Rick Stein – owner of 12 restaurants, author of 26 cookbooks and star of 39 TV series – came to my kitchen. Actual Rick Stein. Him.
His latest BBC Two series, Secret France, discovered some of the hidden delights of the country and looked at the state of modern French food.
I cooked him his crab soufflé (my first crab soufflé, his thousandth), and we discussed childhood, fish and what he served up for the Queen. Both times.
Emma So, French cuisine. It’s no longer considered the holy grail of international food – is it still alive and well?
Rick Well, France is a beautiful country and the markets are fantastic, but the problem is the food is now often mass-produced in industrial warehouses – or it’s over-elaborate and over-fussy.
E What went wrong?
R I think it’s a combination of things. They live in a rather odd ‘time-has-stopped’ world – like the restrictions on when you can and can’t eat: you can’t arrive before 12, and if you turn up after 1.30pm, you’re lucky to get served. Most people are much more flexible but the French are still very much, ‘This is when you eat.’ And a lot of the things we considered marvellous in the ’70s now feel a bit old-fashioned – our food has moved on. It’s sad, but that’s the way things go.
E Were you ever trained in French cuisine?
R I think I was lucky because I wasn’t trained anywhere, I just had my mother’s cooking, which was simple British food with very good ingredients.
E So where do your recipe ideas come from?
R I always go back to dishes I loved as a child, and a lot of it did come from early trips to France. I have a tremendous regard for the classic French way of doing things, it’s almost magical. My driving force is the sense of wonder at the world when you taste something for the first time and can’t believe how good it is. I remember my first fillet of bass with beurre blanc – it was a revelation.
E You once said ‘nothing is more exhilarating than fresh fish simply cooked’. Why ‘exhilarating’?
R Fish can be disappointing if it’s not fresh enough, but when you get it spot on – like a perfect piece of turbot with hollandaise sauce and a burgundy wine you think, ‘****, this is good!’ and it is, actually, exhilarating. It’s that joy when things surpass your expectations.
E I know your father died when you were a teenager. Do you think the depth of your love of fish is partly because you used to go fishing with him?
R Well I suppose you could be right actually. I was quite frightened of my dad, he was very overpowering, and quite hard on me. Fishing with him was one of the few times when things were okay. It was synonymous with very nice times, you know? It still is.
E If you’d done the full chef training I wonder if your sense of wonder would have been knocked out of you.
R I’m afraid it would. I think that’s been my strength – but also my weakness, really. I’m still a bloody untidy cook and it embarrasses me because anybody who trained in kitchens is so neat. I feel like an imposter.
E You? Really?
R Oh yes. I’ve done collaboration dinners with professionally trained chefs and I’m always in awe of their way of working.
E You’ve said that with cooks it doesn’t matter what your background is, you’re all united in the common goal of feeding your customers. Was it that sense of camaraderie that drew you to the profession?
R I didn’t really choose it, to be honest. I opened a nightclub with my best friend and it failed, I nearly went bankrupt and the police got involved. I was determined not to go bust again so we turned the nightclub into a restaurant, and I found myself in the kitchen, not because I wanted to be a cook, but because I needed the money. But I had a kitchen team which was an important part of it – there’s this tremendous reliance on each other to create something together.
E It’s interesting, you’re the only chef I’ve had here who’s talked about their brigade. It’s quite a mark of respect – and you’re clearly a team player.
R I like working with other people. For all of catering’s downsides, it’s working together that gives you the gas.
E What are some of the big issues facing your industry at the moment?
R The big thing is that people don’t want to be in it. It’s too hard and the wages are too low. Last summer we had very good trade – partly because Brexit means that more people are taking their holidays in the UK, which is great. But the downside of that is that people are on their knees, and they leave. It’s tough.
E Does the price of ingredients add to the problems?
R Yes – food costs are going up more than general inflation at the moment, and it’s really hard to justify what you need to charge customers to make ends meet.
E You have such an empire now with the books and TV series. But, deep down, do you ever think about scaling it all back to your original two restaurants?
R Gosh, I know what you mean – I remember years ago filming in a little restaurant outside Marseille. There was this guy in his sixties, and all he did was cook lunch in the tiny restaurant. I remember saying at the time that’s what I would like to end up doing.
E Do you think you ever could do it?
R No (he roars with laughter). I enjoy the whole thing too much. I love the filming, the crew, I love seeing you make my crab soufflé!
E And will you go on adding to the restaurants?
R No. We’ve got 12 and a lot can go wrong if you keep opening more, it’s so hard to keep control. What I do now is the recipes, the menus, and going around them all, eating the meals to check the quality.
E Quality control! Is that a joy?
R Actually, it is heaven. I order six dishes and have a mouthful of each. It’s so nice, until the moment when you go into one and everything is crap. Then I panic.
E Is there anyone you would still like to cook for? The Queen?
R I’ve cooked for her, twice! The first time was a banquet with all her living ex-prime ministers – Blair, Thatcher, Major. I cooked turbot.
E Did she like it?
R Who knows. The second time it was her Golden Jubilee so we had to get something golden in everything. I made a hollandaise sauce, and I found yellow raspberries for a cranachan.
E Was it as good as this crab soufflé?
R Probably not.
Find the recipe for crab & emmental soufflé in the February 2020 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
Read more articles by Emma Freud
Recipe adapted from Rick Stein’s Secret France (£26, BBC Books).
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.