He’s a forager, a family man and he sure loves his fish but how did Rick Stein end up cooking for the queen, and who made Chalky the star of the show? Fiona Shield talks to ‘Steiner’ about his love of the festive feeling, all things local and simple, and his high hopes for Benidorm cuisine
You graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English; did you ever think you would end up in the food industry?
Not at all, when I left university I wanted to go into journalism if anything. I did work as a commis chef for six months at The Great Western Hotel in Paddington as part of a management-training scheme, which I enjoyed a lot, but then I went traveling to Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. My father had just commited suicide and I was broken up by it so I thought I’d run away to sea and take some time out. I had agreed to go into hotel management because my father was keen for me to start some kind of career, but once I’d split the country my views changed radically.
How did you come to set up a nightclub in Padstow?
While I was at university I had a mobile disco that I used to run parties with, and after taking it to London I bought a nightclub in Padstow with a friend to try and give it a permanent home. We were very idealistic! Unfortunately it was just too hard to control, there were terrific fights – mainly with local fishermen, and in the end the police closed us down. Luckily we still had a license for a restaurant that we’d opened in another part of the building, so we carried on with that to pay the bills and I ran the kitchen because I had experience as a commis chef. I really enjoyed it, and that’s how it all started.
Did you ever dream that you would one day you would have the food empire you have now?
I certainly didn’t, I was just so glad to be off the hook! My friend Johnny and I were facing bankruptcy when the club was closed down so we were just focused on paying the bills. Plus we were in our twenties when life felt like it stretched out endlessly in front of us.
Was there anyone who inspired your cooking?
My parents were good cooks and I was very familiar with the cookbooks of Elizabeth David, Julia Child and Jane Gresham. Most of my influences came from cookery writers rather than chefs, and my parents really. Everything has moved on so much now, in those days you could learn by your mistakes.
You’ve become Britain’s most famous seafood chef; did you grow up loving seafood?
I did, simply because my parents had a holiday house just outside Padstow ever since I was born. I went out fishing a lot with my dad and we always had fish at home, so I was privileged to understand how good fresh fish was at a very early age.
Do you think the quality of the ingredients is as important as the recipe?
Yes, that’s my particular enthusiasm. It’s unusual for chefs to have an interest in their raw materials, but it’s now recognised that that’s what chefs need. Really chefs are there to cook, not to source ingredients, but I’ve always done both. At the restaurant in the 70s and early 80s I was always looking for ingredients that you couldn’t get. I was so enthusiastic about putting mussels on the menu because they seemed so French and exotic that I’d drive for hours to pick them up from the nearest supplier. I had this vision, largely based on trips to Brittany and Normandy, of how I wanted the menu to be and was always looking for better ways to source good produce.
Do you think consumer mentality has changed since you entered the food industry?
I do, customers are much more discerning. The last thirty years has been a magnificent improvement in everybody’s appreciation of food, and I’m just part of that movement, I’ve grown up with my customers.
Recent news stories have claimed that organic food has no additional nutritional benefits, what are your thoughts on the debate?
I personally think local is much better, simply because it encompasses a whole load of concerns like food miles, traceability and also keeps local economies buoyant. I don’t think organic food is so much about the taste; it’s about the unique way it’s produced. You’ve got to be quite idealistic to think you can tell the difference between an organic and a non-organic carrot, but you can certainly tell the difference between one that’s just been pulled out the garden. And that’s my point; to me freshness is more important.
What’s your favourite dish to cook at home?
I don’t really have one; I just like the cooking process. Every time I cook something I go back to it with fresh eyes and think, ‘right, how can I get the best out of this?’ If you’re going to cook really well you need to have fresh enthusiasm for something every time you do it. You can never do a perfect dish, you can only try and get as close to possible.
Do you like to be adventurous with your recipes?
I think invention in the kitchen is really important. People say to me ‘I hope you don’t mind but I changed your recipe’ and I don’t mind at all. I like the way that recipes used to be called receipts, like they were a list of ingredients that you bought for the recipe, because that’s all they are really – it’s just a recording of how you can do something, but you could change it all tomorrow if you thought you could do it better. However, it’s important not to be over-imaginative and spoil it by going too far, I think you’ve got to know the boundaries.
