Monday, January 19, 2009
The Seafood Restaurant
Rick Stein’s PA phoned the next day, and I drove down the M4 for a week's work experience at his Seafood Restaurant in Padstow. I rented a room within walking distance of the restaurant, and went on a tour of the local pubs to get a flavour of the place. I was nervous and thought a few beers would help.
Most of the locals rolled their eyes when I brought up the TV chef’s name. I could see why they called it Padstein; he had four restaurants, 40 rooms, a deli, patisserie, gift shop and a cookery school - all in a fishing village with a population of less than 4,000. You could hardly look in a shop window without seeing his face beaming back at you. There were Rick Stein tea towels, oven gloves, mugs and grab bags, marmalade, chutneys, fudge, pickled onions, olive oil and spices.
There didn’t seem to be a thing he hadn’t turned his hand to. He was even selling jars of salt for £3 each. His Cornish pasties alone had irked the locals, who were appalled at him using puff pastry, let alone smoked haddock or crab. “It’s bloody Scaarwtch mist he’s selling in them jars,” one old boy said. The way they saw it, it was as obnoxious an insult to their treasured Celtic heritage as Ginsters. Bleach in the brooks, destroying the mystical vibes of Cornwall.
Stein, apparently, hated the name Padstein, and liked to say “I’ve just got a few modest businesses – it’s not like I own the whole town.” They blamed him for driving up property prices – forcing their children to move somewhere cheaper, where they might stand a chance of buying a home.
But there was no way you could doubt that the TV chef and his rough-haired Jack Russell Chalky had put the place on the map. And I wasn’t sure how much those old fishermen had grumbled when hordes of grockles and emmets descended, blocking up the narrow lanes, and handing over 250,000 notes for tiny ‘ideal weekend retreat’ cottages. I bet they couldn’t stop rubbing their hands.
Some remembered him in the early days – and how despite his overwhelming passion for food, he hadn’t always harboured ambitions of being a chef. The Seafood Restaurant had started out as a nightclub, and he’d gone into cooking when it failed.
There were tales of his legendary tempers in the kitchen, most of which I can’t publish. Even his old friends described him as “very volatile in the early days” and “pretty fiery and stressed out”. Stein, himself, admits he was “hot and bothered and fucking angry a lot of the time”.
It was hard to reconcile those fervid eruptions with the quiet, unassuming man I’d met in London. But then, by his own admittance, he’d mellowed significantly over the years. The books, TV deals, vineyard and house in Australia, meant he rarely ventured into the kitchen. As with Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, he’d trained up staff so he could leave behind the heat and exhaustion for the cosy media world, while still trading off his own name. It was strange to think I was doing it in reverse. I was clearly insane, but then, apparently, you had to be mad to be a good chef.
An old waitress, who’d been there in the early days, said deep down Stein was a shy man. It reminded me of his words in a documentary: “I always seem to be quite lively and enjoying myself, but actually I’m taking pleasure in my food and the fact people are enjoying it. I’m not making a big fuss about it. I think that’s the core of what being a restaurateur is all about – actually taking pleasure in other people’s happiness.”
I admired him for that, and his philosophy that "nothing is more joyful or exhilarating than fresh fish simply cooked". It was what thrilled me about cooking too; it was that sort of cheffing I wanted to learn. Brilliant ingredients cooked in a simple manner. There is nothing worse than our scourge of chic hotels and gastro pubs blindly trying to imitate far more skilled, boundary-stretching chefs. Menus littered with pretentious monstrosities like elderberry candyfloss, anchovy popcorn, almond fluid gels, and lavender jus. What is wrong with steak and kidney pudding? It also means they think they can charge £28 for a badly-cooked fillet of sea bass.
The waitress told me when Stein opened the restaurant in 1975, the dishes were really simple: sea bass and samphire with beurre blanc, mackerel with dill and new potatoes, clam marsala, clam chowder with razor clams from the Camel estuary, moules marinieres, skate with black butter, and that hallmark of all fish restaurants – Provencal fish soup.
He won awards, but he didn’t hit the big time until Keith Floyd became a regular visitor, and convinced his director David Pritchard to include Stein in one of the ‘Floyd on Fish’ programmes. After that the phone didn’t stop ringing. Floyd showed him how to make a good bouillabaisse, and now I was going to learn those skills myself. I went to bed proud and extremely nervous.
The next morning, I walked down the hill and looked out at the fishing boats in the harbour, and the green sea beyond. It was worth going to work just for the view. The briny air was filled with the ‘kee-ow’ screams of gulls. Out in the bay, a fishing vessel was heading home, surrounded by what looked like tiny scraps of white tissue. For some reason, I thought of Eric Cantona’s famous footballing quote: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
I had a last cigarette, and walked round the harbour to the restaurant, past the spot where they’d filmed Stein eating roast bass on a trawler with Floyd as they went off to sea. Dinner jackets, a starched linen tablecloth, and silverware knives and forks. It was the spirit of adventure in Floyd’s programmes that had attracted Stein to the TV world. I wondered what fish I hoped to get by following Stein’s trawler. But then, I thought, as I walked up to the door – the sea hath fish for every man.
:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow.
You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...