Rick Stein talks life, love and food at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

Renowned English chef Rick Stein graced the last day of the Sydney Writers’ Festival at the Roslyn Packer Theatre on Sunday. Interviewed by ABC’s Richard Glover, Rick was speaking in support of his memoir Under a Mackerel Sky, which charts his childhood, his relationship with his manic-depressive father prior to his suicide, his travels to Australia as a young man, and the origins of his famous The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall.

Rick’s also owned the successful Rick Stein at Barristers restaurant in Mollymook, New South Wales since 2009 and currently divides his time between Mollymook and Padstow.

Rick delighted the crowd with a series of anecdotes and openly mused on his father’s death: “One of my biggest regrets,” he said “is that I never got to speak to him about his illness…there is always the feeling that we could have done more to help.”

It was his thoughts on mental illness that were most insightful, commenting that he had been unaware of the self-loathing often experienced by sufferers of bipolar disorder, and how “those who commit suicide don’t necessarily think of it as ‘the end’ when they decide to do it.” With astounding honesty he shared with Glover and 800 audience members his father’s last words to Rick’s aunt before he dived off a cliff.

He also contrasted his and his father’s relationship with the ones he now has with his children, quoting his son Jack’s reason for not reading his book: “because it’s about your sex life Dad,” a response that suggests a perfectly healthy father-son relationship.

Rick’s beginnings in the world of work were fairly humble, undertaking a job as a street sweeper because he thought “there was something heroic about it,” and having been influenced by George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. After his father’s death, in the 1960s he travelled to Australia “because of the Australian lifeguards on Cornish beaches who were successful with the girls.”

His love of Australia is clear to see as he fondly recalled his early impressions and how its “confident men” and “pretty girls” offered a sense of opportunity and hope after his father’s death.

Rick was cheekily credited on the Sydney Writers’ Festival website as an Australian, but a key part of his relationship with Australia is how as an English traveller he saw it as a promising foreign land, populated by “charasmatic characters, young, fit and good surfers.” He recalled in his memoir, “We loved the local girls’ accents and their openness. They came from a sunny world more optimistic than ours. I almost got the feeling that people didn’t die suddenly in Australia, let alone throw themselves off cliffs.”

He also recalled how he used the red landscape of the Simpson Desert and “the rock formations rising out of the flat land where the balls of dry, spiky spinifex rolled around in circles” as inspiration for his successful entrance exam for Oxford University, Glover joking that “Australia made him” the success he is now.

Despite his success, he still suggests that being a chef was something he fell into doing after years of misdirection, and is “not particularly good at anything,” to which Richard Glover understandably scoffed. “I went into cooking as a salvation in a way,” Rick once admitted.

But there is a sense of serendipity as to how Rick found himself a successful career as a chef. Having left Oxford University in the mid-1970s, he took ownership of a discotheque in Padstow that was stripped of its alcohol licence. To this day Rick is unsure whether it was a clerical error on the part of the police that left him with a licence that still permitted the serving of food.

The restaurant’s reputation had sky-rocketed by the 1980s, and Rick recalled his surprise at being asked to write his very first cookery book, crediting himself as ‘Richard Stein’ because “it sounded so much more upmarket.”

For decades Rick Stein has graced our television sets with his gregarious nature, unquenchable appetite and boyish enthusiasm. He’s not just a chef; he’s a leading food journalist, travelling the world for inspiration. He documents culinary revelations and unearths ancient techniques by immersing himself in the world of small scale, high quality produce; local markets, street stalls and honest, family based suppliers.

He’s also an English treasure; a humble, affable gentleman who I’ve grown up watching, and as I sat in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, his comforting voice evoked images in my mind of rolling green valleys, smoking open grills and fish and chips set against a backdrop of aqua-blue sea and frothy surf.

It was a pleasure to see my own personal food hero, still going strong as he pushes 70 years old. His programmes are treasure chests of cookery, culture, travel, literature and history, and considering the amount of time he spends Down Under, hopefully it wont be long before a show charting Rick’s gastronomic tour of Australia is commissioned.

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