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Idol talk

Categories: Features, News and previews

Luke Mackay reflects on at last week’s Demo Kitchen, which saw him cooking and chatting with chef Stephen Harris—one of his life-long heroes

I am rarely rendered speechless—especially in front of a live audience at Borough Market. But speechless I was, because of an almost off the cuff remark from Stephen Harris that flipped everything I have learnt in 20 years of cooking on its head: “Every chef’s trick is done for their benefit and not for their customers’.”

Yikes. That’s a thought that’s going to fester, still more because it emanated from the mouth of my greatest influence in cooking. Greens you see. It’s all about greens. I first read Thomas Keller’s classic cookbook The French Laundry about 20 years ago—specifically the chapter ‘big pot blanching’ which essentially makes the argument for pre-cooking green vegetables in a big pot of boiling salted water, then dumping them into iced water. This ‘sets’ the chlorophyll, ensuring lurid verdancy and of course makes a chef’s life much easier during service as you just have to heat rather than cook them.

When Stephen Harris took over The Sportsman, Thomas Keller was arguably the greatest chef in the world, running the greatest restaurant: but Stephen disagrees and cooks all of his green vegetables to order—from raw to plate with no dousing in ice water, no reheating. He looks aghast that this isn’t just obvious. “They TASTE better,” he says. Oh.

Pork chops

Obsession and perfection
Similarly, crab, carrot and hollandaise, a dish that has been on the menu at The Sportsman since 2005, is made (and as a chef, this gives me the absolute shivers) by cooking the whole crab when the order comes in. This is astonishing: 95 per cent of all restaurants will buy in pre-picked and pasteurised crab meat, four per cent will buy in whole crabs, cook them and pick the meat before service and I’d wager less than one per cent cook and pick the crabs during service. It tells of obsession and perfection and explains better than any other analysis exactly why The Sportsman has been voted the UK’s best restaurant so many times. “They TASTE better,” he says. Oh. It’s all so simple and so incredibly complex.

I had the opportunity of a lifetime last week when I pottered around the Market with Stephen, sniffing out fantastic produce, talking about how we could cook it and then doing exactly that in front of an engaged, enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience. His eyes lit up at some thick pork chops from Northfield Farm—manager Dom, as ever, was a font of information as to the pigs’ provenance—and we slipped a couple into our bag along with beautiful wild mushrooms from Turnips, especially some glorious pieds de mouton, and a bag of cockles from Furness Fish Markets. A side of sea trout the colour of a Seasalter sunset made the cut too, and some sprout tops from Elsey and Bent. “We were the first restaurant to use these, you know,” says Stephen. And butter. Stephen is passionate about butter—he’s been making his own at the restaurant for decades, as well as salt, cured meats and all of the other things that most chefs have delivered in a van every morning.

A very special chef
Obsession, perfection, and making sure that everything tastes as good as it possibly can. It’s easy really—except, of course, it isn’t. It takes a very special person and a very special chef to make such perfect food so consistently. You’re not meant to meet your heroes, lest you are disappointed; but I can assure a generation of chefs of my vintage who have followed Stephen for two decades that the man is every bit as inspiring as the myth. To meet him at Borough and to cook, chat and learn from him was a sparkling highlight of my entire career.