Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Message In A Bottle To Rick Stein



You meet some very strange people in Cambodia. It’s a place full of misfits and loners. Expats escaping from something, or looking for something, and nearly always reinventing themselves in the process. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a high concentration of alcoholics, junkies, perverts, arseholes, and compulsive liars.

For instance, I met a guy the other day who said he was the executive chef of a group of luxury hotels. He walked into the bar, introduced himself, and then held court on his barstool telling us how difficult it was drumming the basics of hygiene into his Cambodian cooks. We got chatting and I told him about my dismal failure retraining as a chef and the book, Down And Out In Padstow And London, I’d written about my experiences.

I told him how the cheffing door had been opened when Rick Stein agreed to let me do a week in his Seafood Restaurant in Cornwall. The executive chef suddenly butted in.

“He’s one of my best friends!” he beamed. “He even sent me a long email when Chalky died. He loved that dog. He was devastated.”

He told me they’d done their chef training together in France, and hinted at the drunken nights they’d had. I listened on, but was thinking of something else. I’d been wanting to send the celebrity chef an email thanking him again for the opportunity he gave me, and how if he hadn’t, my book would probably never have been written.

But I’d lost Stein’s email address and knew if I sent a message through his PR people it would probably never get to him. I’d have more chance of sending him a message in a bottle from one of Cambodia’s soon-to-be-developed Robinson Crusoe islands.

So when the executive chef eventually paused to take a swig of beer, I asked if he’d mind passing my thank you letter on to the TV chef. He handed me a smart business card with his email on it.

“Not a problem,” he said, “Oh, we had some times together!”

Then he stopped suddenly and looked slightly angry and bitter.

“Do you know the difference between him and me? Do you know how he got to where he is and I didn’t?” He didn’t wait for an answer: “Luck!”

A couple of days later I wrote a thank you letter to Stein and emailed it to the executive chef. I didn’t hear anything back. Not even anything to say he’d got it. Then a couple of weeks passed and my suspicions were finally confirmed when I was back in the same Irish bar talking to the owner Ronan.

He told me the executive chef had been in a few days before and tried some of his Irish stew - a dish tongue-in-cheekily described in his bar adverts as “the best Irish stew in Cambodia”.

We’d been chatting about the best way to cook it because the price of lamb out here - $47 for a small frozen leg imported from New Zealand - makes it impossible to make. At least at a price the cheapskate losers in Sihanoukville are prepared to shell out for. Goat would have been the next best option, but we couldn’t get hold of that, and when I jokingly suggested dog meat Ronan looked appalled.

“My dog would smell it! He’d never come near me again!” he whimpered.

So I told him to use beef instead, but to throw in a few anchovies to give it a richer flavour. He made the stew with the usual chunks of carrots, potatoes and onions, and then showed me his secret of mashing up a few of the spuds and putting them in a thin layer in the bottom of each bowl, and pouring the stew on top. It was a nice touch and kept the broth high in the bowl while allowing people to thicken the thin liquor to their liking without having to do the mashing themselves.

He told me the executive chef had raved about it in the pub. Ronan began laughing, his arched eyebrows wiggling away.


Oh, he said, that’s a lovely bit of lamb! That's neck fillet isn't it?’ Fucking lamb! And he’s an executive chef! People were listening, so I just played on. What the fuck could I do? ‘I love lamb!’ he says. ‘It’s my favourite fucking meat.’ What the fuck! You couldn’t make that up now could you!”

No wonder the bloke hadn’t replied to my email. It probably wasn’t even his business card. The real executive chef was probably thinking who the hell is this idiot banging on about Rick Stein. I had to get the letter to him myself. The next day, I searched through my contacts list again for the TV cook’s email, and then decided to send a message to his press department, asking them if they would mind passing my letter on to Stein in between dunking digestives.

Surprisingly, I got an email from his PA the next day. She said she had forwarded the letter to Stein. And a week or so later, an email arrived from the celebrity chef, thanking me for my letter and saying: “I've heard a lot about the book and am ordering it.”

I can’t tell you how pleased I am. I’ve always liked the man. I know I rant about celebrity chefs and say they should all be napalmed, but like Fergus Henderson or the late Keith Floyd, who sparked the pandemic of TV cooks, he’s so different from the morons that plague our screens, newspapers, magazines, billboards, government campaigns, and stock cube adverts. He’s got a brain for a start.

Can you imagine Gordon Ramsay, James Martin, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Gary Rhodes even talking to you unless there was something in it for them, let alone arranging for a stranger and complete novice to do a week in one of their restaurants? And the lesser known TV chefs trying to squeeze their way up the rat cage walls are even worse.

I wonder what Stein will think of my book? I think he comes across pretty well, even if I do mention him in my tirade about celebrity chefs never actually being in the kitchen. I know he’s touchy about the name Padstein too, and there’s plenty on that.

But I’m far harsher on other TV chefs like Heston Blumenthal, who I only saw once in the three weeks I worked at the Fat Duck, and that was just a glimpse of him on the stairs as he took a break from filming in the lab. He didn’t even come down to the prep room to shake our hands and thank us for working for free in his restaurant. I wonder if that nutter in the bar knows him as well?


Book Update:

I want to apologise for the very poor delivery times of the paperback version of my book Down And Out In Padstow And London. For reasons that are beyond me, Amazon have had problems distributing recent batches. It’s something to do with the wrong metadata being input, whatever that means. But Completely Novel who print my book have promised they are trying to sort it out.

I don’t know how long it will continue, but I’ve been told that books ordered through Amazon will arrive soon, and they will obviously not take your money until they do post the book to your address. To help remedy this, an eBay page has been set up to sell my book. So if you want the book in the next few days, then cancel your order at Amazon and buy the book HERE... For the eBook version click HERE...

1 comment:

Ed said...

I interviewed Heston a few years back having been allocated a ten minute slot. Thanks to a tanker turning over and gridlocking Melbourne it turned into 45 minutes as all other interviews were cancelled. It was a terrific interview and he was very generous but there again he was getting something out of it.
Funny how in person people can be so charming (Gordon Ramsay for another) but totally different at work.
Just bought the Kindle edition. Looking forward to reading it.