Original article from Kent Live
One of Kent's best known dining destinations has once again been named as the UK's best gastropub.
The Sportsman in Seasalter scooped the top prize in the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards annual list of its top 100 restaurants for a fifth time.
The venue, which is one of the only restaurants in Kent to hold a Michelin star, also topped the Top 50 Gastropubs list in 2015, 2016, 2018 2019.
The awards are voted for by leading chefs, restaurateurs and food writers.
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The incomparable reputation of the restaurant has been painstakingly built by its chef-patron Stephen Harris and his brother Phillip since they acquired the Shepherd Neame premises in 1999.
And although the pub is well known, often lauded by the press, its co-owner is comparatively silent, choosing to shy away from the spotlight.
Mr Harris cuts a humble figure, playing down his restaurant’s vast achievements.
“I prefer to fly under the radar,” he previously admitted to Kent Live.
“Generally I like to keep my head down, and get on with what we do.
“I don’t want to show off too much, I just feel like people must get so fed up when we win things.
“I don’t want to bang on about it and make people sick of us.
Mr Harris said The Sportsman’s unseasonable success relies on two main pillars – the innovative food and the relaxed but compelling atmosphere.
“I recognised very early on that the food had to be spot on,” he explained.
“We had to make the food so good that people had to come – that’s my job.
“But also we had to create an atmosphere that’s the type of service that we like – the job of my brother Phil, my partner Emma and all those who work out front.”
Diners from Essex, London. America, Sweden and even Australia venture to this relatively unknown corner of Kent to try Mr Harris’ food.
He said: “If you come in here on an average day, out of our 14 tables, three or four will be from America, or Denmark or somewhere abroad.
“Several will be from London, a few from Tunbridge Wells or elsewhere in Kent and, of course, the locals.”
Mr Harris said it had always been his dream to run his own restaurant, a dream he quit his ‘boring’ job selling insurance in the capital to pursue.
But despite his recent acclaim he did not become a chef through a traditional route: he didn’t attend catering college and he didn’t work as an apprentice under a senior chef.
Instead it was his determination to make outstanding food that motivated self-taught Mr Harris and he believes that his non-traditional approach helps make The Sportsman’s food so groundbreaking.
He said: “If somebody shows you how to do something you just do it.
“If you work out how to do something yourself, you understand all the nuts and bolts, you can experiment with it and make it your own."
Mr Harris also explained how The Sportsman was at the forefront of the super local cuisine trend, serving dishes to reflect the immediate landscape for more than 15 years.
“We could point out the lambs in the field, the seaweed and oysters on the beach that ultimately end up on our diner’s plates.
“Some 15 years ago that was quite groundbreaking, now it’s become the normality for lots of places.
“I think that’s how we became a ‘cult’ restaurant and why chefs from all over the world come here to try our food.”
‘Never take the Michelin star for granted’
The Sportsman is one of the only restaurants in Kent to hold a Michelin star and it has done so for more than a decade.
The term is a hallmark of fine dining quality with restaurants around the world aiming to be recognised by the coveted award.
To compile the Michelin guide, anonymous inspectors grade restaurants in order to provide information to tourists.
Restaurants are awarded one star if they have high quality cooking, two stars if their cooking is classed as excellent, and three if the cuisine is truly exceptional.
Mr Harris explained inspectors must go to some 200 restaurants in the county, and they’re not “handing stars out like candy floss”.
“The phrase ‘Michelin-trained chef’ means nothing, it’s a marketing ploy,” he scoffs.
“Everyone tries to link themselves to Michelin.”
On his own star, first awarded in 2008, Mr Harris reflects: “We never celebrate but we never take it for granted.
“Having a Michelin star is obviously great because it’s a very rare thing, especially in Kent.
“There were only two in Kent, until last year when the Fordwich Arms got theirs.
“We’re having our moment in the sun and it’s gone on for around ten years, since we first won the Michelin star I suppose.”
The Sportsman's numerous awards are proudly displayed at the bar, with several food guides also littered around the dining room.
“We're really enjoying our moment and we’re really happy,” he remarks, flicking fondly through the Michelin guide.
“But I also understand that people get a bit bored with us winning.”
“I’ll tell you what we never do though,” he continued, “we never enter The Sportsman for awards.
“All of the awards we get are given to us without our knowledge.
“The ones you have to enter yourself and get your customers to vote for you, well, that’s not an award, that’s a popularity contest.
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The impact of the pandemic
Being truly free from The Sportsman for the first time in more than 20 years, Mr Harris is actually enjoying his time in lockdown.
He is spending most of his time writing, but is acutely aware of the challenges ahead which face the whole industry.
“There is a big question mark over getting back to normal," he commented.
"Some people wonder whether we ever will."
He added: “I’ve got friends all over the world questioning the whole nature of restaurants.
“Of course it will be tricky and until we have a vaccine it will be hard, but I think ‘hang on, restaurants were great before the pandemic, why not after?’
“Everyone misses them, and anecdotally I have noticed on social media people seem to be very interested in food and food seems to be very important to people right now.
“Now people appreciate they have to make every meal they eat, three times a day for eight weeks, they are wondering what they did before.
“They are realising restaurants, pubs and cafes performed a very important function and I think people will be keen to get back to that.”
The Sportsman is taking bookings for May onwards, when restaurants are allowed to reopen as part of the coronavirus roadmap.
Though you won't be surprised to learn there's already a waiting list.