Interview: Rick Stein

Interview: Rick Stein

As he heads to Wimbledon BookFest this month, Rick Stein tells Tina Lofthouse about his 50 years in the restaurant industry, his latest book and the foods that really inspire him…

Cooking simply with good ingredients has always been Rick Stein’s mantra. It is one of the big reasons behind the success of his restaurants, his many TV shows and his recipe books. His latest book, Simple Suppers, out in October, is no exception, extolling the virtues of one-pot dishes and easy assemblies of ingredients.

As you’d expect from a man who could pretty much be entirely credited with bringing an appreciation of fish to the UK masses, there’s dishes such as fish pie and a salmon pho.

“Everyone loves a fish pie,” he enthuses in that affable way that has made him such a hit on TV. “But it’s complicated. You have to make the mash, cook the fish, make a sauce… the recipe for this book has shop-bought puff pastry instead of mash and there’s a simple sauce made from cornflour.”

I ask him what his perfect simple supper would be. He pauses. Could it be anywhere, he asks, and reverses the question – where would mine be? I tell him of my love for fish fresh out of the sea cooked on a beach in a shack in Kerala. He’s in agreement that it’s a good choice – he has filmed there.

He’s also partial to a simple Asian dish for supper. “I do love buttery creamy dishes and all of that but sometimes for supper, something with lots of chilli, lime and coriander is called for.”

He says of his recipe based on Vietnamese pho: “You just drop in some salmon at the last minute in to well-flavoured hot stock, with noodles and pak choi.”

Rick has cooked in many countries all over the world. Where has impressed him the most when it comes to their food culture? That’s too difficult to answer, he says, but he was particularly excited by Malaysia. “In Penang, there is such a variety of different cultures with all these special dishes. And if you stay at the E&O [The Eastern & Oriental Hotel], it is a little foody paradise where you could spend a month and have a different dish every day.”

Rick divides his time between his businesses, and homes with his wife, Sarah, in Padstow, London and Australia. He wrote his latest book at his London base in Chiswick – an area he was initially drawn to because of the restaurants and food shops on Turnham Green Terrace.

“We have a good fishmonger, a butcher and a vegetable supplier – it’s where I will go for ingredients when I am cooking something special for my friends.”

He dines out locally and cites The Whistling Oyster’s seafood bar as one of his top new finds. And, of course, he heads over the river to his own restaurant in Barnes.

The Stein empire in the UK includes 10 restaurants as well as hotels and even some rather high-end shepherd’s huts you can rent out.

You may bump into his sons – all three of his children have followed in his footsteps, against his advice, and are involved in the business. “I tried to persuade them not to as the restaurant industry is so tough but they have accepted it is hard work and that is what we have to do. It’s nice… in a world where there are lots of corporate-run places, ours are still run by a family.”

His ex-wife Jill is co-owner and oversees the interior design side of the business. It has been nearly 50 years since he first opened The Fish Restaurant in Cornwall, which he launched in 1975 with Jill.

He has been in hospitality even longer (his first foray was a nightclub he launched before he decided he wanted to open something rather more salubrious). The journey has been tough, particularly so during the pandemic. “With Covid, we did nearly lose it all,” he says. But they had weathered plenty of storms before. “The longer you do it you realise things come and go and you bounce back. In 50 years we have been through bad recessions and survived. So long as you are doing what your public wants you to do you will probably be alright.”

He is excited by the passion of his team. “All my restaurants are run by people younger than me and I get a lot of enjoyment out of their energy.”

He’s also inspired by the young cookery stars coming through. “I do like watching these stars on Instagram and YouTube. There’s a girl who is classically trained but she is as casual as they come and you can see that mix of good training and a fresh approach to demonstrating, which is really exciting.”

Rick reckons he’s “a bit long in the tooth” to have any ambitions left to fulfil but he still loves food. His dream day off? “I do have quite a lot of days off now,” he laughs. “I think it would have to be lunch with maybe six of my best industry chums from all over the world, with cold white wine and fresh fish. But it wouldn’t be one of those lunches that goes on until 9pm. My wife loves those. No, mine would finish at 4.30…”

See Rick at Wimbledon BookFest, Sunday 29 October, New Wimbledon Theatre