Make no bones about it, celebrated English chef Rick Stein is a class act when it comes to sharing, for a price, his passion for seafood, writes Jane Southward.
The gall bladder of a sea bass is about the size of an almond. I know this because I’m holding one when chef Rick Stein enters his Padstow cooking school, and it’s as though the Messiah has arrived.
Most of the 13 students – all adults over 40, apart from my two teenage boys – rush to greet the multimillionaire and have their recipe books signed.
Stein, 66, smiles and, when asked his favourite dish, nominates grilled flounder with a simple butter sauce. It seems a particularly basic choice from the seafood master who has enveloped a whole town with his passion for seafood. Padstow, on the coast of Cornwall in England, is where Stein has lived since 1965.
There he’s become known as Padstein as a result of the millions he has invested there.
My sons and I wanted a challenge during our week in England together so enrolled in the Far Eastern Fish Cookery Course hoping for a Master Chef type experience. How right we were – except our brush with a celebrity chef lasted just 15 minutes.
Still, in eight hours we learnt five dishes, beginning with oyster omelets with a sweet chilli sauce and ending with a Sri Lankanstyle fish curry. The boys rated the experience higher than Madame Tussaud’s and the Tower of London, the Roman Baths in Bath and even Stonehenge.
Our class began before 9am, when we were handed our chef’s whites, urged to wash our hands, then ushered to bar stools in front of a kitchen bench (think master class on Master Chef).
Mark, a chef who has worked for Stein for 14 years, explained and demonstrated key knife skills, then how to open the oysters and cook the omelets.
Thirty minutes later, we were sampling his creation before pairing up to create the dish ourselves. It was busy yet relaxed, with two kitchen hands and another chef supervising, plus Stein himself watching on before he headed off to London.
Having the staff on hand was useful as the knives were sharper than sharp and many of the cooking skills were technical – deinking squid, gutting sea bass that we later deep fried and served with a chilli sauce, and scaling fish on benches covered with plastic wrap.
The most exciting dish we made was stir-fried brown crab. We were first taught how to kill the crab (no anaesthetising the crustacean in the freezer, just a violent, swift stab
and twist), then we learnt how to prepare it for cooking. Cooking the stir-fry with green peppercorns, soy, palm sugar and spring onions seemed easy compared with killing and preparing the crab.
The flesh tasted sweet and chef Mark urged us not to bother with the finicky bits of flesh. As brown crab costs about £3 ($5.20) a kilo in Padstow– cheap compared with Australian prices –you could understand why.
After we finished each dish, we sat at a table for 20 and devoured our creations with a view of the beautiful River Camel estuary.
Wine, including semillon from Stein’s Hunter Valley vineyard, Tower Estate, was served with the final three courses.
Padstow is what the English call ‘‘the seaside’’, a six-hour drive from London (if you’re lucky and there aren’t hold-ups on the motorways).
You can also take the train.
The small seaside town is a place of contrasts, with bed and breakfasts advertising colour TVs as a selling point, takeaway fish and chips in styrofoam containers, monster seagulls, and some of the most sophisticated food and accommodation in England, thanks to Stein.
Port Isaac, where the television series Doc Martin is set, is 12 kilometres to the north and Padstow has a similar feel to that depicted in the show. The population of about 3000 swells to 10,000 in summer, which became clear when we were stuck in traffic on the narrow, rock-wall-lined roads just wide enough for one car.
On one rocky point is the imposing Metropole Hotel, which seemed the obvious choice for Stein to set up shop but, as the receptionist at Stein’s St Petroc’s Hotel said, it isn’t his style – it’s too flashy. Thinking of his favourite seafood dish, I understand.
We book in to St Petroc’s, one of Stein’s five accommodation options in Padstow. The hotel is one of the oldest buildings in the town and more like a luxurious guest house, with 10 rooms, a terrace and a bar and lounge for guests to share.
The rooms are large, most have claw-foot baths, room for dining tables and a luxurious lounge.
Guests also get complimentary use of pushbikes, which is handy as the 14-kilometre Camel Trail is a must if you get lucky with the weather. If you don’t like bikes, make time to walk part of it.
When it comes to food, the Seafood Restaurant, which opened in 1975, is the pick of Stein’s restaurants (although I was surprised to find the view is of the car park, where visitors can leave their cars for £7 for 24 hours). Aim for lunch, when there’s a set menu for about £40. If you want a cheaper option, there’s also a Rick Stein takeaway fish and chip shop (£8 for battered cod and crisper than- crisp chips) next to his deli and seafood school plus patisserie.
You need to book ahead for the cooking school but learning to cook Stein-style isn’t cheap, with a full-day course costing £198 each.
However, given the five main meals we got to eat, aswell as the instruction, it was good value.
Some students took home leftovers for dinner aswell.
Not every student gets to meet Stein, who lives in Padstow for just four months of the year, what with the cookbooks, TV engagements, a London residence, plus Bannisters in Mollymook on the NSW south coast to keep him busy.
Seeing the man admiring our knife skills while he was dreaming of a simple fillet of flounder made me wonder why such a technical cooking class is such a hit here.
Surely takeaway fish and chips is more of a Padstow idea.
British Airways flies daily from Sydney to London via Singapore. 1300 767 177. britishairways.com.
St Petroc's Hotel, double rooms from £150 ($260), including a cooked breakfast.
Rick Stein Seafood School, restaurants and accommodation, Padstow, Cornwall, England. Cooking classes £198 for a full day.
+44 1841 532 700
Barbecoa, Fifteen, Jamie's Italian, Union Jacks, The Cricketers, Clavering.
Style of accommodation: In Essex, two can stay in Jamie's childhood home for £95 ($165), with breakfast.
Cooking school: Notting Hill and Brighton, with classes from £15 to £100. jamieoliver.com/recipease/lessons.
Sighting chances: Likely on Saturdays at The Cricketers, Clavering; possible at Fifteen.
How much: The Cricketers, Clavering, mains £10-£23, Barbecoa, mains £16-£37, Jamie's Italian, £11-£20.
The Fat Duck, The Hinds Head pub, Dinner by Heston.
Style of accommodation: Luxe accommodation in Bray, or stay in London and catch the train to Maidenhead.
Sighting chances: Possible at The Fat Duck.
How much: Fat Duck, £195. Hinds Head, mains £15-£60. Dinner by Heston, mains £22-£74, or set lunch, £38.
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Bread Street Kitchen, Foxtrot Oscar, Maze.
Sighting chances: Unlikely.
How much: Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, prestige menu, £155, or three-course set lunch, £55; Bread Street Kitchen is great for breakfast — try the ricotta hotcakes, £7; Foxtrot Oscar, mains, £15-30; Maze, £75.
More info: gordonramsay.com. +44 2075 921 360.