We wait with anticipation in the queue for Rick Stein’s Food Odyssey show. The VIP cocktail function is about to kick off. Rick’s Australian publicist fiancé, Sarah Burns, walks past… she’s whispering to a colleague about how chaotic things are out the back, but when we enter it’s all well orchestrated.
First stop, my wife Sharon and I pass by the desk to pick up our VIP goody bags. It’s a pearler (apologies for the cheesy seafood analogy). We’re given a Rick Stein branded beach bag containing a signed programme (including a culinary history and recipes of the evening), samples of Cobram Estate olive oil, Murray River sea salt and Herbies Spanish pimenton. There are vouchers for Sydney Seafood School cooking classes and to purchase the Audrey Wilkinson “wines of the night” that I’m about to taste.
The wait staff circulate with a variety of canapés. Highlights are the crab roulade and an interesting fluffy light, tomato infused marshmallow with crunchy parmesan granules on the outside. The Chardonnay and Tempranillo complement the food well.
Sampling the wine further, we notice that Rick, and the evening’s host, Deborah Hutton, are circulating the floor, greeting guests. Shortly after, they move to a podium and welcome us all. Rick, in his now trademark collared pink shirt, whets our appetite overviewing the culinary journey he’s about to take us on – from Cornwall and around the world. His love of, and enthusiasm for, quality fresh seafood is evident already as are those expressions, shrugs and mannerisms that typify Rick (from the many years we’ve seen him on our TVs).
Rick is then whisked away to prepare for the show. We mull around a short while before making our way to our seats.
The show proper starts as Deborah Hutton comes on stage and introduces Rick to a 2000 person audience in the Opera House Concert Hall. A short Q&A session begins the evening.
Rick’s commercial life started back in the 1960s as the proprietor of the Purple Tiger – a disco (den) that he ran with his mate Johnny back in Padstow. Holding a liquor licence and being open until 1am in a fisherman’s village meant that one “Ricky” Stein had to deal with drunken sailors and was nearly closed down by the police as a “not fit and proper person” to own a licence.
Getting out of disco, Rick turned to cooking and opened a restaurant to pay the bills. He notes “it was a great time to be around, you didn’t have to be very good”. They’d source the fish straight from the local fishing nets, do their own plumbing as well as electrical repairs. “Those were the days, can’t do that anymore”.
We’re introduced to guest chef, and support act for the evening, Paul Sellers (aka Salty). Paul worked with Rick for most of the 80s having come from cooking at the House of Commons. Rick had originally worried about the “fancy ideas” (think pig tails) that Salty wanted to bring with him, but realised he genuinely wanted to cook with Rick (and hit the local surf).
Salty later opened his own restaurant but came back to the fold (as Head Chef) when Rick acquired a quayside building and opened his now famous Padstow Seafood School in 2000 (the venture had originally been aimed at teaching chefs, but was expanded out to the general public).
In their early days of misspent youth there was much drinking in the kitchen and discussion of food well into the night. They made a good margin on the food, as Rick commented “after all, if you’re running a restaurant you need to make money… some people don’t realise that”. A first cookbook was published by author “Richard” Stein. Rick realised he needed to publicise his restaurant and ventured on to television in his first TV cookery series Taste of the Sea (1995). Below you can see a TV publicity shot of a youthful Rick Stein, net in hand, hanging off the side of a ship dock.
In one of his earlier shows, Rick was also interviewed by an English restaurant owner from Provence by the name of Keith Floyd (another food legend, now sadly passed away). There’s a wonderful still of Keith, red bowtie, wine in hand, chatting with the young chef about how he’s going to cook a ruddy great shark on the table.
Rick laughs as he recounts the dialogue and fact that Keith kept calling him Nick Stein (as an aside, Rick informs us that Keith had just dined on some of his beloved Dover sole before passing away in September 2009).
While the guys have been chatting they’ve started the night’s cooking preparing a Gratin of Seafood. An ingredient dropped to the floor is quickly picked up, “don’t forget the 3 seconds rule” he jokes. Next Rick prepares his Mum’s Treacle Tart with Clotted Cream Ice Cream. A few finished tart samples make their way into the audience.
The show takes on a slightly more sombre aspect as we reminisce about Rick’s faithful little companion Chalky, the rough-haired Jack Russell, who died in January 2007. Chalky, named after an imaginary dog friend of one of Rick’s children when they were 4 years old, was a constant companion on many of Rick’s travels. Generally good natured, Chalky did occasionally take exception to some of the staff and in one series he took an immediate dislike to a cameraman and went “apeshit” as Rick colourfully described. To much laugher we’re shown big screen highlights of the incident with the near rabid dog.
After the raging Chalky is disembarked onto another boat he whines indignantly. A portrait of Chalky (the one-of-a-kind dog companion, not to be replaced) descends from the concert hall ceiling as we bid farewell and move on.
Rick takes us away from Cornwall to mainland Europe discussing how he and BBC Producer, David Pritchard, plotted their journey through the canals of Southern France (to create Rick Stein’s French Odyssey series). The idea for the series was developed over lunch at a French restaurant with the route drawn on a restaurant table cloth. The wine stained tablecloth was submitted as a concept to the BBC and got the go ahead.
