By Saskia Tillers
“We can all admit to having watched your programs. They’re like porn for the over 30s. We’ve all watched each episode 20 times.” Broadcaster and columnist Richard Glover grins at the. There are nods and laughs of agreement from the audience.
It was a capacity crowd when Richard Glover spoke with celebrity chef and restaurateur Rick Stein about his memoir Under a Mackerel Sky at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Both the book and the discussion began by describing Rick’s seemingly idyllic childhood, growing up as part of a large, close-knit and loving middle-class English family. An early exposure to organic local food from their family farm in Oxfordshire and the abundant seafood in Cornwall, where they holidayed, was instrumental in shaping his lifelong love of food. However, it is not long into these stories that Rick reveals that this otherwise joyous period of his life was marred by his father’s unpredictable manic depression and bipolar episodes.
One morning when Rick was 17, a close friend brought him the horrific news that his father had been “blown off a cliff” and died.
“I just remember every detail about that drive home. At certain points in your life, time does just stand still and everything is like a photograph. He hadn’t been blown off a cliff, he’d dived off a cliff. He didn’t even jump, he dived. It was something that really affected me, the actual reality of it, something about the will of someone not to just jump off a cliff, but to dive.
“Suicide is quite a terrible thing for all the people left behind. There’s no finality to it really; they blame themselves and think they could have done more,” he says.
At the time of his father’s death, Rick Stein had been working as a street sweeper in London, one of the first in a vast array of jobs.
“I’d just read Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell. I was a bit of a snob in those days and I wanted to see how poor people lived, what they did. I saw it as something slightly heroic, working as a street sweeper.”
Much of the book details his bizarre career trajectory that ultimately, through a series of events, led to the opening of his Padstow eatery ‘The Seafood Restaurant’. Making mayonnaise in a hotel kitchen, cleaning up blood in an abattoir, and working as a fettler in central Australia on the construction of the Ghan railway were among some of the jobs he undertook. But why was Australia his first choice for relocation after his father died?
“In the 60s, tourism was sort of growing in North Cornwall and we had beaches with dangerous rips. People do surf and people do drown, so they employed Aussie lifeguards because they actually knew how to save lives. They were just so lean, so good at surfing, so good with the local girls.”
“So typical Australians, then?” Mr Glover interjects.
Mr Stein smiles broadly and continues. “Well, as I learned later, not necessarily so. But they were just so heroic and I felt at the time, with my dad’s death, that I’d go somewhere where it seemed that people never die. There’s such a sense of optimism about Australia that it was the obvious place for me to go. So I just ran away.”
And so began his love affair with Australia, resulting in his marriage to an Australian, Sarah Burns, and the opening of a restaurant at Mollymook on the south coast.
“It’s funny because when I left my first wife and took up with Sarah, one of my very best friends said ‘I always thought you had unfinished business in Australia’,” Mr Stein says.
Rick Stein says it was through a series of misadventures and mistakes that he eventually opened his restaurant but that he had always relished the company of others and creating environments in which people could enjoy themselves. After a very successful mobile-disco van and a very unsuccessful nightclub, The Seafood Restaurant, was born.
“I always think some people enjoy living vicariously, and the object of the parties for me was seeing other people enjoy themselves. They were tremendously successful parties, and I just loved doing it. I really trace my restaurant experience more down to that than to a later realisation that I could cook. I mean, I still feel that I’m not actually that good at doing anything,” he says.
“Oh yes, can’t cook, can’t speak, it’s terrible,” Mr Glover interrupts, causing an eruption of laughter from the audience.
Mr Stein continues, unfazed. “But I think that’s something that I’m really quite cursed with. And people tend to get a bit irritated with me, but I guess that for most of my career as a chef I’ve had this determination to prove that I can do something. I seriously think that cooking is such a wonderful job because every day you’re hungry. It’s true! That constant rebirth of hunger and creativity that makes it such a great job.”