Saturday 21 July 2018

How to put the SEA in 'seasonal'

Stephen Harris is the self-taught, seaweed-loving michelin-starred chef behind Britain's best restaurant - and it all started with a meal cooked by our own Paul Flynn, he tells our reporter

Self-taught chef Stephen Harris. Photo: Toby Glanville
Self-taught chef Stephen Harris. Photo: Toby Glanville
Salmagundi. Photo: Toby Glanville
The Sportsman by Stephen Harris, published by Phaidon at €39.95, with photography by Toby Glanville

Katy McGuinness

Stephen Harris is the Michelin- starred chef-proprietor of The Sportsman restaurant at Seasalter on the Kent coast, which last year was named best restaurant in Britain in its National Restaurant Awards.

For a self-taught chef to earn this accolade, and to do it in an establishment that famously describes itself, in its self-mocking Twitter bio, as "a grotty run-down pub by the sea", is the reason that The Sportsman cookbook is this autumn's insider favourite, feted by the great and good of the food world, and holding its own against new releases from established heavy hitters Jamie, Nigella and Yotam.

Everyone from Diana Henry - from the North, and the current queen of British food writing - to Marina O'Loughlin, the newly appointed successor to the late AA Gill as the restaurant critic of The Sunday Times (who says in her introduction to the book that The Sportsman is her favourite place to eat in the British Isles, bar none) is in agreement: this is the cookbook of the year so far, and probably of the year, full stop.

Harris did not set out to be a chef from an early age but says that his life was changed by his first meal in a Michelin- starred restaurant - London's Chez Nico - in September 1992. "It had two stars," he recalls, "and although I was a good amateur cook, I didn't know that such perfection was possible. Everything was clean and bright, the food was powerful but balanced, and my reaction was simply: I must find out how they do this."

And find out he did, methodically working his way through the cookbooks of Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Julia Child and others until he had learned all the techniques. "I have never been formally trained or worked for a famous chef," he says, the day after the launch of his book at the Noble Rot wine bar in London, in which he has an involvement. "When I was teaching myself how to cook, I would buy the books by the chefs that I admired and work my way through them until I had mastered all the dishes. Or I'd go to a restaurant and eat something and then try and recreate the dish at home with the memory of the taste in my head. Before I cooked for a living, I was a keen amateur - a good home cook - someone whose friends told him that he should perhaps think about opening a restaurant, who taught himself to cook very well."

Without any formal training, was he ever defeated by any of the complex dishes that he attempted? "I was good at classical dishes," he remembers, "but there was a Nico dish - a mushroom tart with an egg in the middle - that took ages. I finally cracked it, and there's a version of it in the book: the mushroom and celeriac tart. It can only exist for about five minutes before it falls apart. I did give up on Marco Pierre White's pyramid pudding, though: it looked like something from Ancient Egypt. I never quite managed it…"

Harris says that in writing his own book, he made a decision not to patronise the reader, so the recipes are not dumbed- down, or simplified for the home cook.

"The approach of the book is very much: 'this is how we do it in a professional kitchen, scaled down for a dinner party at home'. For example, for the slip sole in seaweed butter [one of the signature dishes at The Sportsman], I pick the seaweed for the seaweed butter from the beach, wash it, dry it in the dehydrator and powder it, and I make the butter from the cream from the local farm, and I make the salt from the sea… I explain how in the book … it's all very doable but the question really is whether you would bother to do that in a domestic setting. It's not really so much about difficulty as it is about commitment."

Harris appears to be enjoying his new career as an author - "I have a sore right hand from signing books; it's a change from being in the kitchen" - which comes after previous incarnations as a member of punk rock band The Ignerents and some years in the creative wilderness selling financial products in the City, which financed his meals in all those fancy restaurants.

At a time when cookbooks are often premised on the time in which it takes to execute the recipes, or to the supposed health benefits of the ingredients rather than on the food itself, Harris's is something of a novelty.

Yes, there are recipes - 50 of them - drawn from his repertoire at The Sportsman, but Harris also takes the time to examine and explain his own evolution as a chef, the story of the restaurant and the thinking behind it (The Sportsman may take a casual approach when it comes to tablecloths and sommeliers but never when it comes to food) and finding his own distinctive style.

Most importantly, the book captures the zeitgeist of intelligent thought about food. "I thought that it might be a bit 'thin'," he says modestly, "which is the word that my history teachers used to use describe my essays…"

It is anything but. The concept of terroir - something that Irish chefs including JP McMahon and Enda McEvoy in Galway, and Robin Gill in London and now also at Airfield in Dublin have been working to evolve - is no longer just about wine, but is rather the essence of food and a sense of place at its most fundamental.

These days, every two-bit chef who buys in pre-prepared vegetables and only prime cuts of meat - without any thought as to what happens to the other parts of the animal - feels entitled to stick 'local and seasonal' on their menu and talk about provenance. But without proper engagement with our food and where it comes from, the notion of developing and consolidating an authentic and distinctive Irish food culture is fanciful.

