TEACH A MAN TO FISH
THE WORLD LOST A MOBILE DISCO ENTREPRENEUR, BUT GAINED A CHEF, RESTAURATEUR, TELEVISION STAR AND PROLIFIC COOKBOOK WRITER. RICK STEIN’S NEWEST SEAFOOD VENTURE IS IN A PARTICULARLY AUSTRALIAN SLICE OF PARADISE.
Rick Stein was so desperate to fit in when he came to Australia as a wide-eyed 19-year-old, he started wearing shorts, playing sport and even attempted the local accent. This was on the advice of the family friend who met him off the boat in Sydney in 1966. “‘We are outdoors people, we love sport and haven’t got any time to sit around in cold winters reading poetry’,” Stein recalls. He didn’t know until later that this friend’s father was a librarian – so he may have been taking the mick. “I was appalled. And so I was determined to do everything: I did surfing, played some rugby, started wearing shorts, which in the 1960s was a bit odd for an Englishman. I tried to put on an Australian accent because I didn’t like being called a Pom all the time.”
The Pom from Oxfordshire we now know as a chef, restaurateur, author and TV star married an Australian, travelled extensively for his books and cooking shows, opened his first restaurant here in 2009 – at Bannisters By The Sea resort, Mollymook on NSW’s south coast – and has just opened his second restaurant at a new Bannisters in Port Stephens, 200km north of Sydney.
“I was originally influenced to come here by a lot of lifeguards from NSW who were employed on the beaches of Cornwall [where Stein holidayed as a child],” the 71-year-old tells WISH over coffee at his home on Sydney’s lower north shore on a sunny winter’s day. “I was a bit in awe of them because they were generally fit and tanned and good at dragging people out of the water. And the local girls were keen on them. So I thought it would be a great place to go.”
His parents’ love of Australia influenced Stein to travel, but it was their love of seafood that set him on his path today: he went from being the 20-something operator of a nightclub on the verge of collapse to a restaurateur, thanks to the skills he learnt watching his parents cook good seafood. It was in 1973 when Stein returned from two years in Australia (his travels had also been motivated by a desire to get away following his father’s suicide) to Oxford University where spent the next few years getting an English degree. He did not know what to do following his graduation but he liked parties so he set up his own mobile disco called the Purple Tiger. (An art student mate painted his van, so the logo looked more “small dog wanting to go for a walk” than majestic jungle beast).
“I just quite liked discoing,” Stein says of his unusual start in the workforce. “It wasn’t that I was a good dancer, but I took the same sort of vicarious pleasure in discoing as I do in cooking. I can see the connection really, it is delighting other people and making other people happy.” In 1974, Stein took his love of the disco to the next level by buying a purple-carpeted nightclub in the Cornish seaside fishing village of Padstow. He bought it with his best mate and with £14,000 he had unexpectedly inherited from a “German great-uncle who I didn’t know existed”. But it was a disaster, with fishermen getting into fights and police shutting it down because of the violence.
“It was a very tough fishing community, not a lot of money but a lot of boozing,” he says of Padstow in the early 70s. “I wasn’t intending to be a chef but I opened a restaurant after the nightclub failed. I was lucky that my mother and my father were good cooks – not in any ultra-keen way, but my mother particularly cooked a lot and she cooked a lot of seafood. My father was an amateur fisherman and he put some money into a fishing boat so we had plenty of particularly good shellfish: lobsters, crayfish and tonnes of fish. So I started eating really good fish from a very young age when we were on holiday. So when the club closed, I opened the restaurant. I never really think things through. It just happened to be a good fish available.”
By then he had married his first wife, Jill Newstead, and the pair spent years building up The Seafood Restaurant. It is still there today along with a number of other restaurants, cafes, bakeries and shops owned by Stein (Padstow has been nicknamed “Padstein” by locals). “I think what saved us is that even in the 1970s, Cornwall had a tourist season – it was only 10 weeks, but there were enough people from backgrounds that were quite used to eating out and who appreciated what I was doing,” he tells WISH. “And what I was doing was not very fancy. It was taking a lobster and grilling it or taking a Dover sole and grilling it. They appreciated the fact that I didn’t do anything with it but I didn’t do anything with it because I didn’t know how to do anything with it.”
Stein took the next big step in his unintended career when he agreed to appear on a local cooking show in 1985 with the late Keith Floyd as a guest chef. He wasn’t that interested but needed the publicity for the restaurant and get more locals through the doors. “It was lucky because the two sequences I shot were with David Pritchard [Floyd’s longtime executive producer] and I got to know David as a result of that,” he says. “Then when inevitably David and Keith fell out in the fullness of time, David asked me whether I wanted to do some filming. So it wasn’t really about working on television, it was being with David. He was just larger than life and