Rick Stein is, surprisingly, a man rather surrounded by rumours. After a much publicised affair some years ago, and a too many newspaper headlines litter with fish puns, he has kept a relatively low profile with the press, preferring instead to let his TV appearances and his food do the talking for him. On TV he is affable, enthusing about simple pleasures and simple cooking; but there are rumours of a personality change when he enters the kitchen and hints of a temper you’d imagine more fitting for Gordon Ramsay’s more ‘showbiz’ TV cooking.
Luckily, however, I don’t meet him in the kitchen, but in the rather busy Union bar. He happily signs autographs, sits down with a pint, and graciously accepts my compliments on his recipe for shark vindaloo. Obviously, Rick Stein is all about food – in his TV programs he wants food to ‘be the star’, not him. ‘People want to know about how other people cook, it gives you a reason to be in a country. I don’t have to go visit Cathedrals or talk about art, I’m there because of the food… and if I chose to do anything on top of that, like make a political comment, it just falls naturally alongside the cooking.’
Cooking is not all there is to Rick Stein, though. What I hadn’t realised, and what he tells me, is that he’d been a student at Oxford almost forty years ago, and ‘that nothing had changed’, a sentiment that most returning alumni seem to share. He came after a series of gap years, at the age of twenty three; much older than his fellow students, and having travelled Europe extensively, it seems that the academic life was not for him. Unlike his brother, who is now a researcher, Stein left Oxford with a ‘gentlemen’s third’ in English Literature, a fact that he doesn’t seem to mind, because he (clearly) filled his time here with others things, including editing .
‘I got involved in it in the first placed just as a way of meeting people; I met some of my best friends through Cherwell. It’s like joining the union, I suppose. It was just hilarious… We were always trying to have a go at the Oxford Union, just because it’s so full of people with very clear career agendas. We’d lay into them, no worries. It’s a chance to flex your muscles, to decide whether you’re going to be anti-establishment or whatever you want to be. Oxford is the place where you can make mistakes, and bounce back.’
The restaurant industry, however, is a much less forgiving place. Or, at least it is nowadays: one in two new restaurants shut within a year of their opening. For Stein, though, when he left University, the prospect of opening a restaurant was as terrifying- or so he says, hindsight is rather kind when you’re looking back on something that was such a success.
‘It was in the mid-seventies, so the restaurant scene was much less developed than it is today. Opening a restaurant anywhere is a bit of a leap of faith- but in some ways that worked in our favour, because you didn’t need everything working, you didn’t have to put in a lot of capital to open a restaurant’ The difference is that now, everything is ‘so expensive’ and that restaurants that do great food still don’t succeed, it’s rather a lottery. Back in the day, however, Stein says you could let the food do the talking, and that was that. ‘It was more that I’d travelled quite a lot, and realised that you could eat so much better in France and Italy than in England, and I knew that I could do the same sort of thing here. We succeeded on the back of a growth of general knowledge and enthusiasm for good food.’
And now, despite the fact that industry seems to have evolved out of all recognition, Rick Stein doesn’t need to worry about that, he now owns four restaurants. There was, however, a lot of controversy when he began opening restaurants in Cornwall, particularly in Padstow. Stein has family roots there, so it seemed to make sense to open a restaurant, but it was met with some local animosity- the ‘Cornish Army’ has he called them- and headlines declaring that he was pushing prices up and locals out. When I raise this point, I see a flash of the businessman that has got Stein where he is today – but he saves his rather more pragmatic words for the press, who he felt attempted to stir up more trouble than there ever was. ‘All publicity is good publicity. Whether they’re praising the place or saying the locals cant stand it, all you’re doing is keeping yourself on the map. You take it with a pinch of salt. They use us, and we use them.’ It might not be the roaring response that I had wanted, but it is certainly fair.
How then, he is still going? With …. TV programs, including one sans food about John Betjeman, it doesn’t look like he’ll ever sit back and start counting his gold. There’s a simple enough reason for it though. ‘I don’t like being bored. I think the idea of retiring and going on lots of trips with no motives seems silly. I’d sooner go travelling and be paid for it, and I will as long as someone is willing to do that.’ And the work load, it seems, if considerably eased by the fact that he can choose to work, he doesn’t have to. ‘More and more the restaurants are being run by other people, but I just love the whole industry and the camaraderie of it. I wouldn’t want to give it up, as long I have some role to play in it.’
When he says ‘I don’t have hobbies, my life is my work. I’m not stressed’ it doesn’t sound like a cliché (although, it looks more like one in print…) but it is followed by the genuine admission of ‘I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.’ I’m inclined to believe him, and to think that I did have to bring up tabloid-esque rumours to get him to tell me something interesting- I didn’t even have to weever fish pun in for my own entertainment.