Climaxity

Stuff that matters

My first food memory is eating corned beef and mustard in a hot crusty roll while watching The Pink Panther on a Saturday evening. Or having a fish and chips takeaway. Or maybe it was picking and eating my own strawberries – fond memories of long summers spent in the sunshine with mates. I grew up in the centre of Gloucester, but it wasn’t too far to get out into fields.

After my first coffee, I’m out jogging at 6am, thinking how much I hate it and wishing the jog was over. But it’s necessary for me. My relationship with food and alcohol has been excessive and now I try to find control and balance. Using the brain is fantastic, but as I get older I realise that I need to be doing more physically. I’ll allow myself a burger and chips, but I don’t have them every day.

I think of playing rugby when I was a teenager as quite similar to being in hospitality. You have to be match fit in the kitchen and it’s very good for building relationships, understanding others, realising different roles. I wasn’t good enough to be a pro sportsman, but I love watching people now who’ve worked tirelessly hard to be one. And there’s something very special about hot dogs and onions at a match.

Acting was something suggested by my mother. I was in a production of Miss Marple, for example, but for me it was cool because I hung out with friends. Drama, like sport, can be terribly important in a child’s development – standing there, fronting up, talking like an adult, being confident.

I started cooking at 11, when my parents got divorced. My younger brother and I became latchkey kids and I’d quite often make the tea – fish-finger sandwiches, beans on toast, those sorts of things. You’d have to ask Sam if he appreciated it. He’s never said, “You were good for doing that”, but that’s OK. He’s humorous, quite profound and has a great interest in and love of eating food – especially steak and chips – but he’s not about cooking at all. He’s 6ft 5in; an even bigger lad than me.

My mother did early shifts at B&Q and was a cinema usher. Then she worked as a secretary for the education department and washed up in a pub in the evening. She’s very friendly, not judgmental and says hello to everyone she can. I believe I inherited her communication skills. And her cooking – she’s very good. Who doesn’t think their mother’s roast is the best?

It was after I became a pot-washer at the Calcot Manor in Tetbury that I thought hospitality might be a career path to go down. My father died from MS when I was 18 but I fell in love with hospitality. There were lots of shouty, sweary boys; there were knives and fire; late nights and going to lock-ins after work. I was suddenly in the grips of having to become an adult, which I very much enjoyed.

“Gently brutal” is how I’d describe working in a kitchen. Favourite knives, obviously, get pinched or stolen; people move or hide things; your car gets cling-filmed late at night. It’s relentless, but it’s always friendly. And hours have been reduced, which made people soften their moods and attitudes more. There’s been more awareness during the last five years of mental health in the kitchen and the work-life balance.

I was quite fortunate in that I haven’t really had nicknames. But there were many in kitchens I’ve worked in: Strange James, Rat Boy, Lego Head…

The first thing that Beth [sculptor Beth Cullen], the woman who became my wife, said to me was: “Have you got £3 for the stripper?” I was a chef de partie in Soho. You’ve got to admit that was a great opening sentence. I gave her the £3 but the stripper never turned up.

Beth became a technician for Sir Anthony Caro. Then we set up the Hand and Flowers gastro-pub together. Ask most people if they could spend 12 hours a day working with their other half and then go home with them, and they’d say: “Err, I’m really not sure.”

I think I was slightly over-exaggerating when I said Beth left me several times that first week of running the Hand and Flowers. But the idea was for me to cook and for her to be front-of-house manager but get to the point where she could make a living from her uncompromised art.

Beth won the Global Art award for sculpture two years ago for her biggest piece to date – five metres high, in front of Dubai Opera House. She has been and is hugely involved in the restaurant experience – interiors, soul, heart, feeling, food, service – and she oversees the accounts. The X factor thing, which one can’t quite put a finger on, is driven by Beth.

Fear and confidence are both really important. Confidence helps you achieve what you’re hoping to achieve, which is being driven by fear. As long as you’ve got the balance right, I think you’re OK. But if either fear or confidence outweighs the other, that’s when you trip up.

I enjoy making TV programmes – the crews that produce it, the industry, the process. But I don’t enjoy watching myself and I’m uncomfortable with people knowing who I am. I find it a bit bizarre and weird. At the same time, it means you can get traction in the media when, say,lots of people booked [tables] and didn’t turn up.

I’m not a man for offal. I’m happy for it to get used up in different things, but I’d never order a plate of devilled kidneys.

It’s the best thing ever, having a child. He’s four-and-a-half and can spend time in Beth’s studio, building things with clay and metal, or in the kitchen with me, creating dishes together. Or chopping. We both have quite dangerous, sharp tools that we’re happy for him to use with guidance. We don’t want him to be fearful of things; we want him to have respect for them.

I think, like all parents, that we’re very conscious of ensuring our child has a happy relationship with food, but it can get difficult. Kids like beige food. Crisps. Or chocolate. It’s difficult to explain that – and it’s difficult to explain that broccoli, carrots and peas are healthy. He’s very good with fruit – and protein as well. He’ll have roast beef and a piece of fish, and we cook omelettes together but vegetables are still a work in progress.

My favourite things
Food
I love cured, smoked, pickled things. Those sort of preserve-y foods taken to the next level. They’re very much home foods for me. I’m a huge fan of smoked salami.

Dish to cook
For Sunday lunch I slow cook. Slow-cooked shoulders of lamb are a big favourite of mine. But Beth isn’t a big lamb fan, or of greasy, high-fat food in general. Whereas they’re the things I love. There’s no negotiation. I’ve been married for 20 years, so obviously I cook something that’s not fatty.

Drink
For nearly seven years I’ve not had alcohol. The first thing each morning, Beth, in super-mum mode, makes a cappuccino for herself, a hot chocolate for our child and she puts a straight black coffee on the bedside table while I’m in the shower. Then, right through until my last coffee at night, my staple is straight black coffee in volume. After 10pm – when I’ve gone into double figures with coffees – it might become decaf.

Restaurant
At the Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, Stephen Harris cooks exemplary, strong, beautiful and very, very simple food that’s about that area and its produce.