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Your plaice or mine?

Unless Plymouth happens to be the centre of your universe, Padstow, in Cornwall, is a long, long way from just about anywhere. So when I arrange to interview Rick Stein, the town’s most famous resident, and to travel there and back in a single day, I am hopeful that he might at least invite me for lunch. Alas, no such invitation is forthcoming. My train arrives at one o’clock and our meeting is set for three. Possibly, of course, he is busy. But, more likely, he has decided it is less of a PR risk to leave a journalist eating a solitary crab pasty in the drizzle than to be trapped alone with her and – God forbid – a tongue-loosening bottle of wine.

Of late, you see, poor old Stein has had his private life thoroughly filleted by the tabloids. In July, he left his wife of 27 years, Jill, for an Australian publicist 20 years his junior, Sarah Burns. ‚I’m appalled at the distress I’ve caused Jill best ideas about canada goose parka on pinterest and my three sons,’ he is supposed to have said. ‚In the end, though, you just have to follow your heart, selfish as it may seem.’ A statement was issued. Yes, he and Jill had separated, but they would continue to work together on their restaurant business. A month later, however, he and Sarah apparently had a row after she accused him of flirting with a fan at a book signing, and he flew home to Britain to ask Jill to take him back. Unfortunately, she refused to do so.

As a result of all these horribly public shenanigans, Stein and his people are as jumpy as freshly landed herrings about my visit. I am told, in no uncertain terms, that he is not going to talk about his private life – he respects Jill too much for that. I am also informed that his PR is going to sit in on the interview, at his request. When I try to check a few facts – Is his relationship with Sara really over? Where is he living? – his PR insists that to give me any answers would be ‚inappropriate’. All I do find out is that – surprise, surprise – a lot of the stuff in the papers was made up. No, he did not tell a reporter that he ‚could not live without his wife’. If he spoke to anyone at all, it was only ‚to get rid of them’.

Still, the fact that I have to procure my own lunch – I buy my pasty at Stein’s seafood deli, and rather good it is, too – gives me a chance to wander round Padstow. I say wander, but walking at any kind of pace, or with any sense of freedom, is tricky. The place is packed with foodie pilgrims eagerly making their way from Stein’s cafe to Stein’s gift shop to Stein’s hotel. Occasionally, someone makes a bid for freedom and dips into one of the other businesses trying to make a living in the town – but not often. When Stein and I are finally cooped up together in his office, I ask him if he doesn’t sometimes feel like the leader of a bizarre fish-worshipping cult. He seems to know what I am talking about.

‚Jill doesn’t approve, really,’ he says, in the first of many references to his wife (tellingly, quite a few of his sentences begin with the words ‚Jill and I’ – and you can probably draw your conclusions from this although, of course, I am only allowed to nod my head and smile whenever she puts in a ghostly average price of canada goose jacket appearance). ‚The way I think about it is, it’s me that’s on telly so if we’re going to sell something, it should have my name on it. The Rick Stein Cafe used to be the Middle Street Cafe, which is a better name. But it’s like passing Go and picking up £200 in Monopoly. You can put your name on your restaurant and get twice as many people through the door – or not. You take your choice.’ But isn’t there a certain tension between this desire to make money and caring about good food? He insists not. ‚We’d like to dispel that idea.’

Stein owns tons of property in ‚Padstein’: three restaurants; a hotel and two B&Bs, the deli and gift shop; and the Seafood School, where you can learn to frazzle squid and poach skate in oh-so-modish fashion. He also has a unit in an industrial park on the hill where he makes his chutneys and pickles. The jewel in the crown of this bijou empire is the Seafood Restaurant, which he opened in the early Seventies. It’s a lovely room but, my God, it’s expensive. ‚Sixteen pounds fifty! For cod and chips!’ wheezes the elderly Yorkshire woman who’s standing next to me as I peruse the menu. ‚Oh dear me, no, Stanley.’

The outfit that amuses me the most, however, is actually Jill’s baby – the gift shop, which sells pretty Cath Kidston make-up bags, waffle dressing gowns and canada goose coat 1000 bulbs free bath oils and is, apparently, very profitable indeed. On the day I stop by, I see one of the girls from Smack the Pony lovingly fondle a peachy soapstone bowl. The shelves are also laden with Stein’s books, Stein’s pesto and Stein’s strawberry jam. Most hilariously of all, you can purchase a bottle of a specially blended fruity little number called ‚Rick Stein’s Seafood Wine’. This, I tell him later, is the Ronseal of the grape world – it does exactly what it says on the tin. He guffaws heartily, which almost makes me forgive him the naff sales technique.