In The Sportsman, Harris writes of the Kentish terroir, both land and sea, where he lives and works, and how that informs each element of the dishes that he serves in his restaurant - from the salt-marsh lamb to the abundant fruit crops to the rich dairy produce. In a nod to his university degree, Harris delves back into the history of the area when it was the principal larder for the Archbishopric of Canterbury in the Middle Ages, and focuses on the importance of salt as a means of preserving meat and fish, so much so that it was used as a measure of value and currency.

His way of cooking and working are inextricably linked to his terroir. "I wanted the food in the restaurant to reflect the surroundings. When there are apples, I make lots of apple vinegar syrup - I pick the apples, juice them, and reduce down the juice so that I always have something sweet to hand. In the way that Ottolenghi always has pomegranate molasses to hand, I always have the apple syrup.

"I don't think that I would have been the same chef in London or another city, because I am so influenced by and sensitive to my surroundings. Where we are is massive in terms of the food that we cook. I would still have been good somewhere else - I would still have the palate, and a lot of being a good chef is having the ability to inspire, like the sports captain at school, so that people will want to work for that person - but the food itself would be very different.

"Without wanting to sound like a w*****, I'd liken what I do to a conceptual art project. Some of the best art projects rely on limitation. Hitchcock's Rear Window is one of my favourite films and it's all shot from one angle. With Sgt Pepper's, The Beatles deliberately made an album that would be impossible to reproduce on stage, using just four tracks - they had to be creative. Setting parameters is good for discipline. If you look at a painting that uses a palette of muted shades, then you don't want a big blob of primary colour in the middle… I do realise that I have painted myself into a corner like the punks did in 1976 when everything had to be three chords and then The Clash came along and threw in a bit of reggae and R 'n' B."

But when the restrictions of terroir become too much, Harris permits himself some creative freedom. "I do have another concept, another style of cooking, which I call 'bistro chic' or 'chic bistro'. In my mind's eye, it's a little place in the back streets of Paris and the food is witty and colourful and original. Occasionally, we do these dishes on the à la carte menu at The Sportsman - that mushroom celeriac tart that's copied from a Nico dish is one of those.

"I don't think that this means I want to do a second restaurant that's different to The Sportsman, I have no desire to empire build and I do think I'm a one-restaurant man. I love the lifestyle of running a single restaurant, being there every day. But I do hope I'm not proven wrong by someone offering me lots of money to do it.

"The attention to detail in my own kitchen is what makes it better for me than anywhere else; it has so much impact. When chefs come to work for me, one of the first things I talk to them about is how they season - they look at me as if I'm crazy! 'I know how to season,' they say. But the seasoning must be exactly even across the whole dish. In a dish like our upside-down potato cake, for instance, because one person will be getting a slice from one side, and another person from the other side, they must both taste exactly the same."

Earlier this year, in a rare 'away' gig, Harris popped up at The Tannery in Waterford during the West Waterford Festival of Food.

"I don't do many of those; I like working in my own kitchen where we have perfected everything. But Paul Flynn is just brilliant: he was head chef at Chez Nico when I ate the meal that changed my life, so if I could not show gratitude to him, then I'd be mean-spirited and ungrateful. He came all the way to The Sportsman to ask me - what a gentleman! I don't think that people in Ireland realise what a superstar he is, that he ran the best kitchen in London before opening The Tannery."

Scallops in seaweed butter

In the winter time, the local fishing boats switch their focus from catching slip soles to scallops, so we follow their lead. You can use a griddle plate or an overhead grill (broiler).

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 large live scallops, in their shells

60g/2¼ oz seaweed butter (see below)

Pinch of sea salt

Method

Preheat a griddle pan or overhead grill (broiler). Remove the scallops from their shells and thoroughly clean the lower shell. Divide the seaweed butter among the lower shells and sit the scallop back on top. (If you are using an overhead grill, then put the butter on top of the scallop.)

Cook the scallops in the shells on a griddle (or under the grill) for around 4 minutes, until the butter has melted. Turn the scallops over in the shell and baste them. Cook for a further 1 minute, or until the scallops are almost done to medium-rare.

Turn them and baste them again, so they are well coated with buttery juices. Season lightly and serve straight away in the shells.

Foccacia

It may seem strange that we make focaccia in a restaurant that highlights English food, but this bread is on the menu for sentimental reasons. Just before opening The Sportsman, I visited The Walnut Tree restaurant in Wales. I was impressed by many things, but the bread board knocked me out: it has a cheese bread, black bread and this focaccia.