You’ve cooked for some highly eminent people, was there anyone you were particularly nervous about?
The Queen! If you’re going to cook for the Queen they give you a list of foods she shouldn’t eat, such as pasta and seafood. It’s designed to protect her but also to avoid embarrassment. Can you imagine the terrible diplomatic nightmare if she got food poisoning? Thankfully it went really well and I met her afterwards and she said ‘Oh you’re the cook!’ which I loved, she’s got a great sense of humour.
What’s been your favourite culinary experience?
Every now and then you get a wonderful experience in a restaurant, it can happen in the most unusual places. I remember this seafood bar in Spain, we sat down and they bought over these huge, fresh spider crabs that had only been boiled in seawater, and local Aborina wine. The whole thing just clicked. If you are a restaurateur you need to have moments like that.
Your first foray into the media was Taste of The Sea in 1995, how did you find that experience?
I wasn’t looking to get into the media at all – it was actually the director David Pritchard’s girlfriend that was convinced I could do it, so I found it quite daunting and difficult. Every time I did a camera test it was rubbish, I was too worried about cooking everything perfectly and not looking like an idiot. Finally, after a night of drinking, they said we’ll just do one more and I stopped caring, the alcohol had deadened my shyness and I cracked it. I watch those early programmes and it looks like I haven’t got a care in the world. You have to relax and enjoy it, which I do now.
When was Chalky’s debut?
We were filming on the sofa at my home and Chalky was sitting watching, then he noticed the fluffy microphone above me and no doubt thinking it was some kind of rat hanging in the air he went bananas trying to leap up and bite it, while in all the chaos I was asking David whether he wanted me to carry on, which just made it even funnier! It was one of those wonderful moments that you can’t replicate, and from then on David wanted him in everything we did.
You’ve cooked in some precarious locations for your television series’, including cliff-tops and canal boats – have you had any disasters?
All the time! I’m very clumsy so I’m always having accidents. Usually everyone else, including David, can see what’s going to happen but they let me walk into it for amusement value.
You’re credited as one of the first chefs to inspire a new generation of home cooks and television chefs, did you ever imagine the affect your programmes might have?
When I started making the programmes I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, but by the end of the first series I realised it was because it was a genuine account of my life as a chef in a small Cornish fishing village. I think the truthfulness appealed to viewers as well, there was nothing contrived about what we were saying, we were stressing the quality of local produce because we believed in it. It was just a wonderful side effect that the programmes seemed to help kick off a general feeling that we need to be more aware of what quality ingredients we’ve got in this country. I’ve always felt that British food is really special and we need to feel a bit more proud about it.
You’ve travelled through France, the Mediterranean and now the Far East on a quest to understand their food cultures, what would be your next ideal foodie adventure?
Definitely Spain. I’ve wanted to do it for ages because my first memory of a foreign holiday is Spain and food was a large part of it. David and I are talking to the BBC about a programme focusing on ‘hidden Spain’, the fact that you can go to somewhere like Benidorm, and within half a mile of all these frightful flats and hotels you’ll find lovely Spanish food. Spanish food has got this gritty integrity about it, which I think we can discover.
In our now celebrity-obsessed society, how do you feel about being called a ‘celebrity chef’?
It makes me cringe because the whole concept of being a celebrity has now come to be a bit demeaning. The fact is everybody wants to be noticed, so if you can find some way of being noticed, good for you. What you choose to do with it is what separates people that make something of it and people that make loads of money and do nothing with it. I like to think I’m using the celebrity side to enthuse people about food.
What does Christmas mean to you?
I love it; I’ve always loved it. There’s usually a moment mid-December when you suddenly get that wave of festive feeling and then you’re engulfed by it. It’s a very important part of the year when that sense of celebration, feasting and enjoying life sets in.
What’s your ideal Christmas day?
