Original traveller: Rick Stein
For nearly six decades, Rick Stein CBE has crisscrossed the world, from Italy to India. Here, one of Britain’s most beloved chefs talks to Graeme Green about food memories, great British ingredients and his tips for travellers…
Aged 76, English chef, restaurateur, TV presenter and author Rick Stein remains as passionate as ever about sampling local foods, talking to chefs and producers and sharing what he’s learned via his TV programmes and cookery books. This is a good thing, as he seems to still be on the move a lot. As well as owning four restaurants in Padstow, Cornwall, a cookery school, food shops and a pub in the nearby village of St Merryn, plus two seafood restaurants in New South Wales, Australia, Stein is currently filming across the UK for a new BBC series.
While other chefs might be famous for angry rants or brutal criticism, Stein’s enduring popularity is down to his gentler, more celebratory approach. “It’s amazing how many people told me during lockdown: ‘I loved your programmes – they kept me calm,’” he says. “I often hear from people who are terminally ill or in hospital, and the shows seem to relax people. It’s very gratifying to know I have that effect, even though sometimes I may not come across as very ‘edgy’.” There’s plenty of comfort, too, to be found in his new book, Simple Suppers, with more than 120 easy-to-make recipes, from coconut prawn curry to sweet potato, chorizo and sweetcorn tacos.
Your new book is called Simple Suppers. Is simplicity underrated in cooking?
I’ve always cooked in a simple manner. When people started doing books like ‘Meals In 15 Minutes’, or ‘Meals Using Three Ingredients’, I was a bit, like, “Oh, come on!” There are times when I like to get into the kitchen and do something really long-winded, but most of the time, especially with my stepchildren, I’ve had to turn meals out rather quickly. There’s something very rewarding about keeping each recipe to one page, trying to stick to five ingredients (although many times I didn’t succeed) and producing a recipe you can do in half an hour.
Which great British ingredient do you love using in your kitchen?
Lemon sole. It’s a marvellous flat fish with a lot of flavour. It’s expensive but not in the realm of turbot and Dover sole. I like it very simply fried. There’s a dish in Simple Suppers where I take all the frilly bits off – you’re left with four fillets that are easy to eat off the bone.
Is there a meal from your childhood that always brings memories flooding back?
We were lucky enough to have a house on the coast in Cornwall when I was very little where we were able to catch mackerel. It’s a simple dish that my mother would have done, just grilled with a bit of butter, served up with new potatoes and an olive oil-dressed salad, which was quite unusual for those days in the 1950s and 1960s. Every time I smell freshly cooked mackerel, it takes me back to summers in Cornwall.
British cuisine doesn’t always receive international respect. Are there any classic British dishes you’ve always loved?
I’ve always loved roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which is so lovely. The other one I really like is steak and kidney pudding – not steak and kidney pie, which I also love. Steak and kidney pudding is an example of how to keep things simple. For me, it’s maybe the best dish to drink red wine with, particularly Bordeaux wines.
You’ve travelled all over the world. Any advice for foodie travellers?
You just need to dive in. I’ve never been ill in India. I always go for street food. The reason I go for street food is you can see what they’re doing. If you look at street food in India and other places, they might be surrounded by dirt, but they and their food stands are immaculate. The other big thing is water. In some places, it’s best to drink only bottled water. So that’s my advice: don’t be scared and drink bottled water.
Is there a dish that always takes you back to a specific time and place from your travels?
I go back to my early travels to Goa in the 1980s, because it was my first real understanding of how good Indian seafood cooking was. We stayed at the same hotel year in year out, and we got to know the owner and chefs very well. I just love the way that fish and masala works. If the fish is really fresh, curry doesn’t hide the flavour of good fish. There is a dish called pomfret recheado, which is mackerel opened up and stuffed with a clove-scented masala with lots of chilli in it, then grilled. For me, nostalgic memories are usually around a dish like that.
If you had to eat in one place for the rest of your life, where would it be?
It would have to be Provence in southeast France, where I spent time on holiday recently. The great thing about Provençal cooking is you can eat very healthily because it’s Mediterranean food. The countryside is beautiful. A place like Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is perfect if you had to end up somewhere forever.
What’s the first dish you make for yourself when you come back home from a holiday?
I’m very fond of a simple breakfast: just one egg, one rasher of streaky bacon, and I make an Italian-style tomato sauce, which has tomato, olive oil, garlic and a spice mix with Mexican chilli peppers, white pepper, black pepper and salt. I listen to Schubert every time – it’s part of the ritual. I say “Alexa, play Franz Peter Schubert”, and it always starts with Ave Maria. I put the tomato sauce on the egg and I’m in heaven.
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