Rick Stein’s love of travel has played a key role in his culinary career. The chef talks about his latest adventures, making book and TV series From Venice To Istanbul
From some angles, Rick Stein looks like a victim of his own success.
So inspiring are his televised cookery quests to India, the Mediterranean and the Far East that every year, fellow foodies follow in his footsteps, thus taking the locations from ‘off the beaten track’ to ‘on the tourist trail’.
“I think part of the reason the programmes are successful is because people want to go to the places we’ve been to,” explains 68-year-old Stein, who adds that it’s “lovely” when people are inspired by the shows.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Would you really want to go there?’ Quite a lot of the time, they are slightly quirky places that say something about the area, but we look on the internet and there are people doing tours on the back of where we’ve been.
“Sometimes I say to David, the director, ‘We don’t want people coming here, it will ruin it!’”
Then there’s the way his name is occasionally used in vain after he’s visited an area or a restaurant. For instance, 15 years ago, he had some admittedly “fantastic fish and chips” in a Scottish restaurant.
“They’ve still got this thing up saying, ‘Rick Stein says this is the best fish and chips in the country’,” he explains. “Well it’s changed hands about three times - so some aggrieved customer of the shop wrote to me saying, ‘Do you know we’ve had the most disgusting fish and chips and they’re saying that you’re recommending it?’ I once went in there and actually took the stuff [the sign] down and walked out!”
Last year the chef, who travels to Australia three times a year to work on his restaurants out there, headed back to the Mediterranean for his latest six-part BBC Two series and accompanying cookery book, From Venice To Istanbul (starting on Friday, August 7).
Between weaving around the Mediterranean and chatting to interesting local characters, including the Albanian guide who “was a good friend of the prime minister Edi Rama, good at her job and had the additional advantage of looking like Audrey Hepburn”, Stein found himself in a “ludicrous situation” in some of the restaurants he visited en route.
If he was recognised, sometimes the “top person” - the one who wouldn’t usually cook, as they’d ordinarily leave that to the servants and cooks - would take the reigns in the kitchen to have their moment of glory on the camera, despite “almost never having cooked it before”.
“You’re just thinking, ‘Oh for God’s sake, just get the cook to do it!’” Stein recalls with a grin.
“But you can’t tell them that. It can be a bit of a disadvantage if people know who we are and potentially what sort of business that could bring them, so we do try to find people that wouldn’t know us from a bar of soap, but it doesn’t always turn out that way,” he adds.
Though he is recognised in his Cornish home in Padstow, where he “absolutely loves” living and running several businesses, he’s always happy to hop on a plane and explore new nooks and crannies in the world.
“I’ve been travelling a fair bit since I was in my teens, and I just love being away,” he says. “I don’t know whether it makes you a calmer, happier, more interesting person, but I do like being in other countries.”
If you fancy exploring some of Stein’s recipes, here’s one from his new book to try at home.
Dalmatian Fresh Fig Tart
For the pastry:
170g plain flour, sifted, plus extra for dusting
100g unsalted butter, cubed
50g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
50ml double cream
For the filling:
500g mascarpone cheese
6tbsp clear honey
6 large, 7 medium or 8 small fresh figs, stems trimmed, halved
For the pastry, mix the flour, salt and butter until it resembles breadcrumbs, and then stir in the sugar. Mix the egg yolk and cream, and add to the flour mixture so that it comes together to form a dough.
On a floured surface, roll out the pastry and use it to line a 26cm, loose bottomed flan tin. (If too difficult to handle, wrap and chill for 30 minutes in the fridge.)
Trim the edges of the pastry, cover with cling film and rest it in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Line the pastry with baking parchment, fill with baking beans or rice and bake blind for 10 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and cook for a further three minutes. Take out of the oven and lower the temperature to 160C/gas 3.
Soften the mascarpone with the honey in a small saucepan over a low heat. Pour into the pastry case, then lay the figs on top, cut-side up. Bake for 30 minutes until just starting to turn golden around the edges. To serve, allow to cool to room temperature before removing from the tin and cutting.
l From Venice To Istanbul by Rick Stein is published by BBC Books in hardback, priced £25. Available now