His business instincts apart, when we meet I rather take to Stein (though he is nervous; his hands shake a little and his first sentences are a staccato jumble). He has a ruddy, open face – he laughs a lot – and an oddly guileless manner. And then, of course, there is the Cider With Rosie accent which, presumably, is why he is such a hit with the BBC in spite of his smart public school background. You listen to him rambling on about his latest series, Food Heroes – a search for the producers of the best British food – or his passion for all things piscine, and you feel nostalgic and strangely comforted, almost as though you have just gobbled one of his very own steamed treacle sponges.

Stein has been on our screens since 1995. He got his first break in the Eighties, when he did a slot in one of Keith Floyd’s shows. A decade later, Floyd’s producer, David Pritchard, was looking for a new idea for a series and decided to get back in touch with him. ‚I had glandular fever at the time,’ he says. ‚I did all these tests and I was terrible, really bad. I was so weak David thought it wasn’t going to work. But he had this Australian girlfriend at the time [uh-oh, Australian girlfriend alert] and she believed in me. I consider myself to be quite shy, funnily enough. I don’t find it easy to get the words out. I’m always cocking it up, having to do retakes. But when I started, it was a case of anything to promote the restaurant. I’ve always been pushy as far as the business goes.’

The TV work used to be a distraction, keeping him away from the restaurant for too long at a time. Now, though, he has built up a loyal staff, so it’s easier for him to travel. ‚My role is a style one, making sure people stick to the way Jill and I want things. You can do that quickly, walking around, poking your nose in. Sometimes, though, I do get so irritated. You know tomato concasse, where you skin and de-seed tomatoes? Yesterday, I discovered the chef was taking plum tomatoes and cutting the ends off them to make them square before he diced them, when I’m always saying I want things to look natural.’

So does he have a temper, just like the big boys up in London? ‚I used to get pissed off, when I was still cooking. But that was because I was panicking. I’m quite placid now, though I do have little flare-ups.’ Once upon a time, he would chuck moaners out, Marco-style. These days, he’s more indulgent. ‚People don’t realise how revealing they are of themselves when they complain. There’s a mischievous enjoyment there when you get silly letters.’ He is also careful to ensure that his regulars – with whom he likes to buy canada goose jacket london have a drink at the end of an evening – don’t find themselves pushed out of his dining rooms by weekenders. ‚We’ve evolved a system where they get preferential treatment.’

Stein grew up on a farm in a Cotswolds village which his father, a director of the Distillers Company, bought just before the war. It was, he says, an idyllic childhood for him and his four siblings – and all the more so since urban pleasures were also available courtesy of his father, who worked in the City and had a flat in Bloomsbury. ‚Yes, my parents were quite posh,’ he says, looking sheepish (which is how he looks whenever he isn’t smiling – as is probably the way of men who have recently had affairs). ‚My mother read English at Cambridge, and they had quite artistic friends – painters and novelists – and every summer we went to Cornwall because my father and his brother had built what is now a listed Art Deco house on the cliffside near here.’

It was down on the farm, among the sheep and cattle and pigs (they had a few of everything) that he got his accent. ‚I just liked being with the guys who worked on the farm. I would have preferred to have been one of their children in some way. I always had a slight problem in that my older brother is extremely bright. He’s a neurophysiologist and a don at Magdalen College, and I always felt I was stupid because I couldn’t get anything like the same results as him. My father was a bit cross about my accent being too broad – my brothers and sisters were all nicely spoken – and he tried to stop it. But there was no way.’

While his brother was sent to Winchester, Stein was packed off to Uppingham in Rutland – though he liked pretty much everything about it, not least the cream slices you could get in the school buttery. ‚I was good at rugby, which meant I wasn’t bullied.’ Even so, he left a year early and went off to a crammer in Brighton to do his A-levels. Had he been a naughty boy? ‚A bit naughty,’ he says. ‚Nobody officially knew, but I was going out with a girl who worked in the kitchens.’ Oh, very naughty. ‚Why is that naughty? It didn’t seem naughty to me! Anyway, they didn’t kick me out because of the rugby, although I have a feeling they knew. But once you start on something like that, you become a bit alternative and grouchy. So I left, even though I’d already put a stop to things with the kitchen girl. Heh, heh, heh. She was damn pissed off!’

Soon after he left school, however, Stein’s world changed forever; his father committed suicide. ‚I knew he was a manic depressive, but my mother had kept a lot of the detail of his illness away from us. He had these terrible mood swings. God, when he was in a manic phase, he was a loony, you know – very up. Then things would be really black. I was 18. It was a hard time to lose him. I’ve thought about that a lot since. My eldest son is 23 and I’ve started having nice conversations with him. I can tell him what it’s like to be a man. But at 18, I was like my third son: virtually catatonic. My brother will tell me things my father said to him and I’ll wish that I’d been old enough for him to say them to me.’

Was the manner of his father’s death shameful given the era? ‚Oh yes, it was awfully embarrassing, especially for an 18 year old who wanted to get away from his parents anyway. It was awful for my mother, too, the sense of rejection, the feeling that, in spite of all the effort, she made, he went and did it anyway.’ Did he worry that he might inherit his father’s tendencies? ‚Certainly. We all did. I worry about it with my own children. The thing about my father was that he had tremendous charm. You’d think: „this’ll be all right, we’re going to have lots of fun.” But charm is weird. It doesn’t relate to someone’s kindness. It’s not a blessing.’ But he has a certain amount of this charm himself. ‚Yes, and I think people sometimes expect things from me that…I’m not really able to give.’

After flunking his A-levels – he scraped two Es – he got a management trainee job with British Transport Hotels in Paddington, where he spent six months in the kitchen and learnt all the basic cookery skills. ‚I was in love with Carnaby Street and there was lots of activity and parties.’ (I assume that ‚activity’ is some kind of euphemism, but he doesn’t elaborate.) ‚At that age, you get on with your life, but the trouble is, the residue of what’s happened eventually comes back to get you. I packed the job in and went travelling in Australia and New Zealand, America and Mexico. I read a lot and I thought about stuff. Sometimes it was restorative, and sometimes it was unpleasant. I was very lonely.’

So, it was back to benefits of canada goose jacket Blighty, where he took the entrance exam for Oxford and – somewhat to his amazement, I think – landed himself a place at New College. He was only 22, but he felt incredibly old. ‚Most of my English group were from places like Eton, and they were such a bunch of wallies. I couldn’t understand how they could write anything sensible about literature when they had so little experience of life. But socially, it was great. Me and my friend Martin used to do recipes from Elizabeth David, and we were rather taken with Len Deighton’s cook book. We bought Sabatier knives. Just as we were about to graduate, Raymond Blanc opened his first restaurant in north Oxford. My God, it was good.’ Unfortunately, all this cooking and eating must have got in the way of his work because he left the university with a third.

Meanwhile, he had taken up with Jill, with whom he’d fallen in love after his return from Australia. ‚I met her and her best friend, Terry, in Cornwall at my twenty-first birthday party. They’d been working in a club in Manchester. They had lots of rare records.’ So she stuck by him all the time he was a lank-haired student? ‚We had our ups and downs. There were times when I wasn’t actually going out with her.’ While a student, he’d also started a mobile disco – the Purple Tiger – and, after a few half-hearted attempts to get into advertising and the BBC, thought he’d stick at that until something better came along. ‚I came to Padstow and started doing these dances every week. But I felt pretty low and rudderless.’

Soon, however, he decided it might be fun to do food with the dances. He found some premises and got a late licence. ‚It was a disaster. We had no control over who came in and there were terrific fights every night. The other landlords in the town berlin film festival ends canada goose jacket sponsorship amid thought we were taking their lock-in trade so they wanted to get us closed down and, eventually, we were. I found that terribly depressing: I was a nice middle-class boy doing my best. The fights were seriously bloody. People had their faces glassed and I was hospitalised twice after being punched. Anyway, that’s how we became a restaurant.’ Thanks to an oversight on the part of the council, the restaurant clause in his licence was not revoked.

Thus, Stein started cooking. The menu was based on one he’d seen in Falmouth and included a selection of fabulous Seventies-sounding goodies: baked crab with cheese, sea bass with pernod and fennel, seafood gratin. ‚It was bloody awful, such hard work. You get so tired. And all our dishes were different sizes. One big party got really pissed off because they maintained I was serving them different sized portions. I had to clean the bowls and fill them all with the same amount of water to prove they weren’t being ripped off. Jill did front of house and she was still running the disco and doing B&B. Our total turnover for the first year was £9,000. We take that in a day now, no problem.’

