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 neighbor is a run-down caravan site.
And it's just been named the U.K.'s best restaurant in the National Restaurant Awards.
Harris, 54, spent much of his career selling pensions, insurance and bonds with City Financial Partners, but he'd always harbored dreams of being a chef.
He discovered his love of cooking as a teenager after the milkman dropped off a free recipe book. "While everyone was getting roaringly stoned and drunk, 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 when he got his first real 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, I broke out laughing in a slightly unhinged way."
Harris recreated the meal at home for friends the following night. He then decided to teach himself how to cook at that kind of level. He bought recipe books of famous chef such as Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis, went to their restaurants and ordered the dishes, then later cooked them himself.
At the Sportsman: Cod with wild garlic veloute and radish
It was just a great hobby, until a tragic accident in 1994, when his brother Christopher drowned at age 36. When they were younger, they had played together in a punk band, the Ignerents. "He couldn’t swim, and he was trying to teach himself when nobody was around, because he was a bit embarrassed," Harris says. "We found him dead in the pool."
It made him review everything in his life.
"I realized, I am going to have to throw myself into something serious," he says. "I thought, I am going to open a restaurant."
Harris quit and got jobs in professional kitchens to learn the business of running a restaurant. He spent about three years looking for a site for a restaurant 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 £30,000 ($39,000) to do up the property, which 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.
These days, you might wait months for a table. For Saturday nights, you may be looking at December.
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 £65 tasting menu - with dishes such as roasted partridge with celeriac "risotto" and slip sole grilled in seaweed butter - best represents Harris's cooking. (He describes it as "modern country," which makes me think of Taylor Swift.)
The a la carte features beautiful fish that is simply cooked. Harris finds the finest local produce and resists the temptation to get chef-y with it.
The menu changes daily and is written on a blackboard, where options may include roast sea-trout fillet with pea sauce & deep-fried oyster (£20.95) and baked hake fillet with cherry tomato sauce and green-olive tapenade (£21.95).
There are Whitstable oysters, poached with rhubarb and seaweed, or with pickled cucumber and avruga caviar. Rock oysters come with hot chorizo (£2.50).
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.
The Sportsman, Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent, CTCT5 4BP; +44-1227- 273370 or http://www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk/