Doyen of food Rick Stein is a man for all seasons
It’s not much of an interview, more a genial chat.
Rick Stein, doyen of food writers, restaurateurs and celebrity chefs, is too long in the tooth to try to impress, the way so many do. There’s no need to plug product or stay on message; he’s reached a stage where he’s beyond all that. There’s a TV show and book, of course, though it barely gets a mention. There are so many other interesting things to discuss.
Stein is a remarkable man; a cook who flunked his exams at school before knuckling down and successfully studying English at the University of Oxford. He endured awful personal tragedy, not least the suicide of his father. Stein was 18 when his father leapt from a Cornish cliff.
For a while, Stein focused on a putative career as a nightclub DJ. Indeed, Stein’s entrepreneurial flair was evident in those early days as he converted a mobile disco in Padstow into a nightclub. The music was good but the freeze-dried curries were better. For a while, the place ran successfully, though eventually fighting fishermen caused its closure. Music, however, runs in the family and Stein’s nephew is the DJ and music producer Judge Jules, a former recipient of DJ Mag’s Best DJ In The World title.
Stein has close links with the West Midlands. One of his pals, the Michelin-starred cook Shaun Hill, used to run The Merchant House in Ludlow. Stein was a visitor there, making a TV show while walking through the town with his beloved dog, Chalky. On other occasions, he’s made numerous visits to Birmingham to feature at the BBC Good Food Show.
He’ll be back in Birmingham when it hits the Second City between November 28 and December 1. Stein will line up at the event’s chef demonstration stage alongside such big names as Mary Berry, Tom Kerridge, Michel Roux Jr, James Martin, The Hairy Bikers, Ainsley Harriott and Nadiya Hussain. Curiously, cricketing legend Sir Ian Botham will also be along for the ride. Beefy has an enviable wine collection and has his own collection of wines. But we digress.
Rick last visited Birmingham about 10 years ago and is looking forward to his return almost as much as his fans. “I did the NEC for about 20 years and can’t quite remember why it stopped but it did. It was just a great part of the autumn. November had to be the NEC. I particularly like Birmingham because I got so used to places in Birmingham when I was doing the show. We always used to go and eat out in Birmingham and around.”
Ludlow also holds fond memories. Stein was a visitor when it enjoyed its brief golden era of Michelin success. Three restaurants – including Shaun Hill’s Merchant House – held stars simultaneously, making it the most successful town outside London. “I used to go to Ludlow a bit because Shaun was a good friend of mine. I loved going over there.”
Stein leads a remarkable life. There are restaurants dotted here and there, with scores of staff to support. He regularly writes cookery books and presents new TV shows. There is a huge amount of charity work, too: Stein is a patron of the Padstow Youth Project and works with other organisations that represent fishermen, those with dyslexia and more. No two days are ever the same.
“Life is a bit varied,” he says, ever the master of understatement. “A typical day will all depend on what I’m doing. Today, for instance, I’m in Padstow so I started the day with a swim. It was quite funny. I rather startled a mum and her kids on the beach because they couldn’t believe I was going into the sea in those temperatures.
“But there’s a tiny beach surrounded by rocks that’s very beautiful. The mum said to me it looked like a little Greek Island. I told her not to be silly. Greece is never this cold.
“After that, I have breakfast: today is was delicious smoked mackerel from Yarmouth with sourdough toast. Then I’ll come to the office: today I’ve got a couple of interviews. And then I’ll head out to our restaurants in Cornwall to check up on things.
“We have a fish and chip place and a restaurant in Porthleven on the south coast. I like to just get out and try the food in the restaurants to check up on it. I have a chat with the chefs and the waiters and keep an eye on things.
“At some point later on, I need to do some cooking. I’ve got people coming round for dinner in a couple of weeks and I’ve just been on holiday in Greece and had a fantastic lamb dish, so I want to knock one of those up. I don’t ever cook something for the first time at a dinner party; it has to be tried and tested.”
He’s not finished. “Then I’ll catch up with Jack, my middle son, who’s a chef. His TV programme starts soon. We’re both going to be on telly in the same period from now to Christmas.”
At some point, he’ll collapse on the sofa having done more in a day than most do in a week.
Stein has made a remarkable contribution to Cornwall’s restaurant scene, helping to boost its reputation and providing employment for locals. His contribution to Padstow has been such that it’s nicknamed PadStein.
“Our first restaurant is a bit pricey – though I hasten to say that’s down to the seafood – but I always wanted to appeal to a broad section of society and I’ve done that in Padstow by opening a café and a really popular fish and chip shop. I really like fish and chips and realised a long time ago that it was part of the general renaissance of British food. It’s not to be disregarded. Fish and chips is carbs, protein and very nourishing and tasty at the same time. I totally nicked from the Magpie Café, in Whitby, the idea of serving wine with them.”
