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.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Celebrity Chef - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY AN­DREW FINLAYSON STYLING BIANCA LANE

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.

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