Our dream life
They have weathered a long-distance affair and some animosity from the British press but now, after 10 years of marriage, celebrity chef Rick Stein and his Australian wife, Sarah, tell Samantha Trenoweth that they are “living like gypsies” and loving it.
Rick and Sarah Stein’s beach house is all sunlight, chatter and warm conviviality. It’s Rick’s 71st birthday and there will be a Mexican fiesta tonight. Rick hulls avocados and squeezes limes in the kitchen, Sarah makes last-minute additions to an optimistic shopping list and her daughter, Olivia, whips up a packet mix, because she’s already visited the seaside town’s tiny grocery store and found none of the ingredients required for a more elaborate birthday cake.
“I can always add strawberries,” she says, philosophically. Meanwhile, sandy-footed house guests come and go, and dolphins frolic in the ocean just beyond the kitchen window. Here in Mollymook, on the NSW South Coast, the Steins have created a scene of idyllic domesticity, but life for the English celebrity chef and his Australian wife hasn’t always been this effortless and picturesque.
“Looking back,” says Sarah, who is 20 years Rick’s junior, “I don’t know how we did it. I’m quite proud of us.”
It was love, if not at first sight, then at first conversation. They met in 1997 at an Aussie restaurant competition (he was the judge, she was the publicist) and, after two long nights of food, wine and tête-à-têtes, Rick knew that “nothing would ever be the same again”.
Ten years elapsed, however, between that realisation and their eventual marriage. In between, their love withstood the challenges posed by distance, former partners (Rick and Sarah were both publicly slapped across the face by his ex-wife and business partner, Jill) and the British press, who were not always sympathetic, even to Cornwall’s best-loved son.
Then there were the children. Rick has three: Edward, Charles and Jack, now a chef in the family’s chain of English seafood restaurants. Sarah has two: Olivia, who is studying cookery in London, and Zach, studying fashion in Milan. But at the time, they were all much younger – Olivia was only three.
“You just do what you have to,” muses Sarah, or Sas. He calls her Sas; she calls him Tricks. “My kids were very close to their dad, so I wasn’t going to move them away. It was just fortunate that we could afford to fly. It started with us agreeing that we wouldn’t be apart for longer than two months, then it became about a month. Sometimes we’d organise work for Rick in Australia or we’d meet in between in Asia. In some ways, it was very romantic.”
“It was a family thing really,” Rick says, explaining the five years that passed between their first meeting and his moving out of the home he shared in Cornwall with Jill and the boys.
“My children always come first. I was reluctant to disrupt their life, I suppose, but inevitably it does.” A further five years elapsed before the wedding. “I wasn’t with my first wife by then, but she was reluctant to accept the inevitable, which was that I was going to marry Sas. So it took a bit of a while,” Rick explains, “but once I’d asked her to marry me, it was like, why didn’t I do this ages ago?” In the end, he proposed in a rented car parked beside a garbage bin in the south of Italy and they eloped.
“We told no one,” says Sarah. “We didn’t want press to be there and it was just getting too tricky, deciding whether to get married in the UK or Australia and how to get all the family together. Then, one day, Rick said, ‘I want to be married tomorrow,’ so we just did it. We’d spoken to the children and told them we were going to get married. Then, the day we eloped, our friends and family got an email saying ‘check your post box’ and they found invitations to big parties in Australia and London.
“Obviously, you’d like your kids to be at your wedding, but I think they understood – my kids were delighted – and it just worked for us.”
It’s a little more than 20 years now since the Steins first met and they still appear thoroughly besotted. Rick says he fell in love with Sarah, because she was smart, well read, loved music and because he sensed they came from similar families, which valued learning, accepted eccentricities and had been drawn closer together by grief.
“Obviously, she’s incredibly attractive,” says Rick, “but it was more the fact that I felt I could talk to her, that she shared the same values and experiences.”
Sarah’s mother died at age 29 from an anaphylactic reaction. “I was eight,” she recalls. “I’d been a really extroverted kid, like I am now, but, after her death, I shut down. I didn’t grow, I didn’t really eat. My dad said, ‘Every day you’ve got to enjoy life.’ So I tried to do that. I think I picked up my optimism from my dad. He was very inspiring. So many things happened to him, but he was never, ‘woe is me’. He stayed optimistic, he always saw good in people, he saw good in the day, every day. He taught me how important it is to be a role model to your kids and to the people you’re around.”
“There’s a very nice picture of Sas when she was about five with her mum and dad on either side and she is the happiest person you could see,” Rick confides. “In that respect, she was very lucky. She was totally loved and valued as a child and, once you get that start in life, it sets you up.
“I really liked her dad. He was a bit mad, but he had this intuitive quality. He was intuitive about us.
