Sunday 26 January 2020

Rick Stein reveals the secret to successful dining abroad

Chef, author and TV host Rick Stein has travelled the world for good food. He tells Katy McGuinness the secret to successful dining, wherever you go

New tastes: Rick Stein visits Bolgona for his Long Weekends series
New tastes: Rick Stein visits Bolgona for his Long Weekends series
Rick Stein. Photo: Anna McCarthy
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

If you watched any of the first five episodes of Rick Stein's Long Weekends series, in which he visited Berlin, Bordeaux, Reykjavik, Vienna and - most seductive of all - Bologna, you might be wondering how come none of those bad-choice-of-dodgy-restaurant-on-holiday scenarios ever seems to befall him.

We've all been there, devastated at the loss of an opportunity to eat well by a poor choice. But Rick seems to have a seventh sense when it comes to deciding which of the dozen guys boiling up cauldrons of octopus on the quayside is the good guy - the one who inherited his cauldron and his superior recipe from his grandmother - and which is the one who's going to give you food poisoning.

Unfortunately, his secret is - as you might expect - seriously good research.

"We usually arrive in the town armed with a list of 10 or 15 restaurants," he says, "and we'll visit them and figure out which are the best and where we're going to film. I like to use TripAdvisor as well, but it's not reliable. I've learned to read between the lines - I'd almost go for the negatives rather than the positives, anywhere that people have strong opinions about, one way or the other, tends to be worth investigating.

New tastes: Rick Stein visits Bolgona for his Long Weekends series
New tastes: Rick Stein visits Bolgona for his Long Weekends series

"Best of all is to go around and have a look. David [Pritchard, the director of all Stein's TV shows] and I have a nose for good restaurants and bars… so much depends on the context, too. On Friday night if you arrive into a town late you are grateful to find anywhere open to eat. It was like that in Thessaloniki, one of my favourite places in the series… we got there at 11 at night and just had souvlaki and Greek chips with cold beers and it was wonderful."

Not even Stein gets it right all the time, though.

"I was in Lisbon with my wife, Sas, and we were booked into one restaurant but our table wasn't ready and we went for a mooch and came across a casual little place called La Casa de India with a chicken piri piri grill in the window… The place we were booked into was a bit serious and up itself and we'd much rather have gone to the chicken place, but we couldn't because we'd booked and the chef had recognised me and was bringing out his own olive oil from his own farm [one suspects that this kind of thing happens a lot] - and we were stuck."

Stein's latest book - part-cookbook, part-guide-book, with a smattering of memoir thrown in for good measure - is published to coincide with the second half of the Long Weekends series. Showing on BBC2 in the coming weeks, it sees him visit Copenhagen, Cadiz, Lisbon, Thessaloniki and Palermo.

It's clear that he has a natural inclination towards gutsy food with big flavours that hasn't been mucked around with too much, and a healthy scepticism for some current food trends. (He writes admiringly of British chef, Paul Cunningham who, he says, turned down the job of head chef at Noma, in part because he didn't want any more wood sorrel in his life.)

In Copenhagen, Stein visits the temples of new Nordic cuisine and wonders if there isn't a touch of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' about it all, before returning to safe ground on the last day of his visit for poached whole turbot in a copper turbot kettle (who knew such a thing even existed?) with a sauce of butter and lemon, a pile of pointed cabbage with more butter, lemon juice and nutmeg and a magnum of chilled Savennières.

In Berlin, he meets a young chef, Billy Wagner, who epitomises the new breed of German chef using ingredients grown and reared locally.

"I'm 35," explains Wagner. "My parents loved to cook with anything Mediterranean: tomatoes, peppers, lemons, olive oil, so to me that's what I grew up with. What excites me is using German ingredients: beetroot, cabbage, horseradish, lard and butter."

Stein's natural preference is for authentic food experiences in cities with a touch of the down and dirty about them, rather than the world of tasting menus and fine dining.

"The more prosperous that somewhere is, the less likely it is to have soul," he says. "Thessaloniki, for instance, has seen hard times, but the people there told us that this has brought people together. We ate some fantastic food there.

"In London, the heart of the place has been bought out - there's no soul any more. I think that the key is whether ordinary people can still live in the centre of the city as they do in Palermo and Lisbon."

Some visitors to chi-chi Padstow, Stein's UK base, have complained that the soul (if not the sole) has been taken out of the place (plaice? sorry) by the ever-expanding empire of accommodation, restaurants, cookery school and now bookshop run by Stein and his family.

Rick's first wife, Jill, and their sons remain involved, working in tandem with him and his second wife, Sas.

"Some people call it Padstein!" he says. "It's a little place, not a city, though, and thankfully there is still a very vocal local community that thinks that it's theirs rather than mine.

"Some of them would prefer that it went back to the way that it was in the 1970s, but it you want a town to thrive then you need commerce and I think there's a good balance. For a city to have soul there has to be a bit of resistance to money, and an underlying bolshiness. Liverpool and Newcastle have it, and Belfast has it in shedloads."

Stein has a reputation for an adventurous attitude when it comes to food.

"Generally the food that is born out of deprivation is worth considering. We are all human beings and we all have the same taste-buds so there are good reasons to try it. There's nothing I won't try."

In Palermo, he tackled tripe sandwiches and char-grilled intestines. "I wouldn't say that they are the best things I've ever eaten - the tripe is a bit greasy, the intestines are better.

"In Iceland I thought the traditional food would be difficult. I'd heard about stinky skate, rotten shark, bull's testicles and whale blubber.

"It's a part of the world that's hard to live in - 'north of life' they call it. Traditionally it's hard to rear animals, and they ate seaweed and moss to supplement their diet. But the seafood and fish are fantastic, and there are young chefs cooking nice food. I was worried about it but it turned out alright in the end."

These days, Stein lives in London with Sas and her two children, and divides his time evenly between his media career and his restaurant business.

"I've been doing TV more intensively than normal over the last while. It used to be year-on, year-off, but we did Venice to Istanbul [the last series] and the BBC was very taken with the idea of Long Weekends - they were keen to get it done before anyone else did - so we went straight into it.

"The restaurants all have very good management teams so I leave them to get on with it as much as possible other than to say the odd thing like 'I don't like the way you've done the potatoes there…' I try not to get in the way, but I do keep an eye."

Stein is 69 now, but shows no sign of slowing down; he recently took on a new restaurant in Barnes, in southwest London.

"The Depot has been there for 30 years. It's on the Thames near where the boat race finishes, it's tidal and unspoilt and feels like the sea. We're keeping the name and the existing staff and won't change things too much, I don't want to piss off the locals."

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