Rick Stein has clocked up an astronomical number of frequent flyer miles. The affable TV chef, who still owns a stable of restaurants across the UK and of course, Bannisters by Rick Stein in Mollymook on NSW’s South Coast, says on-the-ground support makes it all possible.
“I’ve got a really good team back in the UK and in Mollymook so I’m free to travel when I want – so long as I get back to the restaurants often,” Stein tells SBS.
To lessen the load further, Stein recently handed over the reigns to all nine family restaurants to his middle son, Jack. Despite some cautionary words from his father, the young Stein followed in his dad’s culinary footsteps, even launching a TV series earlier this year in Australia – Born to Cook: Jack Stein Down Under.
“Yes, he’s just got his first TV show – he’s a bit of a chip off the old block isn’t he!” the father of three laughs.
Stein’s latest book and series, The Road to Mexico (BBC Books), takes the chef from San Francisco and Baja California down to the tip of Mexico. It was a particularly emotional journey for the legendary chef, recalling for him one of his first real food travel experiences, aged 21.
"It was the first night I’d spent in Mexico. I got across the border from Texas to Monterrey and I was a bit nervous because it was the first time I’d ever been there, and I went into this restaurant and I watched what everyone else was eating, and I ordered tacos – pork I think. It just had this incredible combination of avocado – I wasn’t very familiar with them – and tomato and onion and some chilli and I just remember tasting that and I described it in the book – it was like rock 'n' roll. Little Richie or something. It just hit me with so much flavour.
Stein names the experience in the little taqueria as career-shaping.
“It was quite a meaningful moment really because I’d lived in England and I’d had Indian and Chinese foods and I’d been to Australia but I hadn’t tasted anything quite so in-your-face. I do recall that as a particularly important moment in my culinary history.”
Like burgers and Southeast Asian cuisine, Mexican food, from Tex-Mex to more regional plates – has become a mainstay in Australian dining; our love of soft shell tacos, guac and zingy salsas showing no signs of slowing down.
“We all like quite vibrant food these days – I think it lends itself to modern eating. The whole concept of the taco, a small thing you can hold in your hand, is modern day eating,” Stein says. “Even though a lot of people say it's all nachos and fajitas and cheese and too much meat, but that’s more Tex-Mex cooking. I find Mexican food really healthy and tasty; it’s a bit similar to Southeast Asian food – you’ve got this combination of spicy and sour and sometimes sweet as well. So it hits the taste buds – it’s very lively food.”
The Road to Mexico covers solid ground, from tacos to seafood to grasshoppers. “The plain ones [grasshoppers] are really boring but the chilli ones are really good. You can see the closeness in flavour between insects like grasshoppers and tiny shrimps in a funny sort of way.”
It’s no secret that the Stein family have been holidaying in Australia since the 1960s, a fondness that was later cemented in a seaside restaurant, Bannisters by Rick Stein.
“Ever since I started coming back regularly in the 80s, I just watched the [Australian] cuisine develop remarkably,” the chef says. “I think it’s just because there’s so much good ingredients in Australia. Climatically, it goes from Tasmania right up to the tropics so you can grow anything, and I think Australian produce is top quality. There’s plenty of good markets and places to buy food - getting good food is easy. The whole food culture in the country has just changed amazingly over the last 20-30 years. I do think it's still at the forefront of where good food and cooking is coming from."
For Stein, Australian cuisine shares a lot of common ground with Californian food; both aren't bound by tradition so there's plenty of scope for experimenting.
"Like going to LA or San Francisco, going somewhere like Sydney is really exciting,” the chef says.
Stein will be back once more for the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, cooking alongside his son Jack at the WA food and wine festival.
“I’ve done it about five times. Margaret River keeps pulling me back! It’s not too hot and the beaches are fantastic and of course, you’ve got all the wineries and great local seafood. But also for me it’s an opportunity to meet chefs from all over the world as well as eat great food – and have a few parties.”
Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey airs Thursdays, 8:30pm, on Food Network from 4 Jan.