I met my travel hero and he was exactly what I’d hoped for

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Here’s the thing I’m quickly discovering about a conversation with Stein: it tends to meander, much like a barge on a French canal, or a car on an American highway. It goes off on natural tangents, small snippets of chat take you in different directions, far from the questions you had diligently jotted down in your Stein-style notebook days before.

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“It’s funny, I quite like to pontificate, or ruminate,” Stein says when I ask about the pacing of his shows, the gentle rhythm, the space for him to, say, have a beer at a bar rather than visit yet another tourist site.

“And the director I worked with for ages was the same, he was always trying to get more from me than just saying ‘this is tasty’.

“But I bumped into the Duke of Edinburgh [Prince Philip] once, and he said, ‘I like your cooking shows, but when you start to philosophise I switch off’. I wouldn’t have expected any less from him, so I didn’t mind.

“And anyway, I think it works for me. Quite often I’ll be having a coffee or a beer and summing up what I think about the place I’m in, because I can say half-sensible things about a place, so it works.”

You sometimes forget that Stein has famous friends, that he might happen to bump into the Duke of Edinburgh. You forget, too, that the dining room we’re meeting in is his dining room – or at least, one that carries his name. This is Rick Stein at Bannisters, the restaurant at Bannisters Port Stephens, where he’s had his name on the door since 2018.

Restaurant Rick Stein at Bannisters in Port Stephens, NSW.

Restaurant Rick Stein at Bannisters in Port Stephens, NSW. Credit: Max Mason-Hubers

You forget that Stein is kind of a big deal until photographers start fussing over him; you forget he moves in circles most of us will never access, visits places and has experiences that those of us who don’t star in uber-popular TV series will probably never encounter.

“People always ask, where’s your favourite food?,” he muses at one point. “I just think if you’re interested in food, you’re interested in it in the context of where it is. You’re not going to start saying this isn’t quite as nice as that.

“I had a friend who took me to a lobster roll shack in Maine once, and you think about it, putting lobster in a roll, it’s not very hard – but there it’s the best thing in the world. So it’s hard to single out somewhere.”

Dining on camera, however, isn’t always easy.

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“When we were filming in Iceland we had to try the rotten fish, which was hard,” Stein says. “And we had a Sunday lunch with a farming family who were just a delight, but some of the food we ate was very challenging. I remember these roasted sheep’s heads that were served whole, you know, with the jaw and teeth.

“And they have this festival where they eat old Icelandic food, one of which was whale blubber cured in whey, which is very traditional. I found it really unpleasant – but I reckon you could get used to it. And when you’re talking to people who love it, you just have to say, OK. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings.”

Stein has always been a traveller, he tells me, right from childhood, when his parents would take him on driving holidays to France, Italy, Spain and Greece. They visited the US a few times. They came to Australia. He’s always enjoyed food too, always gone to restaurants.

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But then our conversation goes off on other tangents, to the lack of interest in eating fish in England and Australia, to the brilliance of San Sebastian in Spain, to the beauty of Mollymook, to the challenges of travelling with kids, to Cornwall in the summer, to India in the winter, to carrying little notebooks and deserving a lifetime supply from Moleskine.

And then we address the elephant in the room: paella. When I wrote about Stein a few months ago, I started off by talking about the way he pronounces the Spanish rice dish. He insists on a very English way of going about it – “pay-ella” – rather than the Spanish way, which is more like “pay-ay-yah”.

And, as he reveals during an anecdote about cooking for strangers, he read my story. (I’ve included the pronunciations here for clarity.)

“I remember making this lunch,” Stein says, “and Hugh Bonneville and Stanley Tucci were there. So I was making this ‘pay-ella’ – sorry, Ben: ‘pie-ee-ya’ – and we filmed near Valencia. So this was the real deal, I had the right rice and beans and everything.

“But then I burnt it, because I was trying to get the ‘socarrat’, the crisp rice on the bottom, and I’d had a few drinks, and I was a bit overwhelmed with trying to make it perfect and I burnt it. I’m not sure if they noticed, but I was mortified.”

This is all told in good humour, because the truth is that Rick Stein is a good-humoured sort of guy. Which is exactly what you want from your heroes.

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