When my kids were little and I was surfing regularly we’d always go for a surf on Christmas morning. Now I get up early to get the turkey or goose on – my sons are usually a bit behind after going out on Christmas Eve! Then we kick off at half past nine with breakfast and a glass of champagne, open presents at about half past ten, and go to the pub about 12, where there’s always a fabulous atmosphere. Then all being well the turkey or goose is nipping along nicely in the oven, and we sit down to lunch until about half three. Afterwards I love to walk off all the food while it gets dark.
Will you be in Australia this Christmas?
I will, I spend every other Christmas there. We still have turkey and roast potatoes so it doesn’t feel that dissimilar, even if it is 40 degrees outside. Some families in Australia have salads and prawns, but my fiancée Sarah’s family is quite traditional. I haven’t got them onto goose yet, but I’m working on it.
How do you relax?
I don’t really, which probably sounds like a terrible admission of emptiness! I do quite a lot of DIY, especially on the house in Australia, which I find terribly relaxing, and I’ve become quite good at it. There’s a tremendous satisfaction in achieving what I’ve set out to do. And swimming, I swim every day in the sea, it’s not much fun in the winter but I quite like stealing myself to get in really cold water, it sets me up for the day.
What do you like doing when you’re in Cornwall in the winter?
Cornwall in the winter is Cornwall back to normal. I like going for walks, I like going to the beach when it’s really rough; I used to take Chalky out. I love going into pubs with just the locals, they’ll probably be a bit rude to me – they call me “Steiner”, but they’re tough and that’s what I like. There’s still an element of Padstow that is pretty untamable, and long may it survive.
If you were to compare yourself to a fish what type would you be?
That’s a good one! I’d probably say a John Dory because a lot of people say John Dory are ugly but I think they’re puzzled, plus it’s the logo for our restaurant.
Do you have a personal philosophy that you live by?
It’s probably the total realisation that comes with age that nothing’s perfect, all you can do is accept imperfections and do your best. You need to be slightly understanding about the limitations of everything in life, and remember to laugh.
You now own four restaurants, a delicatessen, a patisserie, a seafood cookery school and forty hotel bedrooms, do you feel proud of your achievements?
I do actually, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to feel satisfied with what you’ve done, but I think what’s more important is that there’s so much more one can do. I’m in the position where I can take a step back and see what having good staff is all about, you take them on board, and then they start to help you to go even further. That’s very exciting at the moment, just working with people with good brains and good skills, and having a very friendly relationship with them, that’s the real reward.
What do you see as your greatest achievement?
Having three lovely, reasonably adapted sons. Apart from that, probably attaching some sort of gravity to the quality of our food in Britain.
Looking back, is there anything you wish you’d known before you entered the food industry?
I suppose I wish I knew how much bloody hard work it was! But there is something very special about catering, you work very hard, unsociable hours, but on the other side there’s endless gossip and partying, and you get very close to your colleagues because you’re all in it together. When it’s going well, it’s a real euphoria.
Are there any sacrifices you’ve had to make for your career?
There’s an awful lot of ordinary life you miss, it’s the same with any career where you have to train or rehearse all the time. Sometimes you feel you’re so bound up in this little world and you say, ‘Is this it?’ To be honest I think my work is one of the reasons my marriage broke down – we ended up not treating each other as husband and wife, it was just the business all the time. But I’m quite happy with how everything’s turned out really, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work in the kitchen, but also do things like the Food Heroes campaign, and travel to South-East Asia and make films about stir-fries!
You’ve just opened ‘Rick Stein at Bannisters’ in Australia, has it always been an ambition to open a restaurant there?
Not really, I’ve had this growing affection for Australia, particularly because Sarah’s Australian, but also because I enjoy their outlook on life as much as I enjoy life in Cornwall really. The restaurant is really exciting for me because Mollymook has a lot of similarities with Padstow, so it’s like trying to recreate the same elements that worked there, but the other side of the world.
What are your future aspirations?
More of the same really, my sons and I are keen not to have my name as a brand. We’ve always done things we’re passionate about and that we really enjoy. The idea of taking my name and selling it all over the country is not what we want; I mean how much money do you really need? That’s my aspiration, to stay serious about what I do and not get overtaken by all the rest of it. Sounds a bit too good to be true!