of being a chef. He discovered his love of cooking as a teenager after the milkman dropped off a free recipe book, igniting an interest very different from his friends of the same age, who just wanted to have fun.
“I was in the kitchen cooking plaice stuffed with prawns with a chive veloute,” he says.”I was a bit strange in that way.”
He first visited a Michelin-starred restaurant after securing his first job making real money at City Financial.
“I went to Chez Nico with colleagues for Friday lunch because we’d had a good month,” he says. “I was blown away. The pudding – a lemon tart – was so astonishing.”
Mr Harris recreated the meal at home the following night.
It was just a hobby, until a tragic accident in 1994, when his brother Christopher drowned at age 36. It made him review everything in his life.
“I realised, I am going to have to throw myself into something serious,” he says. “I thought, I am going to open a restaurant.”
Mr Harris quit and secured jobs in professional kitchens to learn the business of running a restaurant. He spent about three years looking for a site before he thought of the Sportsman, a rundown pub he knew from playing on the nearby beach as a child.
His brother Damian, who co-owned Skint Records, home to Fatboy Slim, lent him Â£30,000 (Dh145,000) to do up the property, which Mr Harris did in a week with a group of friends in November 1999. Another brother, Phil, helped run front of house, and gradually word got out about just how good the food was. Even Michelin heard. The Sportsman won a star in 2008.
So what is the food actually like?
Mr Harris’s food is terroir-based, with most of the meat and vegetables coming from Kent, with fish and seafood from local fishermen and salt from the sea. The homemade bread is as good as you will find anywhere in England. The Â£65 (Dh313) tasting menu – with dishes such as roasted partridge with celeriac risotto and slip sole grilled in seaweed butter – best represents the chef’s cooking.
What about Ã la carte options?
This features beautiful fish that is simply cooked. Mr Harris finds the finest local produce and resists the temptation to get chef-y with it. The menu changes daily, where options may include roast sea-trout fillet with pea sauce & deep-fried oyster for Â£20.95 and baked hake fillet with cherry tomato sauce and green olive tapenade for Â£21.95.
There are Whitstable oysters, poached with rhubarb and seaweed, or with pickled cucumber and avruga caviar.
So is it really the best restaurant in the UK?
I don’t know if The Sportsman is the best. Other restaurants are more ambitious, more challenging. But there are few places I’d rather go to enjoy lunch on a summer day.
OK, I’m sold. Do I have to wait for a table?
These days, you might wait months for a table. For Saturday nights, you may be looking at December.
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Source: art & life