It's almost a decade since Sam Harrison went to work at Rick Stein's Padstow empire. Last October he opened his second London site, backed by Stein. Tom Vaughan caught up with the pair to discover why they work so well together
To watch an exclusive interview with Rick Stein and Sam Harrison, visit www.caterersearch.com/harrisons
The take's done on our video of Rick Stein and Sam Harrison and the cameramen are packing up their gear. Unclipping his microphone, Stein, who's probably chalked up more screen hours than the entire cast of the nineties TV soap flop Eldorado, turns to his former general manager and in his gentle, paternal tones says an unpatronising "Well done." It's by no means a conspicuous gesture, Stein's warm appraisal, just a small part of the affinity between Padstow's most famous son and his young protégé Harrison, the only restaurateur he has chosen to back financially.
The pair have been partners for two-and-a-half years, since Harrison opened Sam's Brasserie, an all-day neighbourhood restaurant in Chiswick, west London, well received for its simple brasserie food and endearing front-of-house charm. When Harrison began work on a second site, Harrison's in Balham, sporting the same ethos, there was no arm-twisting needed to get Stein on board again. "Sam was doing so well [in Chiswick] it made a lot of sense to move the idea to a similar part of London," says Stein. "I've been to Balham quite a bit in the past and thought it was the right place to go."
The story behind the site was that it belonged to Soho House until July last year, operating under the name the Balham Kitchen. Despite doing great business - the week before closure it took £35,000 - the decision was made to offload it. Nick Jones, chief executive of Soho House was keen to sell to an independent rather than see the site gobbled up by a large chain, so he let Harrison know it was available.
The circumstances seemed perfect: it was within Harrison's price range his backers from the first restaurant were keen (Stein, Rebecca Mascarenhas, proprietor of the two Sonny's restaurants in Barnes and Nottingham and the Phoenix in Richmond, and Luke Tate, a finance director for Compass) and Balham seemed the perfect location. But "seeming" wasn't enough. So Harrison undertook the same sort of meticulous research that had preceded his business plan for Sam's Brasserie. For days on end he stood outside Balham train station, counting people. "Trying," in his words, "to get a feel for who lived in Balham and where they were going". He also talked to taxi drivers to find who was coming to Balham on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The conclusion was that Balham was becoming more and more of a destination and a Sam's Brasserie-style restaurant would fit in perfectly. The result, three months and £800,000 later, was Harrison's, a 100-seat neighbourhood restaurant a five-minute walk from Balham station.
If ever an explanation were needed for why Stein backs Harrison, it lies in this example of his meticulous preparation. The elder statesman of the restaurant scene needed little evidence to demonstrate that a venture of Harrison's would prove a success.
The pair first worked together 10 years ago when Harrison, fresh from Eton, an Oxford Brookes hotel and catering management degree and a two-year management training programme with Walkers Crisps, took a job with Stein in order to get out of London and join an independent restaurant. Within six months he was assistant manager of Stein's Padstow operations and within a year, aged a tender 27, general manager. "What I was impressed with during Sam's time in Padstow was how much he liked giving this quiet but efficient service," says Stein. "And while I'm at heart a chef, I know that one of the most important parts of running a restaurant is the service - making people feel at home. And Sam is very good at it."
After two years he moved on, doing a stint in Sydney, Australia, before returning to the London scene. But he kept in touch with Stein and when he put together a business plan for his own restaurant Stein, who had always promised to back him if he went it alone, duly obliged, teaming up with Mascarenhas and Tate as equal partners beside Harrison. It's Mascarenhas who gives Harrison the most day-to-day help, phoning with "invaluable" advice and support. So close is their partnership that their businesses pool staff and resources if either side is in need.
Stein's TV commitments and the day-to-day running of his Padstow empire mean he isn't regularly on the phone, but he still comes to tastings to help decide the menu and is in touch with Harrison whenever he gets the chance. "Every time we talk we pick up from where we left off," he says. "When you have friends with such similar common interests it's more like getting together for a gossip."
Their common ground comes from a shared passion for hospitality. While Stein's 34 years in Padstow speak for themselves, it shouldn't be forgotten that Harrison fought against advice from his Etonian schoolmasters and his parents' view of the industry to pursue dreams of a career in hospitality.
"I always remember being surprised that an Old Etonian should end up in the catering business," says Stein. "When I started, a friend of mine who also went to a smart public school said to me, 'Come on Rick, you know it's a third-rate occupation', and I flew at him for it. But what is pleasant is that time has proved both Sam and me right in our decisions. We're in such a vital industry and we get on as friends and enthusiasts within it."
Has he not been tempted himself to open in London over the years? "No," says Stein. "We're doing well down in Cornwall. I've always left London to those who know it better. I just couldn't be arsed with the trouble. Plus, I like being a big fish in a small pond. Apologies to the Cornish for calling it that, because I love the place."
