|Let's Do It Again Sam!|
Rick Stein explains why he’s happy backing protégé Sam Harrison
It's almost a decade since Sam Harrison went to work at Rick Stein's Padstow empire and three years since he opened Sam's Brasserie in Chiswick. Last October Sam opened his second London site Harrisons which was also backed by Rick Stein. In an interview with Caterersearch.com, the friends and colleagues talked about why they work so well together and why Stein harbours no desire to open a restaurant of his own in the capital.
The pair have been partners for two-and-a-half years, since Harrison opened Sam's Brasserie, an all-day neighbourhood restaurant in Chiswick, 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 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.
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.
"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".
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."
May 27, 2008