Let’s get one thing straight, Henry Harris has no ambition to reinvent the restaurant, far from it, he just wants to cook “good French bourgeois food”. He opened his South Kensington restaurant, Racine, nine years ago to do just that: “I wanted to cook the food I enjoy the most, and it just struck a chord with the people at the time,” he says.
Racine has since amassed a dedicated following from hardened Francophiles looking for that enigmatic English idyll; the perfect little French restaurant. And to Henry, having Racine described in such a way is his biggest compliment; he wants the place to be that “restaurant people always look for but rarely find”.
The sense of nostalgia that surrounds Racine is unsurprising when you consider his childhood. He regularly holidayed in France, Italy and Spain and his father ran Le Grandgousier restaurant in Brighton for 17 years. As a young man Henry started out as a waiter for Karl Loderer at Manley’s in Storrington before deciding to “forsake the dining room for the kitchen”. What followed was years cooking an “exciting mix of British dishes” before returning to his racines and opening Racine.
When I speak to the Henry he’s at his West London home with the family. Emanating a relaxed, laissez-faire attitude, he casually describes the Friday night he has planned – “oh you know, I just made a green salad, and I’ve a reduction of onions with a bit of crème fraiche – we’re going to have moules marinières”.
Despite cooking full-time in the restaurant Henry still loves cooking and experimenting with food at home, “I just did a tasting with my 15-year-old son to see if you can tell the difference between using pork you buy in Smithfield’s and using free-range Gloucestershire Old Spot.
“My son cooked them for me and I really could tell the difference – I picked out the Old Spot right away.”
Signature dishes at Racine include a starter of garlic and saffron mousse with mussels – “it’s the most original dish I’ve ever done, it’s a recipe I created from scratch”. He also takes great pleasure in serving “the lost cuts of meat”, and implies that Racine is sometimes overlooked in this area.
“I know that there are restaurants that are reviewed as temples of offal but I sell anything between 20-40 portions of brains a week when it’s busy”.
As for his talk at Abergavenny, one senses that it will much like his Friday night with the family; a warm, intimate and relaxed affair – off the cuff and unstuffy. He talks endearingly about his fellow speakers. Of his Saturday talk with Richard Bertinet he says: “We’ll be playing around a bit, it’s going to be a Frenchman and an Englishman talking about doing each other’s things. They’ll be a fair bit of banter.”
And the audience won’t be going hungry either, “we decided the other day to make cheese and confit sandwiches for everyone, the Racine take on the Croque Monsieur”.
According to Henry, essential to the Richard’s being is his craft: “You can tell a lot about a person by their bread,” he says before correcting himself: “Hang on I’ll put that differently: bakers are the most wonderful and intriguing people. You have to be slightly mad and slightly possessed.
“They take these living creations and then roast them in the oven while they’re still alive – which is what you do to bread really.”
As for Valentine Warner, with whom Henry’s doing a talk later in the day, there’s some serious mutual appreciation going on there too. Henry met Val when he visited the restaurant for dinner. He’d just finished his What to Eat Now series and Henry spotted him and introduced himself. They’ve been great friends ever since.
With Val he’ll be cooking up wild duck and blackberries he thinks – though if he goes shooting and brings him pheasants or large brown trout it could change he says.
Because to Henry, produce is the key.
Buy tickets for the following events now through the Borough Theatre Box Office: 01873 850805
The Masterclass ‘Entente Cordiale’ with Henry Harris and Richard Bertinet takes place at 11.00 am on Saturday 17 September in the Angel Hotel Ballroom. View full details online here
The Masterclass ‘Two Simple Fellows’ with Henry Harris and Valentine Warner takes place at 3.30pm on Saturday 17 September in the Angel Hotel Ballroom. View full details online here