And he came from the rock and roll generation. There was a bit of rebellion.” Sarah’s father, Tony Gale, managed bands and worked in real estate. He never slept more than four hours a night and, as a kid, Sarah was woken most mornings at six by The Doors blaring from the stereo. When Rick first met him, Tony was living in Indonesia, had just chased a tiger out of his yard and, Rick says,
“She was reluctant to accept that I was going to marry Sas.”
“He reminded me a little of myself”. Rick wrote in his memoir that, meeting Tony “sealed” his relationship with Sarah. “It felt almost like I’d come home.”
Rick’s earliest years were spent on a farm in Oxfordshire. His childhood home revolved around his father’s moods and his mother’s ability to shelter her children from them.
His father, Eric, was bipolar and Rick has often acknowledged his mother, Dorothy, as the most important influence on his life. Also part of the rock and roll generation, he joined a band in his early teens “to impress girls” (by all accounts it worked) and ran a mobile disco on and off through the late ’60s and ’70s. When Rick was 18, Eric took his own life.
“I was enrolled in a hotel management course at the time,” Rick recalls, “but the wheels were wobbling on my bicycle after my father’s death and I was getting a bit depressed. I contacted a friend and mentor, and told him that I was thinking of going to Australia. He said, ‘Nobody ever suffered from running away to sea’. It was nice fatherly advice and proved to be true.”
Rick stayed here for 18 months, listening to the Easybeats and falling in love with the climate, the people and the fresh seafood. Fifty years later, he’s here at least three times a year, visiting family and friends, keeping an eye on his longtime Aussie restaurant, Rick Stein at Bannisters in Mollymook, and overseeing work on a second restaurant, Rick Stein at Bannisters Port Stephens, due to open in October this year.
After Australia, young Rick stopped by New Zealand, then flew on to California, where he landed in 1968, in the winter that followed the Summer of Love.
“It was cold,” he says, “and it wasn’t like Australia or New Zealand, where people were friendly and approachable. I was travelling around on Greyhound buses with nobody to talk to. I went to Haight Ashbury. I was dead against drugs, but I loved the music – that American West Coast sound. And I read a lot. I was reading Mornings in
Mexico, by DH Lawrence, which inspired me to travel south.”
He had been reading Ernest Hemingway and watching cowboy movies, too and, he says, he crossed the border with a yen to “put myself into dangerous situations and see if I could behave like a proper adventurer … I don’t remember being fearful. I was robbed in Acapulco while I was sleeping on the beach one night. A local said that if I’d woken up while it was happening, I’d have been dead.”
By and large, though, the Mexican people were “incredibly hospitable” and the food was a revelation.
“Everything about Mexico was a real eye-opener,” he says, still with the enthusiasm of his 21-year-old self. “The colour! I’d had a fairly sheltered upbringing where food was concerned and … going across the border into Mexico and finding lime, coriander, tonnes of chilli, beautifully aromatic corn tortillas. It was so exotic. By then, I was interested in food and
I had been working in a kitchen but I wasn’t intending to make a career as a chef … So this was a really meaningful time for me.”
Rick has revisited Mexico many times since, with his kids, with Sarah and again recently for The Road to Mexico recipe book and TV series (which screens on Foxtel Lifestyle from February 12). These days the Steins are based in Chiswick in London, though they’ve kept their Sydney and Mollymook houses for their regular visits and Rick tries to get back to Padstow (popularly know as Padstein) in Cornwall once a week.
He and Jill still run a dozen restaurants and cafes in Cornwall and elsewhere in England. With Sarah, he operates the Australian restaurants, a homewares line and she has opened a bookstore in Padstow, putting her own stamp on what must at first have felt like an intimidating town. She’s also writing a book (watch this space for news of its completion) and she’s started a string of book clubs, including one in Padstow.
“I remember, the first Padstow book club meeting. I was so scared,” she admits. “I was with my friend, worrying that no one would show up, but now we’ve got 40 members and at the last meeting a woman burst into tears and said the book club had changed her life.”
The Steins have changed each other’s lives, too. Rick says that Sarah’s optimism and enthusiasm for life have rubbed off on him. Sarah credits Rick with igniting her sense of adventure and turning her into “a bit of a gypsy”.
Perhaps the thing that’s surprised her most about her husband is just how romantic he can be. “Rick writes poetry for me, sends me postcards while he’s away, whisks me off to romantic places, such as Richard Burton’s House in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – I am a big Liz Taylor and RB fan – or to La Colombe d’Or,” a tiny, romantic guest house in the south of France.
They have no doubt that, after all those long-haul flights, they’ll be in this marriage for the long haul. On the way to Mollymook for Rick’s birthday bash, the traffic ground to a standstill and Rick turned to her and said, “It’s not so bad being stuck in traffic when you’re with your favourite person in the world.”
“Rick writes poetry for me and sends postcards while he’s away.”
Rick and Sarah prepare for Rick’s 71st birthday celebrations at their holiday house in Mollymook on the NSW South Coast.