Focusing on France, Rick demonstrates the classic French mussel dish Moules Mariniere with Cream, Garlic and Parsley. First up though, he talks us through selecting mussels and dispelling the myth about discarding mussels that stay closed. It’s the ones that are open and stay open when you tap or squeeze them that you’ve got to worry about. A rancid mussel will smell like “horse poo” Rick technically describes. You must be careful not to cook mussels too long or they will toughen up and lose their flavour.
After cooking and plating up the mussels, Rick demonstrates a second French dish of Seared Scallops with Lentils and a Tomato and Herbes de Provence Dressing. It looks moorish and was actually served on the menu at the Luke Mangan welcomes Rick Stein to Australia Luncheon held earlier that day at Glass Brasserie.
Continuing the journey around Europe, Rick gives us a taste of his new TV series Rick Stein’s Spain (due out in July). We’re shown snippets of the show on the big screen revealing various tapas dishes, pan fried prawns and meats sizzling on the grill. All look mouth-watering. We see Rick touring the Spanish countryside in a campervan (affectionately called “Campy”) as a “retired librarian and his wife” might do he says.
Rick cooks up a Spanish style clam dish and Deborah Hutton asks audience members who would like to join him on stage to sit down and dine. There’s a frenzied waving of hands. My heart jumps a beat when Deborah seemingly points at me and says “You sir, would like to join us on stage ?”.. and then proceeds to say,” Yes, you with the striped shirt”.. unfortunately it’s the guy sitting next to me.
I get distracted from my disappointment when the halftime interval is announced. Time to get some fresh air and pick up a souvenir or two.
Post the interval, it’s time for some more Spanish seafood. Rick holds up a huge squid (it looks more like a mythical kraken) that he’s about to clean. Am interested to see how this goes, fair to say that Rick is not always known for his manual dexterity ie. prone to the occasional bout of clumsiness (this is one of his endearing and entertaining qualities). The squid’s a tough job, messy as hell, but well executed. Good job Rick !
The cleaned squid and a mixture of other seafood are seasoned with Spanish spices and flour and fried off. Would’ve liked a mouthful of that.
After Spain, we briefly venture to Greece for some traditional home cooking, with on-screen excerpts from Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escapes. On stage Rick and Salty whip up a quick Skordalia (cooked potatoes, garlic, bread, olive oil, and a touch of salt, are mixed in a mortar and pestle); it looks tasty but is a bit too pungent for the host of the evening when she samples.
Our Food Odyssey moves across to Asia. Scenes from Ricks Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey show highlights of food and lifestyle in Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Once again Rick gets egged on by Producer David Pritchard, this time asking him if he will be sampling “dog” while he’s in Vietnam. A displeased Rick takes the bait, animatedly exclaiming that it’s “very disrespectful” to say such things.
It’s time to cook some Asian on stage and Rick goes to Bali for inspiration. He cooks an Indonesian Seafood Curry bringing his local chef Julian Lloyd on stage to assist (Lloyd worked with Rick in Padstow for 12 years before relocating down to Mollymook when Bannisters came under the Stein stable). The curry is good, I can vouch for it having eaten it on a prior trip down to Bannisters. Next up, Rick and Salty use some fresh blue swimmer crabs to cook up Malaccan Black Pepper Crab with Black Beans, Ginger, Garlic and Curry Leaves. Mmm. Rick’s tip, use a peeler rather than a Mandolin.. having watched him wrestle a Mandolin at last year’s SIFF World Chefs Showcase (the Mandolin won), it’s a good call.
We’re getting towards the end of the show now and Rick turns his attention to his last port of call, Australia. Rick and Salty are presented with a basket full of fish sourced from the Sydney Fish Market. You can see their excitement as they rifle through the variety of fresh fish in the basket.
Now comes the challenge from Deborah Hutton. They each have 8 minutes to select their fish and cook up a meal for some more lucky audience members. Rick grabs the Snapper while Salty goes for an oily fish (mackerel I think). There’s a race to the fridge to grab ingredients and the frenetic cooking commences.
There’s some tension in the air as background music plays and Deborah counts the minutes down. There’s a crash as Rick knocks a cooking utensil flying off the table on to the floor, but ultimately both dishes get plated up. Salty prepares a Mediterranean style fish dish, stuffed, tied with string and pan fried while Rick serves up Snapper Crumbed in Semolina with Sauce Vierge and Pimenton Potatoes.
The competition over, Rick the popular winner by volume of audience applause, Debra works through some final questions before bringing the stage show to a close.
Overall, it’s been a great night. It wasn’t a jump out of your seat, shocking surprises, frantic, roller coaster Jamie Oliver type of show, rather it was a memorable journey with an old friend; one very passionate about fresh and sustainable seafood. Inquisitive, a lover of poetry and part historian; it’s always entertaining to take a journey with Rick through a country and it’s cuisine.
With the stage show over, the next dose of Rick we can look forward to is the July release of Rick Stein’s Spain (TV show and book, 140 recipes). In the meantime, Rick is heading off to the United States to film a programme called Rick Stein Tastes the Blues (to discover how the music genre came about and how it relates to those unique Southern dishes).
The next TV series after that could very well be based in Australia with Rick in discussions with the BBC about a program looking at the cultural diversity of Australian cuisine. Whereas his prior programs have focused on authentic local dishes, he’s excited to see how immigrant cuisines have evolved, melded, particularly since he first visited our shores in the 1960s. Should be interesting.
article and photos by guest writer Kurt Huth