Nearly three decades on, the business has made him rich and famous (the family home, where apparently he no longer resides, is a £1 million house up the coast in Trevone). But has it also made him popular in the town where he now employs 130 people? ‚Sometimes, I feel very unpopular. Perhaps I’m being over-sensitive, but we’ve just put in a planning application for some more rooms and there’s a terrific amount of opposition. House prices have also become a real bane for people here and we’re goose a bit responsible for that.’ No amount of griping, however, can dent his ambition. His next venture is a restaurant in Newquay, a grim old place – ‚a bit of a amazon canada goose parka dump’, he says – but one which he believes has potential. ‚It’d be a gas to make it more like Biarritz.’

He has no plans, he insists, to sell the company to some big restaurant group – though his three sons don’t seem particularly interested in joining him in the future (Edward, part-time oyster-opener, is at art college; Jack, part-time waiter, is at Cardiff University; and 16-year old Charles is still at Truro School). How do they feel about his fame? ‚Edward doesn’t like it at all. I’d be surprised if they even watch me. But I find that healthy. I certainly don’t want to push them into going into the business if they don’t want to. It’s too absorbing for that. I mean, for me, it’s my whole life. I’d be bored without it. I’m a freak in that way.’

Once our chat is over, Stein’s PR lets us go off alone together, and he takes me for a tour of the whole shebang. Walking through Padstow with Rick Stein at your side is a bit like visiting an old people’s home with Michael Parkinson on your arm. Ooh, the ladies love him. Everyone wants a chat. He signs autographs and, at one point, I have to take a picture of him with a fan for all the ‚folks at home’. By this time, of course, I’m starving, so when we go backstage at the restaurant, among the pots and pans and prepping stations, I get quite excited. But, dammit, it’s the dead hour, between lunchtime and dinner. All that’s on offer is a slice of his crusty bread. I’m afraid I am too proud to accept.

After the grand tour, we have a problem on our hands: I still have half an hour to kill before my taxi arrives. Aahh! What on earth is he going to do with me? After a bit of faffing, he leads me to a table in the school’s demonstration kitchen and – hooray! – opens a bottle of wine. We talk about hangovers and mushrooms and Olga Polizzi’s hotel in St Mawes. I know what you’re thinking: can you dry clean a canada goose coat why didn’t I pounce? The truth is, there were a lot of knives around, and chefs, and – thanks to my empty stomach – I was a little bit tipsy. Besides, I know a contrite man when I see one. Anyone who mentions his wife’s name as often as he does has only one thing on his mind, I’d say. I hope he sorts it all out.

To order Rick Stein’s Food Heroes for £17 plus p&p (BBC, rrp £20), call the Observer book service on 0870 066 buy a canada goose jacket online 7989.

Parsley soup with chive cream

Last summer we filmed in the idyllic walled kitchen garden of the Stone House Hotel at Rushlake Green near Heathfield on the Sussex/Kent border. We had eaten there the previous evening and were much taken by the Englishness of it all. The house, built in 1495, has been the home of the Dunn family ever since. It is filled with antiques, family heirlooms and portraits. You feel delightfully lost in some of the most considered rural scenes in the world – Glyndebourne and Sissinghurst are almost next door. Jane Dunn cooked our dinner, and there happened to be parsley soup on the menu. It was as straightforward as one would have hoped: parsley from the garden, a few leeks, cream and some excellent stock.

Serves 4

2 large leeks

2 x 100g bunches of curly leaf parsley, well washed

75g butter

275g floury potatoes such as Maris Piper, peeled and chopped

1.2 litres chicken stock

50ml double cream

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the chive cream:

50ml double cream

1 tsp very finely chopped chives

Remove and discard the darker green tops of the leeks. Slice the rest and wash well. Pull the leaves off one of the bunches of parsley and set them aside to add to the soup just before liquidising to give it a vivid greenness. Roughly chop the second bunch and the stalks of the first.

Melt the butter in a large pan, add the chopped parsley and leeks, and cook gently for 5 minutes until soft. Add the potatoes and chicken stock, cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the reserved parsley leaves and simmer for 2 minutes, then liquidise in batches until smooth and return to a clean pan. Stir in the cream and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

For the chive cream, lightly whip the cream with a small pinch of salt and pepper, so that it thickens slightly but is still runny. Stir in most of the chopped chives. Ladle the soup into warmed bowls and swirl in some best price canada goose jacket outlet usa online store of the chive cream. Scatter over the remaining chives.

(From Rick Stein’s Food Heroes)

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