Raise a stein to Munich’s famed kneesup at Royal Melbourne Oktoberfest this Saturday. More than 50 types of German beer will be on show at Carlton’s Royal Exhibition Building while the snacks will run from pork hock to pretzels.
It’s hard not to have a soft spot for Rick Stein. The cook’s cook from Cornwall has a genuinely unbridled enthusiasm for new food adventures and his passion goes right to the core of what it means to celebrate and share food. It’s infectious.
Stein has split his time between the UK and Australia for decades, he’s on our television screens daily and he has been celebrating Australian seafood at his restaurant at Bannisters by the Sea in Mollymook for nine years. We almost feel like calling him our own.
Now he’s taking his seafood savvy further up the New South Wales coast to Bannisters Port Stephens, which opened this month. The prospect of having a restaurant north of Sydney as well as one in the south was something he couldn’t pass up.
“I’m quite taken with the south coast, but some think everything is better in the north,” says Stein. “It’s very beautiful and it seemed like a really good idea because it’s a part of the New South Wales coast that has very big fish.
“And I’ve always been slightly irritated by so many people from Sydney going north instead of south – so I’ve solved that problem,” he laughs.
Stein’s business partner Peter Cosgrove forked out $7 million to overhaul the former Salamander Shores hotel – where Stein’s Australian wife, Sarah, once stayed in her youth – to give it a luxury Hamptons vibe, much like its sibling in Mollymook.
The hotel has 80 rooms (starting at $290 including breakfast), including four luxury suites and a penthouse. But it’s the opportunity to explore the region’s produce and fruits de mer that’s got him excited.
“I’m a bit of a romantic,” admits Stein. “I just love looking out over the bay at all the little inlets – it’s so different to Mollymook yet so extraordinary, too.”
Australia’s breathtaking coasts were part of the lure that first hooked him on Australia. He started coming here in his early 20s and has been coming back ever since.
“The first time I came was a very formative time in my life and I really, really liked it here. I didn’t intend to stay and become an immigrant, but now it’s almost like a second home. I’ve always had a soft spot for Australia and to be married to an Australian seems a perfectly great thing for me.”
On the eve of opening his second Australian restaurant, Stein was filming a new show in France called Secret France, exploring areas off the usual tourist beat.
“It’s amazing how much countryside there is that’s beautiful and virtually empty. It’s the same as the coast in Australia,” he says. “There’s so much of it, it’s like getting to somewhere like Port Stephens – all you can think is, why have I never been here before? And that’s the beautiful thing about Australia – there are so many unique and beautiful places to explore and celebrate.”
As well as his regular TV shows, the 71-year-old has a string of Rick Stein restaurants, a couple of fish and chip shops, a pub and a cookery school, all overseen by his middle son, Jack, the chef director of the business and closest follower in his father’s footsteps. Stein’s eldest son, Edward, is a sculptor and he works on the interior design of the restaurants along with his mother, Stein’s first wife Jill, while the youngest, Charlie, is a wine merchant and works with his parents on the wine lists.
Back in Australia, the menu at Rick Stein at Port Stephens will be similar to Mollymook’s, but it will have its own identity. Set in a 98,000-hectare marine park, it will have access to some of the best seafood in the world, which will appear in the likes of fish tacos, baked crab with poblano chilli, fish and shellfish soup and ceviche, all made with what’s best on the day, of course.
“I was up in Port Stephens yesterday and they’ve got a really good range of fish and obviously they’re different to what you find in the south.
“The eastern rock lobsters, the oysters, flathead, snapper, dory, kingfish – it’s almost a case of you name it, the great seafood of Australia is there at different times of the year. So the menu will reflect whatever we get in fresh.”
Working with the whim of the seasons may have its challenges, but it’s also what inspires the chef.
“Part of the pleasure of what we do is the excitement of not knowing what fresh fish is coming in,” he says. “When you see fresh fish you get this absurd enthusiasm about what you’ll do with it. It’s what drives me and my chefs – the quality of raw materials. It’s trying to do justice to them that’s the challenge.”
Stein’s trademark approach is getting the best seafood and doing as little as possible to it.
“Some people say ‘ why should I pay this amount of money for that, if you’re keeping it simple?’ and I say, well, it’s the best bloody fish in Port Stephens and it’s worth it. Simplicity with food is one of the hardest things to get right, but it’s also the most satisfying.”
And when it comes to celebrating produce on the plate, it seems Stein has plenty to inspire him.
“Like a beautiful sand whiting – a fish I revere above all in Australia. It never ceases to amaze me that a fish that’s called whiting in England is so boring, but it is so special here.
“A whole sand whiting – now that really rocks my boat,” he laughs. “It’s a perfect meal and all you need.” Join Rick and Sarah Stein and delicious. at Bannisters Port Stephens for dinner on November 11, $150 plus booking fee; book at bannisters.com.au or call (02) 4455 3044.
GRIN AND BEER IT