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His wife’s 98-year-old grandmother, Betty, had gone off her food – until Stein started hosting weekly family dinners. “She made an exception for my food,” the 74-year-old says with glee. “She had lots of it, she really tucked in. If we cook, we all love it if it’s clear people enjoyed what you’re cooking. And a 98-year-old tucking in with great gusto was quite special.”
Stein spent five months of 2020 in Sydney when the pandemic meant he couldn’t get back to his beloved Cornwall. The chef “feels bad” in saying he enjoyed the lockdown, because “everywhere, people suffered enormously” – but last year, Covid-related restrictions were eased earlier in Australia than the UK, meaning he had the opportunity to spend more time with his family and start hosting those weekly dinners.
He doesn’t take this time for granted, saying it taught him “how much the business of life is unnecessary, in a way”. It allowed Stein to get back to his roots: cooking dinner for a small group of loved ones, revisiting some of his all-time favourite recipes.
Staying and cooking in one place also led him to write his latest book: Rick Stein At Home. He describes it as “fairly scruffy food” – the kind of meals you’ll throw together in a hurry from whatever you have in the fridge. The book is “about what really goes on cooking-wise”, he explains, “as opposed to the slightly upmarket view of how I cook at home. I try to keep it as real as possible.”
Free from the shackles of fancy meals or culinary rules, Stein calls this kind of cooking “liberating”. Unlike his past books, which tend to be dedicated to a certain country, such as France, Spain or Greece, the recipes are “thoroughly eclectic” – just like normal home cooking is.
Although Stein’s background is in French cooking – a cuisine full of strict directions on how things should and shouldn’t be done – he ripped up the rulebook in many of the dishes here. “I’m thinking about my mother’s risotto, because it’s not a proper risotto,” he explains. “But I thought that’s what we do cook, that’s what the kids really like and I like for the kids. I’m not saying it’s a proper risotto, it’s more a rice pilaf, but my mother would call it her risotto.”
The book is peppered with stories and recipes from friends and family too. “I’ve got three sons [Edward, Jack and Charlie] and two stepkids, Zach and Olivia, and it was really nice how they all wanted to contribute recipes, I didn’t interfere at all,” Stein says.
Luckily, the recipes “were all great”, he says enthusiastically – including Charlie’s pad kra pao and Zach’s vegan chilli, along with cottage pie from his wife Sarah and dessert from his mother-in-law.
Mini essays punctuate the book’s pages, with Stein’s ruminations on everything from the redundancy of a first course (he much prefers loading up on fancy nibbles and then going straight into the main) to all the fancy food gadgets languishing unused in his garage.
Despite these captivating tales, Stein says with a hearty dose of humility: “I’m not a very good storyteller, as it happens” – although fans of his TV shows would surely beg to differ. “It’s funny doing television, because I’m quite shy. If you’re made to do something like speak on TV, it’s a great way of concentrating your attention whether you like it or not, and it’s the same with telling stories.”
To help focus his mind on the essays in the book, Stein dictated them. “The problem with writing is it’s very easy to get distracted, but if you’re dictating to somebody, you have to be talking, so it’s a real concentrator of the mind. Also, if you’re talking to somebody, you have to make it as funny or as meaningful as you can – so that’s how I did it.”
With nearly 50 years in the industry and over 15 cookbooks under his belt, Stein’s approach to food has changed since he was first starting out. “In the early days of running the restaurant, I felt like I had to emulate the great French chefs of the time and make everything incredibly complicated,” he admits. “Lots of garnishes, everything a bit too pretty.”
This is no longer the case: “I guess I try and keep things absolutely simple,” he says of his approach now. “I’m not chasing accolades in food, I just want people to like what I’m cooking.”
And if his grandmother-in-law Betty is anything to go by, it’s safe to say Stein is doing alright.
‘Rick Stein At Home: Recipes, Memories And Stories From A Food Lover’s Kitchen’ (published by BBC Books, £26; photography by James Murphy) is available now