Chef, author and TV presenter Rick Stein
Chef, restaurateur, author and TV presenter Rick Stein shares his love for wine and food, and his long-time passion for cooking with seafood.
What keeps you excited about the work you do? Very few people in hospitality ever go through what they might consider a dull moment. It’s stressful, exhausting, frequently highly emotional, occasionally bad-tempered, but dull it is not. On the other hand, it is often massively exciting, rewarding and, above all, the sort of industry where you value everyone’s efforts. That’s just for starters, but, if you’re lucky, you also get to taste food from around the world and, in the words of Withnail, “the finest wines available to humanity”.
What do you love most about cooking in Australia? This country, with its diverse climate – from southern Tasmania to the tropics, not forgetting desert and mountains – and a refreshingly open mind about the best ways to grow a particular crop, produces some of the best-tasting food and drink anywhere. Everything here is in abundance.
What was the first Aussie wine that made you take notice? In the ’80s, my good friend Ed Ifould produced a bottle of red from his parents’ cellar one Christmas Day at Bayview [on Sydney’s Northern Beaches], poured me a glass and asked what I thought. I couldn’t see a label, took a big gulp and was completely overwhelmed by its power. I wouldn’t say I fell in love with it there and then – it was too uncompromising – but I remember saying, “Bloody hell, what on earth is that?” It was the 1976 Penfolds Grange Hermitage. My friend’s mother said, “Edward, that’s a little bit special, go easy on it!”
What’s the one seafood dish everyone should be able to cook? Mussels. They are absurdly easy. For me, it would be moules mariniere. Sweat off some finely chopped shallots and a little garlic in butter, throw in cleaned mussels and a generous glug of dry white wine, put a lid on and steam them open briefly, shaking the pan a little and stirring with a serving spoon. As soon as they’ve opened, throw in a handful of parsley and a drizzle of cream, if you like. You don’t need to season with salt because there will be plenty in the mussel liquor, but I like freshly ground black pepper. This process of cooking some aromatics in butter or oil, throwing in the mussels, opening them and finishing the dish can apply to any cuisine – black beans and Szechuan pepper for Chinese; lemongrass, chilli, fish sauce and a pinch of sugar for Thai; or chopped serrano ham, garlic, pimenton and saffron for Spanish.
How do you tend to choose wines? Unless you’re very lucky, price is a most important consideration. In a bottle shop, I tend to go for wines of a similar price to benchmarks in the same category. And I know it’s a bit lame, but if it’s got a gold medal from some wine competition, Mickey Mouse or not, it should be good. My son Charlie is a wine buyer for a successful company in London, and when I’m out with him and choose a bottle, he’ll say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Dad!”
Do you have a favourite wine region? My first in-depth knowledge of any wine region was the Hunter Valley, which came at about the same time I tasted that Grange. The same family suggested I call on [Australian wine pioneer] Len Evans if I was interested in wine. I said I couldn’t possibly as he was far too famous, but they said, “He’s Australian! Go and call on him!” So I did that with my good friend Johnny and I think the first night [with Len], we probably drank at least four first-growth Bordeaux, not to mention an introduction to Hunter Valley semillion, chardonnay and shiraz. It started a friendship with Len until his death in 2006, during which time I became very familiar with the Hunter and a lover of the great wine region. What’s your approach to pairing wine and seafood? My rule of thumb is that the more delicate the seafood, the lighter and dryer the wine, and, conversely, the sweeter and rounder the dish, the fuller-bodied the wine. I particularly like young semillon with oysters – a minerality in both brings out the best in each. I love any simply grilled fish with a sauvignon or semillon, riesling or tart chardonnay like Chablis. For richer-flavoured fish like blue-eye or hapuka, I prefer a full-bodied white or richer pinot gris. And for shellfish like prawns, crab and lobster, or any creamy dishes, it’s got to be full-bodied chardonnay. For fish dishes with spice, I like gewurztraminer and, paradoxically, sharp sauvignon, which can deal with the heat. Turning to reds, sometimes I like a light, chilled pinot noir with grilled fish. Recently in Bordeaux, I had a delicious bowl of mussels made with garlic and Bayonne ham and had a full-bodied Graves with it – a match made in heaven.
Is there a wine style you can’t learn to love? Not me, but my three sons just don’t get sparkling shiraz. Each year I bring back bottles from Australia to the UK, notably of Rockford and some very old shiraz from Tower Estate, which I used to co-own.
It’s become a tradition to have a bottle or two on Christmas morning, but they prefer Champagne. Personally I love the stuff. What’s your all-time favourite food and wine match? It’s very obvious from a seafood cook, but lobster with chardonnay. My love for it started in the ’70s in Padstow [at his UK venue The Seafood Restaurant], with the local blue lobster and Louis Latour Marceau. I was so enamoured of this match that I even once took a picnic hamper of cold lobsters with mayonnaise and this wine on a flight to Lindos in Greece. In those days, nobody minded you taking your own grub on board and I’ve never had better food on a plane. These days, it might equally be Eastern Rock Lobster with Brokenwood chardonnay.
My son Charlie is a wine buyer for a successful company in London, and when I’m out with him and choose a bottle, he’ll say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Dad!”
Any wines you never used to like, but now love? In 1978 I bought a book called Discovering French Vineyards and set out to visit as many French regions and consume as many samples as possible. I was confounded in the Jura region by the yellow wine and savagnin grape – all the wines tasted of sherry, and I thought the yellowest of all, vin jaune, was the worst of the lot. But I’ve been back this year, having become very keen on all types of sherry, and realise Jura wines are something different. The white grapes, a little oxidation and the terroir work together to create wines that go with the local food so incomparably well. What would a glass of vin jaune be without a piece of aged comté? Or a glass of Cote du Jura without the local Poulet Bresse cooked with vin jaune, cream and morrels?
What excites you most about the new Bannisters Port Stephens [boutique hotel and dining near Newcastle, NSW]? We’ve had great conversations with fish suppliers in the area. Apart from the locally farmed Sydney Rock oysters, I’m looking forward to cooking with local king prawns, yellowfin bream and flathead. I’m never happier than when I’m working with local seafood.