Paging and cooking through the cookbook from chef Stephen Harris of The Sportsman in Kent gets you inside the head of one of Britain’s brightest chefs.
A sulfurous aroma lingered in the kitchen. The gentle crackling of lots of butter trapped in a big Dutch oven reverberated in my tiny New York City apartment. I lifted the lid and peeked at my project after an hour of cooking it down last weekend. It looked almost alien: Quarters of red cabbage, drenched in butter, slowly softening and staining the bottom of the heavy pot an unnatural purple. It was almost there.
I have never ventured to Whitstable, a cozy, coastal town in northern Kent just southeast of England. And certainly not to The Sportsman, the self-described “grotty rundown pub by the sea” that’s made the sleepy area a new food destination. Self-taught chef Stephen Harris dreamed up The Sportsman nearly 18 years ago, but it only recently drew global attention after winning the title of National Restaurant of the Year in 2016. (It retained its status this year, too.)
However, I knew that cabbage dish—meaty, creamy, tangy, honeyed and somehow decadent—after Harris popped-up the hottest restaurant in Britain at The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn last fall. And re-reading the recipe out of Harris’ new cookbook out this month, The Sportsman ($50), I put the lid back on. My attempt at his pot-roast cabbage needed a little more time bathing in butter.
Before he left careers in financial advising, music and teaching, Harris was just a very good home cook. Once he realized he wanted to go down the restaurant path over the journalism one, he instructed himself through cookbooks. In his own cookbook, he lists how he bought tomes from Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffman and Marco Pierre White to learn their craft then dined at their restaurants to complete his cooking curriculum. After eventually slogging as a commis through restaurant kitchens in London, he ended up in Whitstable and fell in love with an empty bar with cheap banquettes and chipboard-covered windows that would later become The Sportsman.
“I’m very critical of myself,” says Harris. “To the point where my chefs are like ‘Why can’t we just get this dish on the menu?’” He continues. “I won’t let it go on until there is something magical about it.”
That’s what I love about The Sportsman. Harris quietly pushes things to the limits—like creating his own salt from the Kent waters, or making a meal of the humble cabbage—but not to the point to where they fall on track with a certain trend of the moment. To the point where they’ve reached a magical status. Then he goes off and finds another obsession.
“I’m very wary of trends. I don’t want to be painted into a corner,” says Harris. “I saw it happen with punk rock, when all the bands in England thought songs had to be super fast and three minutes long.”
“Then The Clash was brilliant and bold enough to say we’re going to do some blues, jazz and funk, and they came out with ‘London Calling,’” Harris continues. “It was a work of art, and they broke out of that corner.”
He only dips his toe, in a way, into things that fully launched into trends later on. Farm to table: Those homemade flakes from the salt marsh terrain. Foraging zeal: He scouted for nearby beach herbs, not because it was cool in Notting Hill, but because he was translating the landscape around him. DIY artisan movement: He made his own butter way before it was cool. He marches to his own beat.
“It’s like being a musician. Where is your treble? Where is your acidity? Where is your bass? Where is your salt?,” he says. “Behind it all, there is food with real ambition."
You can follow that train of thought with his pot-roast cabbage, inspired by a comment he read from René Redzepi about cooking vegetables. He translated the thought at The Sportsman not as treating vegetables like meat but as “Let’s put some work into cooking vegetables.”
For the dish, he calls for Cox apples, native to Britain, cooked down in butter to add sweetness, apple vinegar reduced with juice for a little acid and sour cream (in the book, it’s cream cheese, which my husband loved) to give it some velvety heft.
Drizzled and dolloped atop the cabbage, it really was magical.