Some guests have driven for more than 12 hours from the far reaches of Victoria to join the 10th anniversary celebrations for Rick Stein at Bannisters, in Mollymook. Others, keen for a second helping of Stein-style hospitality, have backed up from a party held the week before at Bannisters in Port Stephens, 450 kilometres to the north.
Such is the lure of the English celebrity chef renowned for promoting the joys of fresh seafood prepared simply, for his portfolio of restaurants and hotels in England, and for his many BBC TV series about food and travel, from Taste of the Sea in 1995 to this year's Secret France.
As the Mollymook party progresses, guests feast from seemingly endless trays of local seafood prepared with Stein's signature light touch, including oysters with black beans, ginger and coriander, and Balmain Bugs thermidor. The marinated tuna with passionfruit, lime and coriander – a dish Stein developed some years ago as a nod to Australian culinary style – is a particular hit.
"Australian cuisine doesn't have that massive obligation to French cuisine. To me, Australia is freedom to do what you like," Stein tells his guests during a light-hearted Q&A later in the evening. He also confesses he's partial to the burgers at McDonald's.
Stein's connection to the NSW South Coast predates his Mollymook restaurant by several decades. He first visited in the late 1960s, on his first solo trip to Australia, and straightaway recognised the quality of the local seafood. It was here that he ate his first oyster and caught his first gummy shark.
Stein's Australian wife, Sarah, has longstanding family connections to Mollymook and they visited the area many times before they decided to open the restaurant at Bannisters in 2009.
"We pioneered dishes, buying whole yellowfin tuna from Ulladulla and red snapper fished out of the water in the front of the hotel," says Stein. "The local area is teeming with fish and shellfish, including kingfish, blue-eye trevalla and John Dory."
These days, the Steins visit Mollymook several times a year, for the sheer pleasure of it as well as to oversee their restaurant and take part in special events Bannisters hosts for its guests, including cooking demonstrations.
Stein says he always feels 10 years younger when he's in Australia. "It's such an optimistic place. I just feel so relaxed when I'm here," he says. And he could "just about weep" with appreciation for the pristine, uncrowded beauty of the NSW South Coast.
Stein swims in the sea at Mollymook year round and can't understand why more locals don't do the same. He took the plunge on the wintry August weekend of the Bannisters anniversary and was untroubled by the far-from-tropical temperature. "It was about 18 degrees in the water which is about the same as a summer's day in Cornwall," he says.
Despite all the television shows he has filmed in locations from Shanghai to Istanbul, France to Japan, Stein still harbours unfulfilled travel ambitions.
"I have loads. People think I've been everywhere but I usually travel only where the BBC sends me. I would love to see more of South America, particularly Peru. And Georgia, I hear really good things about the food there. And I'd love to do a television series that took in more of China."
Stein has said in the past that he sees travel as a virtue, an important means of expanding one's understanding of both the self and the world. He still holds this belief, but adds a note of caution. "These days, when you hear about what's happening in some places, with over-tourism, it's perhaps not as straightforward as it once was. I know people who live in Cornwall who have never left, who never travel, and there is something to be said for that, but I find travel so relaxing and so good for the mind."
RICK STEIN RECOMMENDS...
A winery with a fromagerie, brewery and restaurant. What's not to love? 58 Washburton Road, Ulladulla. See cupitt.com.au
A wholefoods cafe serving local, seasonal produce and excellent coffee; 2/84 Princes Highway, Ulladulla. See nativecafe.com.au
NOWRA FRESH FISH & MEAT MARKET
A business that supplies to Rick Stein at Bannisters and also has a retail outlet that sells fish, meat and other foodie products; corner Moss Street and Princes Highway, Nowra. See nowrafresh.com
Hand-made, gourmet creations in butter puff pastry; Stein has filmed here; 2/166 Princes Highway, Ulladulla. See haydenspies.com.au
THE FISH SHOP BURRILL LAKE
Owned by a former fisher who knows how to source the freshest catch; 107 Princes Highway, Burrill Lake.
Lissa Christopher was a guest of Bannisters.
Mollymook is about 830 kilometres from Melbourne and about 220 kilometres from Sydney.
STAY + EAT
Rick Stein at Bannisters is offering a special five-course 10th anniversary menu in September for $120 a person. Bookings essential. Ocean Deluxe rooms at Bannisters by the Sea start from $369 a night, twin share, including breakfast. See bannisters.com.au