Rick Stein may be the most famous chef associated with this Cornish town but he doesn't have the monopoly on great food.
While the culinary world has become his oyster, celebrity chef Rick Stein’s major statement to the dog-eat-dog domain of the restaurant business lies in a small and idyllic harbour-side village in south-west England.
Welcome to Stein country, welcome to stunning Padstow on the banks of the Camel River estuary. It’s a cliche now to call it Padstein. With a population of about 3000, Padstow, on the north coast of Cornwall, is Noosa meeting Dunsborough without the harbour.
It’s an intriguing mix. Blondes walking dogs, people trying to look important for reasons known only to themselves, silver-haired gents sliding through the narrow streets in Audis or BMW convertibles, clothing boutiques, the smell of the sea and money, and of course tourists and ice-cream parlours.
All that and more against a backdrop of some earthy and traditional English pubs where a satisfying pint of Doom Bar (the sandbar where the estuary meets the sea) beer will cost around $6 and a substantial plate of homemade steak and kidney pie with vegies and chips to anchor you to the bar stool for hours, around $18.
Stein, who regularly features on Australian TV in a range of cooking shows and owns a restaurant at Mollymook Beach on the NSW south coast, fossicks through Asia, Europe and other parts of the world for dishes and ideas to include in his cookbooks and to introduce to his restaurants.
The gems from these excursions manifest themselves in a diverse range of eating houses that Stein, 69, and his former wife, Jill operate in Padstow after opening the first restaurant, and his flagship, Seafood Restaurant, which is opposite the quay, in 1975.
The Steins did the hard yards before establishing a multi-faceted $60 million empire — he has just bought his first restaurant in London and owns various seafood cafes around England — employing around 500 people, including his three sons who are hands-on operators through various veins of the business.
Back in 1975, Rick and Jill Stein would drive through camp sites in and around the Padstow area blasting happy campers with megaphone addresses to extol the virtues of his fresh seafood at the newly opened restaurant which they previously ran as a nightclub.
And while probably viewed by the majority as a recipe for disaster, when Stein and his wife divorced in 2002, Jill was so entrenched in the business that she stayed on and remains a key element of its success, especially with the design and establishment of accommodation ventures.
Now, his stable of Padstow nosheries includes St Petroc’s, second in ranking behind the flagship Seafood Restaurant, Rick Stein’s Cafe, a fish and chip shop, and a bakery and patisserie, often with noses pressed up against the street-front window.
There is also a delicatessen on the quay alongside his cooking school and seafood and fisheries bar. The Steins also own various styles of accommodation, with some rooms attached to the eating houses.
With celebrity status comes a bullseye on the forehead for cynics to take pot shots. Like our Birmingham friend Maurice at our bed and breakfast ($130 a night with full breakfast), who declared over his scrambled eggs and baked beans on toast, that Stein’s places were overrated.
So Maurice, let’s find out. Serious foodies could spend a week chowing their way through Padstow because aside from the Stein fiefdom, Paul Ainsworth, another noted British chef, operates a Michelin star-rated restaurant and also has an Italian cafe, Rojano’s, which offers top-notch pizzas for a tick over $20, and pasta plates for around $25.
But Leonie and I were on Mission Stein. The menu in the window of the Seafood Restaurant quickly told me that it would cost an arm, a leg and a vital organ (up to $80 for a main) and more for well-heeled tourists and diners from the ritzy village of Rock across the estuary where houses on the cliffs can fetch $4 million.
So, naturally, we settled on the cafe, alongside Stein’s gift shop.
The cafe was quaint with local paintings on the wall, and the service was relaxed yet prompt. It had seating for about 26, with diners knowing they had a two-hour window to complete the meal before the table was made available for the next customers.
With our budgetary restraints it was my intention of ordering a main meal each and sharing a dessert. But Leonie immediately erred on the side of largesse by opting for the set $40 menu which included an entree, main and dessert. Being the team player, I followed suit. And we ordered a bottle of Italian pinot grigio for $40.
Our dishes included an Asian-inspired chicken salad, grilled salt and pepper king prawns with a salad of spinach, cucumber and bean sprouts with a soy and sesame dressing, fillets of plaice with a coriander salsa on sticky coconut rice ($25 on its own) and cod chunks done in a light and fragrant curry combo.
Leonie had a
salted caramel cheesecake and I challenged my cholesterol count with two slabs
of blue-vein cheese, some quince and walnuts and three biscuits, embossed with
the great man’s signature.
Well, did we have a story prepared for Maurice the next day, but unfortunately we missed him at breakfast.
The meal was simple yet superb. We had several private moments, not Leonie and me, but Leonie and her food and me and mine. For several minutes there was nothing more important than enjoying the flavours.
To just wax lyrical about Stein, would be to sell Padstow short. It’s a delightful village with narrow, windy roads snaking down to a central inner harbour lined with pubs and shops.
There are walks with panoramic views from firm paths up along the Camel River estuary and around the headland, where fields of rhubarb flourish near the water’s edge and sheep graze along the imposing cliffs which stretch up and down the coast.
Lovers of the BBC drama Poldark would already have an understanding because some of the outdoor scenes of the show are filmed here. And lo and behold, as we rounded a bend to head south on a late-afternoon stroll, there was a Poldark film crew stationed near the edge of the cliffs, filming an episode of series three.
While Stein is deservedly regarded as a star and has brought enormous benefits to the town, Padstow has an impressive supporting cast.
Top picture: Pretty Padstow by Ray Wilson