Above all, Stein is a giver of satisfaction. He’s a people pleaser, a man who wants to put a smile on people’s faces. He did it as a DJ, as a nightclub owner, as a chef, a TV host, a writer and as a restaurateur.
“I think it’s funny. I can see that pattern. Funnily enough, I have a nephew, Judge Jules, who was on Radio 1. He has said that he was partly influenced by my DJ days and he’s obviously taken that to great heights. We both share this desire to please people. You’re either born with that or you’re not.
“The disco and restaurants are part of the same thing. I get pleasure from playing nice music or producing nice food or running nice restaurants.”
And that’s pretty much it. There’s never an agenda, never a thought to preach for some cause or use the spotlight to navigate through the choppy waters of politics. He’s raison d’etre is cheering people up, helping them to forget about their worries and enjoy being gently transported to some place else.
“It’s funny, I was asked about TV the other day, and I came to the conclusion that I’m not political in them. When I go to France, I don’t talk about the yellow vests. What I really do is cheer people up. That’s my USP.”
Stein is too busy to reflect on a remarkable career that was rewarded in the 2003 New Year Honours with an OBE and in the 2018 New Year Honours with a CBE. He’s got too much on his plate. Instead, at 72-years-young, he focuses on the here and now, living for the day and enjoying every moment. Birmingham gives him the chance to get out and about, sampling great local cuisine.
“Birmingham is so diverse. We’re not opening any other restaurants at the moment because of the economic and political situation, which doesn’t encourage it, but if we were then I’d say Birmingham has massive potential. The thing was in those NEC days when I used to do the Good Food Show, we’d be going to Ladypool Road all the time because the Indian restaurants were so fabulous. I was in Greece a couple of weeks ago listening to an American saying the best Indian cooking outside India is in the UK. I told him he was right – and the very best is in Birmingham.”
We stumble across his new book while talking about the dishes he’ll be cooking for fans at the Good Food Show.
“I’ve just chosen a dish from the new book, Secret France, and it’s a dish that I came up with. It’s brill with ceps, porcini mushrooms and chestnuts.” Doesn’t that sound delicious.
“The idea comes from the Dordogne. It’s a very warming winter dish designed to go with pinot noir. My starter will be scallops in a salad with green beans and chicory.”
The book was a labour of love, though Stein doesn’t pretend that the process of transferring culinary ideas to the page is fun.
“Writing never comes easy. The only way I get around it really is by doing a little bit every morning. When I did a spell working in a railway camp, near Alice Springs, in Australia, I was 19 or 20. There was this Irish guy in the camp who had a big effect. Our job was to maintain the railway from Alice to Adelaide and this old bugger from Ireland was a bit curmudgeonly. He was probably only in his mid-30s. I didn’t get on with him but I loved his incredible work ethic. He was from Donegal. He said when you get up you should wash your face and start work. And that’s what I learned to do and that’s what I still do. I don’t have a cup of tea or a shower. I have a wash and do at least half an hour’s writing, which then becomes two hours writing. For me, it’s just about getting up and getting down to work.”
Stein generously heaps praise on the team who run his restaurants, produce his TV shows and publish his books. He realises how much he needs their input, their professional expertise and their experience.
“I have really wonderful managers, great front of house and fantastic chefs. I don’t really need to do much. In a sense, these days, less is more. My wife and I both keep an eye on things and when we are travelling we look at other restaurants and wonder how we could bring those ideas into ours.”
And yet some things have never left him. He still loves to cook and gets into the kitchen to work at the pass when he has time. “I find myself on the other side of the pass from time to time. Six weeks ago I did a stint in the kitchen and I so enjoyed it. I’m too old to do it on a regular basis but it’s the camaraderie of other chefs that I like. They are tough and hard, but when a service is going well, the sense of involvement is great.”
Stein’s TV career has been remarkable. He started out in 1985, working on Floyd On Fish, with the iconic Keith Floyd. Floyd memorably called him Nick, instead of Rick. He was back for more Floyd on Food the following year before starting to make his own shows, which were multi-award-winning. Since then, he’s been a mainstay on our screens and his latest six-part series, Rick Stein’s Secret France, has featured on BBC this autumn.
“Floyd was a big inspiration to me. I met him for the first time in the early 1980s and he was quite a star. He was like an older brother, you know, a bit bossy and a bit quick to pick up on faults. But basically the things he said were profound and wonderful. He was a massive influence. The other big influence was France. The early trips to Brittany, particularly, were marvellous. The sea food dishes still stick in my mind.”
Humble and gracious, charming and polite, intelligent and deeply creative; Stein has made a remarkable contribution to gastronomy, TV and the economy of his beloved Cornwall. He is a man for all seasons and at the BBC Good Food Show we can feast on his genius. Lucky, lucky us.