What about Harrison? Can the public expect more sites like Sam's Brasserie and Harrison's? "Two is plenty for now. I've run out of names anyway - I'd have to get married to give the new site a different name," jokes Harrison. "I found the jump from one to two a big leap. It's a change of mind-set and a change of operation. In some ways it's very stretching. But if another opportunity comes along in the future we'd love to have a look at it."
However, the site would have to be special. Part of the appeal of the Balham site, says Harrison, was its individuality formerly three shops knocked together to form the Balham Kitchen, it came complete with an enormous metal-formed bar and white mosaic floor. "If we did something else it would either have to be a new-build or a distinctive space," says Harrison. "One of the things about being an independent restaurant is we offer something unique and the site should reflect that."
It was for this reason that Harrison decided to use his surname for the second restaurant rather than use Sam's Brasserie, a decision that Stein opposed at the time, believing it would be better to use a familiar name. But eventually he came round to Harrison's determination not to be seen as a chain, which, Stein now admits, "people can start to see as very samey".
Despite many similarities in the style and delivery of the two sites, there are differences. An abundance of corporate business down in Chiswick means lunches are a lot busier, with cover numbers totalling 50 compared with 30 in Balham. And the tucked-away position of the Chiswick site means it's more of a destination, reflected in slightly finer dining touches on the menu. Covers number about 250 in Chiswick on Thursday to Sunday, while in Balham it's more like 150, and 200 for Sunday lunch. Still, the aim was to match the £35,000-a-week turnover that the Balham Kitchen was achieving and, according to Harrison, the site is well on course to achieve this.
One noticeable difference, says Harrison, is that the customers in Chiswick tend to be a lot more affluent. "The difference is that ladies who lunch in Chiswick don't tend to look at the bill, while ladies who lunch in Balham tend to look at it very closely," he says. "It's a generalisation, but look at the houses. If you're in Chiswick you tend to have made it, if you're in Balham you've still to fully make it." Doesn't Harrison live in Chiswick? "Yes... but you should see my flat. It's a shoebox I bought to sleep in between shifts."
Harrison is front of house most days in one of the restaurants, greeting and seating customers. So how does it feel for Stein to see one of his protégés excelling in the industry? "It's gratifying," he says. "As you get older it's the generation coming up that excites you. It's just so rewarding. As an older member of the industry you don't have to say much to give younger ones a spark in the eye. To be able to do that is one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole profession. Sometimes I feel a little bit self-interested. Of course I want the industry to prosper, but I take a really personal pleasure in motivating people and getting them to see service and cooking in the same way I see it."
Stein and Harrison talk to Caterersearch
To watch an exclusive interview with Rick Stein and Sam Harrison, visit www.caterersearch.com/harrisons
Rick Stein: past, present and future
With more TV shows in the offing, Rick Stein has, over the past few years, been stepping out from behind the Padstow stove.
"The great thing about training and about bringing people on is that I really now prefer to leave the running of my businesses to other people," he says. "Not because I'm lazy but because it's a pleasure to have people doing things the way you want it and then talking to them about it."
Stein says his time is split between Cornwall, London and Australia, where he spends three months a year in his second home beside Sydney harbour. While he's still passionate about British produce and suppliers, and spends a lot of his time in Cornwall helping to source the best produce as well as keeping an eye on his Padstow businesses, he has become increasingly interested in the Australian restaurant scene.
"I find it interesting to have a knowledge of these places," he says. "In many ways the restaurant scene in Australia is more challenging than here. It's not necessarily that the food is better, despite people often thinking it will be because the produce is so fantastic out there. In fact, what Australian chefs in the UK find is that you can get a lot more over here. They've got so many squeaky-clean rules about pasteurised cheese and so forth that there's a lot more produce available over here.
"It's generally a lot cheaper to eat over there, meaning margins are tighter and chefs and waiters have to work a lot harder to make it work and get people back. When it works well it's a very slick operation."
Stein is considering filming some of his next series in Australia but at present he's filming in Asia, touring Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and neighbouring countries to explore their cuisine.
"The food out there is sensational, but it's hard work and very hot," he says. "Cambodia is the most interesting so far. They don't see chillis as ingredients but as a side dish you eat whole during the meal."
Stein's loyal co-star Chalky, a Jack Russell (pictured), passed away in January last year. Could he ever be replaced? "We've had a statue of him put outside the restaurant in Padstow, looking as if he's just jumped out of the sea, not quite as grumpy as he used to be," says Stein. "He was a one-off. I think if I appeared on telly with another dog, people would see it as a bit of a cop-out."
Had he still been around, would Chalky have enjoyed the Asia trip? "Maybe not," says Stein. "It's very hot. In fact, when we were out there the producer asked if we were going to film in a restaurant that serves dog. 'Absolutely not,' I said. 'That'd be incredibly disrespectful.'"