Rick's love letter to Cornwall, warts and all
If Rick Stein had followed the career path he'd originally envisaged, he would have been an even more familiar face in the Western Morning News – writing and editing its stories rather than the occasional subject of them.
In 1973, as a fresh Oxford graduate and an enthusiastic, if somewhat naive, student reporter, the chef who put Cornwall on the map was all set to start a job on this newspaper. Then he got a letter that was to lead him in a wildly different direction.
"The Conservative government under Edward Heath had introduced a three-day working week to conserve dwindling coal stocks during the miners' strike. In my little world that meant the editor of the Western Morning News, who had held out the promise that he would give me work as a sub-editor, wrote and told me the job was no more," says Rick.
"It was then a simple decision for me: I wouldn't become a journalist. I'd open a nightclub in Padstow instead."
It was called the Purple Tiger and, just a few years later, it had opened doors the party-loving public schoolboy could never have imagined.
"I did fancy having a go at journalism. It would have been a very different life and I'm not sure how well I was cut out for it," confesses the erstwhile newshound. "I remember I was sent to talk to a young woman who had been caught in an undergraduate's room and she begged me not to name her because her parents would be so upset. When I told this to the editor, he asked if her parents were famous... 'There's a real world out there, Ricky,' he told me."
It might not be the juiciest of tales from his memoir Under A Mackerel Sky, which was published on Thursday. But it highlights his ability to dust himself down after a setback, as well as his willingness to take a gamble on an idea. No entrepreneur worth his salt got anywhere without embracing a risk or two.
In places the book's highly entertaining and well crafted 300-odd pages do, indeed, boast all the drama and intrigue of a contemporary fictional bestseller. There's relatively little about food in there.
"I've said all that before, haven't I?" muses Rick, who acknowledges that it was another endeavour that was fraught with peril. "In a lot of ways it would have been easier to write a novel. There's so much I couldn't put in because it would paint people in a hurtful way; it's hard to write without being nasty about anybody. I'm waiting for the phone to ring... I'm beginning to think I've become too thick -skinned and lost all my sensitivity."
Always looking for a challenge, it was something to get his teeth into.
"I simply like writing; I've always enjoyed doing the intros for my recipes and trying to personalise them as much as I can by talking about the time and place where I've found them. But I thought I'd like to write something longer and my publisher had always said that if I was ever thinking of an autobiography to let them know."
There's no doubt that he had a deep and rich vein of experiences to plunder. Headlines from a national serialisation in the Daily Mail last week, understandably, honed in on the suicide of his bipolar father, Eric; the affair with his Australian second wife Sas, that ended his marriage to Jill, and the two women's uncomfortable encounter in the restaurant, blood-soaked fist fights and the customer who almost killed him.
"All that has been out in the public arena before," he says. For the household name who rose to fame and fortune as one of Britain's best known and loved chefs, against the early odds, he regards his autobiography, above all, as a love letter to Cornwall, warts and all.
"It has been the most influential place in my life; some of the stuff about Padstow has been a bit tough, but I gave it to one of the locals to read and said please tell me if it's going to upset anyone," says Rick. "The nightclub was hell on earth and it certainly wasn't fun, but we can look back on it with a certain amount of amusement."
Cornwall has always been his rock, from his earliest memories of happy times with his parents, brothers and sisters at the family's holiday home.
It is ever present as the book rolls through schooldays, adolescence, discovering music and girls; university; the tragedy of his father's illness and death; his far-flung travels; romance; married life, the birth of sons Edward, Jack and Charles; not forgetting his constant passion for good food, the gradual learning of his skills in the kitchen, including a spell at Cornwall College.
And it documents his fortuitous breakthrough into TV, via Keith Floyd and the Westcountry-based Denham Productions, only to be frequently upstaged by his feisty little wire-haired Jack Russell terrier, the late and much-missed Chalky.
It was at home in Padstow that Rick trawled his memory banks to pen the book. The down-to-earth beauty of the town, the county and the character its people shines brightly throughout – not least when he recalls his longing to get back when he's been exiled for any length of time.
He has always sung the praises of the county at every opportunity and 10 years ago he was awarded an OBE for his services to Westcountry tourism.
These days, at the age of 66, he juggles his time between his cottage in Padstow, the home of his second wife, Sas, and her children, in Australia, and the lands he explores – the most recent being India – in search of culinary delights to share with us all in his TV shows and recipe books.
He is still very much involved in the running of the Stein empire – The Seafood Restaurant, St Petroc's Bistro, Rick Stein's Cafe and Stein's Fish and Chips, the Seafood School, not to mention the nearby Cornish Arms pub and some luxury holiday accommodation. It remains a partnership between himself and Jill, beyond their divorce, and it has some 360 employees, many of them bona fide locals. The name is now synonymous with the small north coast fishing town which became a trailblazer for the county's reputation as an all-year-round foodie destination.
"Padstow has changed a lot; it was quite a tough place in the old days. People who don't want things to change don't appreciate how communities adapt to survive," he says. "We make things and sell things, and invite people to come and stay. We all like the places we fall in love with to stay the same; we adore their simplicity and charm, but what would happen to somewhere like Padstow?"
Rick doesn't cook in the restaurant kitchens any more – he leaves that to his middle son, Jack, who has firmly seized the baton. Charlie is in the wine business in London, while Edward is a fast-emerging sculptor.
"I occasionally hang around and irritate the chefs," he laughs.
But he does still enjoy rustling up tasty culinary delights. Many chefs will opt for the simplicity of scrambled eggs if they are catering for themselves. Not so, Rick, who has found a way to enjoy an indulgent gourmet meal, without fear of piling on unwanted pounds.
"I do have to watch what I eat at home because when I'm away I eat out all the time," he says. "So, when I'm on my own, I go for often quite rich meals in very tiny helpings – 20 grams of the most delicious cheese with gorgeous chutney and a little wafer; 50 grams of Dover sole in an exquisite butter sauce.
"I got the idea when I did my French barge series; they say French women don't get fat and that's why – lots of small portions."
Today, as part of the town's Splash Festival, Rick is giving a talk and signing copies of his books at The Poly in Falmouth – where his fish restaurant close to the National Maritime Museum, serves hake, monkfish and John Dory alongside the cod and haddock.
"Talking about my memoir, rather than food, is going to be interesting. I do try to gear things to the place I'm in and Falmouth is where I first got my idea for a restaurant – from Mark's Seafood Bar."
Under a Mackerel Sky by Rick Stein, Ebury Press, £20.