Rick Stein: Born to be mild

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 30/06/2013
Stein

International chef: Rick Stein is in a world of his own when he’s cooking.

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The voice is like some sort of comfort food. Blancmange, perhaps, or rice pudding, or really buttery mashed potatoes. Soft, soothing, a little bland, but decidedly moreish. Get too much of it at one sitting and you would probably go to sleep, but you would nod off happy.

British celebrity chef Rick Stein is on the line to discuss an impending Steinfest on our screens. Throughout July, on Sky channel Food TV, there'll be relentless reruns of the early series that made his name: Fruits of the Sea (Tuesdays, 6pm) and Food Heroes (weeknights, 7pm), plus one-off New Orleans special Rick Stein Tastes the Blues (Friday July 26, 9.30pm).

"Oh dear, really?" he says. "They're showing that many of my old shows? I can only say - poor you!" As self-promotion goes, it's not flash. But, then, Stein likes to come across as a low-key "born to be mild" sort of guy, which is one reason his TV shows are so relaxing to watch.

Behind the scenes, he's more of a dynasty-building dynamo. Beside various TV and publishing projects, Stein and ex-wife Jill own four restaurants, a bistro, a cafe, a chip shop, a cooking school, a patisserie, two B&Bs and a gift shop, all clustered around Padstow on the north coast of Cornwall. None too chuffed that this once sleepy fishing village has become a one-man tucker empire crammed with foodie pilgrims from around the globe, some disgruntled residents now call the place "Padstein".

Stein also runs a restaurant near Sydney with his second wife, Sarah. "Indeed, I do. I'm an honorary Antipodean now, I guess. I just got back to Padstow two days ago, and work here about four months every year, then I'm in Australia with Sarah for four months, and the rest of the time I'm filming. It's a lot of travel, but I love my work."

Stein accepts my assertion that his TV cooking shows have, like a nice brie, improved with age. In his earliest Food Heroes shows, he was a bit of a ranter, suggesting publicans were committing an act of cultural treachery by dishing up chicken biryani in ancient Yorkshire pubs rather than jugged hare and tankards of mead, or he was marching around farmers' markets declaring it unpatriotic to shop anywhere else.

Then he gradually settled into his current role as the cultured Pom abroad, pulling up a chair outside seafood restaurants from Brittany to Bangladesh and shovelling morsels of Moules Marinieres or chillied squid into that ruddy round face of his, or quoting bon mots from long-dead poets while he ambled around far-flung fish-markets in his resolutely unfashionable chambray shirt.

"Yes, I think you're right. In those early shows, we tried to film segments under high stress in my restaurant in Padstow between lunch and dinner service! Then we decided to go travelling instead, because food gives you a very good reason to be in someone's country, banging on their door and inviting yourself to dinner with a camera crew in tow. Such a simple format is liberating, really. We were filming one time in Sicily when some long-lost Mafia boss was uncovered, and the locals said to us, ‘Oh, are you here for the Mafia story?' And we could say, in all honesty, ‘No - we're only here for the pasta'."

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Now 66, Stein had an "often idyllic" childhood, growing up on a Cotswolds farm with four siblings. His father, Eric, suffered from bipolar disorder and, when his blackest moods struck, mum Dorrie had to hide all the tablets and kitchen knives in case he did himself in. During happier times, the family travelled to France and Spain, where Stein developed his abiding love for Mediterranean tucker. His affection for Cornwall came later, after his father built a clifftop holiday house there.

Tragically, Stein's father committed suicide by leaping headfirst off those very cliffs when Stein was 18. Devastated, he took off overseas, eventually washing up in New Zealand. "I arrived down there around 1967 and spent six months travelling around, staying in youth hostels for a dollar a night, meeting a lot of other young people and having a few adventures. I loved it! Now I come to New Zealand quite often, and every time I leave again, I've got another suitcase full of honey, cheese, olive oil, you name it! People ambush me in hotel hallways to give me this stuff . . ."

Stein's next here in August to cook an exclusive feast at Hawke's Bay luxury lodge The Farm at Cape Kidnappers. New autobiography Under A Mackeral Sky is launched a few weeks later, in which you can read of his unlikely former life as a DJ, running a dodgy Padstow disco called The Purple Tiger that was forced to close after too many brawls between drunk fishermen, then getting busy with pots and pans and building up Brand Stein into the £32 million (NZ$63m) juggernaut it is today.

It will be interesting to read his own spin on the soap opera that unfolded in 2002 when he left his wife of 27 years after an affair with Sarah Burns, an Australian book publicist 20 years his junior. To the amazement of other diners, Stein's ex-wife slapped said mistress soon afterwards in one of Stein's restaurants, but there is now a fragile peace: Burns is now his second wife, while ex-wife Jill remains his UK business partner.

Stein admits he's a little bemused to have entered the exclusive club of modern multimillionaire chefs, able to fill London's Royal Festival Hall with thousands of paying punters desperate to watch him broiling a crab onstage. He has cooked for The Queen, assorted prime ministers and heads of state, but still likes nothing better than rustling up dinner at home for his family. "I was cooking Sunday roast in Sydney last week when Sarah came in and told me I needed to finalise the menus for Cape Kidnappers. And I said, ‘Look! I can't think about this right now. I'm cooking!' I was in my own little world, and I didn't want anything to spoil it.

"When I'm cooking, I forget everything, really. There's so much going wrong in the world, so something that takes your mind away from all that is very important.

"I don't even get to cook in my own restaurants any more, but me and my son, Jack, still test all the recipes for each new cookbook, then we send that food across to my deli and get them to flog it off. They write on it - as cooked by Rick Stein. Ha!"

Rick Stein's Fruits of the Sea, Tuesdays, 6pm; Rick Stein's Food Heroes, weeknights, 7pm; Rick Stein Tastes the Blues, Friday, July 26, 9.30pm, Food TV.

The Sunday Star-Times has one Rick Stein cookbook pack to giveaway, which includes a copy each of Spain, Far Eastern Odyssey and Coast to Coast (Random House, total RRP $215). To enter, email escape@star-times.co.nz with Rick Stein books in the subject line, by Friday July 5.

- Sunday Star Times

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