Makes 1 loaf

Ingredients

20g/¾ oz fresh yeast

700g/1lb 9oz (5½ cups) bread flour

20g/¾ oz (1 tbsp) sea salt

15g/½ oz (1 tbsp) caster sugar

Olive oil

1 red onion, thinly sliced

2 stalks rosemary, picked into small sprigs

Method

Crumble the fresh yeast into a bowl and pour over 500ml/17 fl oz (generous 2 cups) warm water. Leave for 30 minutes to give the yeast time to activate.

Meanwhile, put the flour, salt and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a bread hook. If kneading by hand, combine in a large mixing bowl. With the mixer on a medium setting, add the year and water mixture to the dough and knead for around 5 minutes. The dough should be shiny and spring back when pressed with a finger; this means the glutens are in line. Leave the dough in the mixing bowl and allow to rise for an hour.

While the dough is rising, take a deep baking tin, around 30 x 24cm/12 x 9ƒ inches and oil it very generously. Knock the air out of the dough and turn out onto a floured work counter. Knead the dough for around 5 minutes to get it back to the shiny stage.

Swirl the oil in the pan to make sure all the inside surfaces are well-oiled. Put the dough into the pan and press into the sides and corners. Turn it over so that it is completely coated with oil. Spread the onion slices over the surface and tuck in the rosemary sprigs, distributing them evenly.

Leave for 2 hours, loosely covered with a tea towel, until the dough has risen almost to the top of the tin. Preheat the oven to 250˚C/500˚F/gas mark 10.

Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the focaccia is golden brown. In the restaurant we turn it upside down in the pan and bake for another 10 minutes to ensure it is evenly browned all over, but this is cosmetic rather than essential.

Turn out the focaccia onto a wire rack and leave for at least an hour before slicing.

Salmagundi

I've always been drawn to the idea of a salmagundi. I love the word itself - it's the 17th-century name for an English mixed salad - and of course I'm very keen on dishes that are truly seasonal, as it means I can focus my efforts on selecting produce at its very best, ideally straight from my own garden, instead of having to source ingredients from a supplier, which might not be up to the same standard.

Back in the early days of The Sportsman, while I was still dreaming of the perfect salmagundi, I visited Michel Bras' restaurant in the Aubrac plateau of France. One of his most famous dishes is the gargouillou - a salad that contains up to 20 different vegetables, all prepared separately. The waiter explained that the name comes from a traditional peasant soup, which can contain many different ingredients, depending on the season. I knew immediately that this would be the blueprint and inspiration for my own Sportsman salmagundi.

Back in the restaurant kitchen, I gathered together as many ingredients from the restaurant kitchen garden as I could find, all in their prime. It was early July, which meant I was spoilt for choice: there were baby peas, broad beans, French beans, courgettes (zucchini), tomatoes and many other things, as well. And then it was a question of playing around with bits and bobs from the different sections of the kitchen. I selected some vegetable purées, a handful of fresh herbs and flowers, crunchy soda breadcrumbs, a buttery sauce, and I started to have some fun!

I began by decorating the plate with some artful smears of purée and topped them with a cooked baby carrot and a few cubes of roasted summer squash. Next, I flavoured the buttery liaison with a pinch of curry powder and warmed through my freshly picked vegetables: my aim was to maintain their intrinsic 'snappiness' - they didn't need to be cooked, just barely warmed through - and I wanted their sweetness to be enhanced by the earthy flavour of the curry. I arranged a poached egg on the plate, spooned over the warm vegetables and finished the dish with some leaves and flowers and a scattering of breadcrumbs, to represent soil from the garden. The end result was a visual delight, as well as being utterly delicious.

The joy of a dish such as this is the way it can be adapted to what's best during each season. Summer's glut provides a bounty, of course, but in the winter it works just as brilliantly with root vegetables and a smoked egg yolk. I thought about writing a recipe for this, but in the end realised that it would be impossible. The best version will come from using this as a rough guide to create your own version from what you have available.

Seaweed butter

This is the amount of butter we make at the restaurant. It keeps well in the refrigerator for up to a week and freezes very well, but you can also scale down the recipe to your needs.

Makes about 1.5kg/3lb 5oz

Ingredients

100g/3½ oz fresh gutweed or sea lettuce (enough for 20g/¾ oz dried seaweed)

2.5kg/5lb 8oz (10 cups) crème fraîche, chilled

22.5g/¾ oz (4½ tsp) sea salt

Method

After gathering the seaweed, wash it very carefully and then dehydrate for 3 hours at 80˚C/175˚F. Check carefully for any shells or foreign objects, then put into a food processor and pulse to small, rough flakes. Store in an air-tight container.

Put the bowl of a stand mixer into the refrigerator to chill. Put the cream or crème fraîche into the cold bowl and beat at high speed with the paddle attachment. After about 5 minutes the cream will really stiffen up and you will hear a splashing sound as the buttermilk separates out from the buttermilk.

At this stage, I turn down the speed and cover the bowl loosely to prevent liquid spraying everywhere. Continue beating until the buttermilk and butterfat separate completely. Be patient as it may take another 5 minutes or so.

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