Rick Stein divides his time between Sydney, London and, of course, Padstow in Cornwell.
Dressed casually in a polo shirt, shorts, boat shoes and a navy Padstow Seafood School apron, he answers the door and welcomes me into his Sydney home. It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon and Rick is cooking a Bangladeshi curry with his assistant, Barbara.
Rick’s latest travels have taken him to South-East Asia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. His adventures in South-East Asia are part of a new BBC series that will lead to a cookbook that is launching at the end of the year. In the same vein as his travels around France and the Mediterranean, this new series will showcase Rick’s passion for travel and food.
Rick will be visiting Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, this June, as guest chef at Cape Kidnappers.
MiNDFOOD: It’s great to see you again. What have you been working on recently?
A series for the BBC about South-East Asia. It’s in the same vein as my other shows where the underlying theme is based on the attraction to fresh, healthy foods that are easy to cook.
Can we expect a book, too?
Yes, I’m working on the book now. It features plenty of fish, vegetables and rice. I’m creating it in the UK with two sets of photographers shooting on location. It’s looking beautiful.
Was South-East Asia a different destination for you in terms of food?
Yes, it was a bit of a progression for me. People are keen on South-East Asian food, and people who know me and my recipes can be assured they have been researched correctly.
Did you always want to be a chef?
I started out wanting to operate a disco; I seriously thought I could make a living from it. Funnily enough, my nephew is a successful DJ in the UK.
When you started out, could you cook?
I had some training as a chef after school. For me, the mid-1970s was the right place and the right time. I was inquisitive about food. I didn’t start out as a chef, as a lot of chefs my age did.
You must have seen some huge changes to the food industry over the years.
Yes, there was a burgeoning interest in food and I went with it. In the early days I did all the work [in my restaurant], including the plumbing, wiring, painting and gas fitting. Now you are regulated up to your eyeballs.
What are your main cooking influences?
Basically, French and British are the main influences in my four restaurants [in Padstow] and the menu at St Petroc’s Bistro is all European. However, the seafood dishes reflect a lot of foreign influences, such as Australian – quite trendy and smart – and South-East Asian. Our Indonesian fish stew is very spicy with fresh chilli, turmeric, basil and coconut milk. People love it with the bean and rice noodle salad.
What do you serve up in winter?
Favourites include fish pie, grilled dover sole, grilled lobster and traditional dishes.
You have a home in Sydney. What is it about this part of the world that you enjoy?
I love New Zealand and Australia. The winter dishes and produce in both countries is great. It’s wonderful to adapt your food according to the seasons.
What is your take on seasonal cooking?
People have romantic ideas about what each season means. The idea that you need warm, hearty stews during winter is a bit silly, as we live in heated houses. Instead, a nice fish gratin, fish pie or any of the dishes we offer at the Seafood Restaurant, which are a throwback to the 1970s, are ideal for winter.
Do you modernise those ’70s dishes?
We keep them pretty much how they were. We don’t use the thick sauces but we still use flour-based sauces because that’s what people want: real classics.
Recently, I had lunch at Fleurs Place in Moeraki, New Zealand. It was like a shrine to Rick Stein.
Fleur Sullivan is great. She gets everyone doing stuff. I’d heard about the place for years and we had a fun night [when I was there]. It’s such a great place.
What is your impression of other places you’ve visited in New Zealand?
Central Otago has good food and great wine. It’s very civilised, really smart. It has a French Laundry type of thing happening. It’s really romantic with its gold mining history. It has everything, including great wine and great ingredients.
I’ve also visited Queenstown, which is a place that feels quite international.
What about Hawkes Bay, where you will be cooking at Cape Kidnappers?
It looks very posh, looks very nice. I’m looking forward to getting there.
Have you been to the area before?
Yes, I was there about 20 years ago. I worked for Wattie’s at an asparagus farm between Napier and Hastings in a place called Clive. I stayed in a youth hostel there. It was fun. I travelled all around the country.
I also visited Australia in 1966, when I was 19, and spent 18 months there before I went to New Zealand for four months.
What was New Zealand like in the ’60s?
It seemed like a part of England. Very agricultural and an easy life. There was nothing memorable about the food in general, though the ice-cream had fresh fruit in it. The beer was good, too. I remember witnessing fights in the local pubs; locals going off at one another, throwing jugs, beer and punches. I also went to Queenstown and Milford Sound.
What inspires you?
I still love doing the cooking. In my restaurants in Padstow it’s now really about developing new dishes and looking at how we’re cooking existing dishes.
What is your definition of good food?
A lot of young chefs want to cook flash food, but I always want to keep it simple. Young chefs want to get into fiddly food so they can get into working for the big names. I think you should let the raw ingredients speak for themselves, let the fresh produce do its thing.
What are your thoughts on the rise of celebrity chefs?
I’ve always had a restaurant in Padstow, which keeps me grounded and is the most important part of my business life. I talk to people who say they want to be celebrity chefs, but they need to ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to go into cooking in the first place?’
It’s good for young people to see pure cooking on television. The rise of the celebrity chef has made people more aware of food in their lives. I’m always harping on in Britain about how they should talk about food more often than they do.
Have any of your sons followed you into the family business?
My son, Jack, is cooking in the Seafood Restaurant. He is coming to Testuya’s Restaurant in Sydney, where he will love the attention to detail. He loves fishing and will get the chance to do elaborate things with food.
How do your sons cope with having a father in the limelight?
Jack is very bright and very self-assured. He did a degree at university. I said to him, ‘Do you really want to go into cooking? Go and do something brainy.’ My brother is a neurosurgeon at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, so Jack could have done something along those lines. However, he likes the creative atmosphere in the kitchen.
My eldest son, Edward, didn’t really like working with me. He didn’t want to cook or to be in charge of anything. He is in Carrara, Italy, doing sculpture.
Edward would not have gone into the family food business, though he does have a great palate.
My youngest son is working at front of house in a restaurant in London and he has an Aussie girlfriend.
Food for the masses in the UK has become more processed, don’t you think?
Yes, it has. We don’t have any alternatives to supermarkets. They have driven most fresh produce shops out of business. The only ones that have survived are in the upper- and middle-class areas, where people who would shop in those places live. Most supermarket fish is not good, so where do people buy their seafood? You can smell the fish sold in the supermarket when you turn the corner.
So it comes back to the quality of the ingredients?
Yes, it’s about the quality and availability of raw ingredients. Here in Australia, and in New Zealand, it’s easier to cook well because it’s easier to buy well.
If that’s the case, why doesn’t New Zealand really sell the experience?
New Zealand has international tourists, lovely scenery and great food and wine; they just don’t realise it. The food and wine experience in New Zealand is so special that you can have popular wine by the glass anywhere you go.