Want to garden like Stephen Harris? Then grab some seaweed

The patron chef of the acclaimed Sportsman restaurant in England has some unusual ways of improving the soil
Chef Stephen Harris in his vegetable plot beside The Sportsman, in Seasalter, UK
Chef Stephen Harris in his vegetable plot beside The Sportsman, in Seasalter, UK

Plenty of successful chefs will talk up their restaurant and surroundings with almost as much panache and aplomb as they use when describing their dishes. Stephen Harris, of The Sportsman in southern England, is not one of them.

The British chef and Phaidon author is relatively comfortable hearing his award-winning seaside pub restaurant being described as a once “grotty run-down pub by the sea.”

Of course, Harris – who initially trained as a history teacher and worked in finance before becoming a chef – also knows the land around his pub in Seasalter has produced fine ingredients since medieval times; yet this doesn’t blind him to the quality of the earth in his coastal plot.

“The soil is alkaline, which basically means it’s not great,” he explains in The Garden Chef: Recipes and Stories from Plant to Plate. “To improve the quality and bring it back to neutral, in the most natural way possible, we’re not planting intensively, and we’re being careful with crop rotation. We try to repurpose things in the garden as much as we can, too. For example, the oyster shells in our paths come from the restaurant, but they also put off slugs and snails. 


The Sportsman's vegetable plot. From The Garden Chef
The Sportsman's vegetable plot. From The Garden Chef

“We use seaweed from the beach as fertilizer, laying dried seaweed on top of the soil, and then also make a ‘liquid’ seaweed by soaking it in fresh water for six weeks, until it’s fermented. And we water everything from the well in the garden.” 

Harris grew up in nearby Whitstable, and, having returned to his home turf, believes whatever the he may lack in soil nutrients is made up for with his local knowledge. 


Steamed bass with cockles and summer pistou, from The Garden Chef
Steamed bass with cockles and summer pistou, from The Garden Chef

“With gardens, you make a decision in October of one year, and see the results in August of the next,” he says in our new book. “A lot of chefs change restaurants in that length of time. To me, this is the real benefit of staying in the same place. I’ve been back in Whitstable for 18 years, and I couldn’t have achieved what I have in the kitchen without the persistence and patience that goes with that. 

“The garden is the same—it’s a project that requires both of those things by the spade-full, and it will never be complete. When people ask why I have a garden, I say it’s because my aim has always been to cook food that will blow your mind, but you don’t know why. I suppose you could call it the very best version of ‘normal’ food. As the garden develops, I can only see the food getting better and better.” 


The Garden Chef

To find out more about Stephen Harris' gardening techniques order a copy of The Garden Chef here; for more on his cookery, order a copy of The Sportsman here.

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