Padstow Away Rick Stein
Rick Stein’s earliest memories are of simple, natural food: fresh-picked damsons baked into a tart; eggs, their shells stuck with feathers; sausages from a slaughtered pig … all from a childhood spent growing up on the family farm in Oxfordshire.
But it was family holidays to Cornwall that made the biggest impression, ultimately inspiring Rick Stein to move to Padstow in 1974 to set up ‘a home, a den’ with his then-wife Jill. These days the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, it is part of a food empire valued in the region of £35m, and such a regional attraction that in 2003 Rick Stein was awarded an OBE for services to West Country tourism.
A hugely popular television chef, food writer and broadcaster, Rick Stein has recently released two new books. Rick’s Stein’s India – In Search of the Perfect Curry accompanies his recent BBC television series. Under A Mackerel Sky is a surprisingly moving memoir, which recalls those family holidays to Cornwall, as well as the suicide of his bipolar father; bloody brawls with Cornish fishermen; and meeting his second wife, Sarah, with whom he now jointly runs a restaurant in Australia.
Compass editor Jennifer Cox asked him about the journey.
Jennifer Cox: Under a Mackerel Sky is a candid autobiography – your father’s suicide, the end of your marriage – did you find it hard to write?
Rick Stein: I found both recalling my father’s suicide and the end of my first marriage very hard to write about.
The rest of the book was really rather enjoyable, particularly the very end: writing about my second wife Sas and my stepchildren, on a journey to our restaurant in Mollymook on the coast of southern New South Wales last Christmas.
JC: Throughout the book you talk longingly about Cornwall: the character of the region, the pull it has on you. What makes it so special?
RS: It’s a special place to so many people. I think we all need a place in our hearts where apparently life is easier and more romantic. It’s not strictly true of course, but we believe it to be and Cornwall is that place for me.
JC: You moved to London when you were 17, to work as a larder chef in the Great Western Hotel. Did you have any sense that food was going to become such an important part of your life?
RS: I had no idea. I only did it to please my father.
JC: Your parents knew how to throw a party. Is that how you ultimately see food: one part of a convivial atmosphere, rather than an altar to be worshipped at in its own right?
RS: Exactly, food is only part of the overall restaurant experience. Almost as important is the relationship between the restaurant and the customer. Great restaurants are as much about service, ambience and the customers themselves. I like my food to be a contribution to that. I’ve had too many overpowering experiences in restaurants where the food is the total star. It leads to the ludicrous situation I observed in a famous breakfast cafe in Sydney this morning, where virtually all the other customers were either Chinese or Japanese taking pictures of the food.
JC: Your father suffered from bipolar disorder, and sadly committed suicide when you were 18. You moved to Australia. Looking back, was this a good move?
RS: It was the rite of passage move of my life. I’ve loved the place ever since.
JC: You travelled around Australia for two years, taking on some truly awful sounding jobs: an Outback abattoir, sweeping up in a sugar refinery. Amazingly you also worked as a stage hand on legendary Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr’s television show. What was he like to work for?
RS: I think Graham started the idea in cookery programmes, that entertaining at home was about having fun. It’s all very obvious now, but the idea that you could be seen to be enjoying a glass of wine during a programme was daring stuff in 1966.
JC: You opened your first bar in Padstow in 1974: a small, shaky start to the seafood cuisine scene you would famously go on to establish there. How easy was it to get fresh seafood in the 1970s and ‘80s?
RS: Unless the seafood came from Cornwall, it was almost impossible. It wasn’t really a problem because we had plenty of lobsters and crabs and every type of fish. But there were no molluscs – mussels or clams – and no prawns or langoustines. Even for Helford oysters, we had to rely on the train from Falmouth and the bus from Bodmin station. I started picking and purifying mussels, clams and cockles from the Camel estuary myself, then got others to gather them. Langoustines from Scotland were a later addition, though occasionally they appeared on the market in Newlyn. Our menu was short and very simple.
JC: You worked with another legendary TV glugger Keith Floyd in 1985, appearing as a guest chef on his Floyd on Fish series. What was he like to work with?
RS: In the early days he was a dream. He was much more experienced than me in running restaurants. He’d worked in Provence and spoke French, and had similar views about how we should be enjoying our British seafood, not sending it all to Spain. I didn’t see much of him after he became so famous but we got back in touch years later.
JC: Now you’re an established TV chef in your own right, with a hugely popular series exploring regional cuisine from France and Spain to the Middle East. Most recently you returned from India, searching for the perfect curry.
Did you succeed? What makes the perfect curry?
RS: My perfect curry was, perhaps predictably, fish curry from Tamil Nadu. I chose it because the occasion was so special: the beach at Mamallapuram near Pondicherry. It was made with very few ingredients for a curry: oil, mustard seeds, onion, garlic, turmeric, chilli, coriander, tomato, tamarind, salt and finally white snapper. Yet it seemed to sum up everything that is so exciting about southern Indian fish cookery.
JC: Is local cuisine a good way to get under the skin of a new country?
RS: Yes I really believe it is: when people start to talk about local cooking, they also talk about themselves and their family and friends.
JC: You now live in Australia part of the year. What do you miss most about Padstow when you’re away?
RS: I don’t really miss Padstow when I’m in Australia or miss Sydney when I’m in Padstow, apart from my wife Sas. I regard it as a privilege to be able to live in two such beautiful places.
Rick Stein’s India, In Search of the Perfect Curry is published by BBC Books (£25.00)