Rick Stein: ‘You can’t blame yourself for being too mean. It’s that or go out of business’

The chef on laying off staff during lockdown, his marriages, and his father’s bipolar disorder

In March, Rick Stein travelled to Australia to check up on the two restaurants he has there. He intended to stay for a couple of weeks, but he is still there, sitting in front of his computer screen. It is first thing in the morning for me, but it is the evening for Stein, and he is planning to go to the pub. He was hoping to make it back to the UK early next month, but his flight was cancelled. So, from his house in Sydney, he is watching as the pandemic wreaks havoc across the UK's restaurants, including his own.

It must be stressful, I say. Stein smiles and rubs his hand over his head. “It can be a bit frustrating, because I don’t get told everything that’s happening back at base,” he says. “I have to keep jumping up and down, saying: ‘Hey, I’m still here!’” He laughs a lot, and I can’t tell if this is just his affable style, familiar from his TV cookery programmes, or a nervous defence mechanism.

With his first wife, Jill, Stein opened the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, a small fishing port in north Cornwall. This was in 1975, so he has been through recessions and a financial crisis before. How does this compare? "Much worse," he says with a grim smile. "In 2008, we had to cut back and lay off staff, but nothing like this. We didn't have to close any restaurants; we didn't have as many restaurants then, of course. But this has been…" He trails off. "If we hadn't done what we've done, we would have gone to the wall, no question about it. Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants will."

Stein decided not to reopen two of his six British restaurants when they were allowed to start trading again at the beginning of July. That was, he says, very unpleasant

Stein decided not to reopen two of his six British restaurants when they were allowed to start trading again at the beginning of July. That was, he says, "very unpleasant. It's been really tricky explaining to the staff that it has to go" – and their jobs with it. He hopes that the chef Michael Caines, who bought Stein's restaurant in Porthleven, in west Cornwall, earlier this month, will keep on the staff.


Meanwhile, Stein had to present “quite a complicated case” to the bank to get a loan to carry the business over for the other four restaurants (there are also a cafe, two fish and chip shops, a pub, a cookery school and holiday cottages, mostly based in Cornwall). “We still don’t know whether we’ll make it or not because, cashwise, the worst time for us will be next January and February,” he says. “Thank goodness the government has seen fit to let us open for the two busiest months, in the summer.”

At the end of March the company was criticised for reportedly telling staff they would not be paid until the British government's job-retention scheme kicked in, which would have left them without salaries for more than a month. The company's managing director, Ian Fitzgerald, later clarified that its 600-plus furloughed staff would be paid, but it was a question of timing – to honour the payroll on time could have meant running out of cash and, he said: "The company may have to close permanently." He has now said in a statement: "We paid for all hours worked up until the enforced closure. The government furlough scheme then applied and was paid on the same day we received the grants." In April, staff received their pay in two instalments.

Stein admits it has “been tricky. I think when you’re in a situation like that, you can’t turn around and blame yourself for being too mean or something. It’s just either you do that or you go out of business.”

Stein is 73, although he seems strangely ageless and has no intention of retiring. “It’s a bloody nightmare being 73, really, because I don’t feel any older than I was 40 years ago.” Perhaps, he concedes, he feels “a bit creaky”.

When Stein was 17, his father killed himself. He spent the next few years travelling and grafting his way around Australia and the US – working on ships and railroads and in an abattoir

He is an accidental restaurateur. Originally, he had planned to run a nightclub. He opened a club in Padstow, before losing his licence once it became known as a trouble spot, and reopened it as the restaurant it now is.

It has been a choppy ride, however. Stein became one of the original celebrity chefs, making his first TV series in the mid-1990s. When, in 2002, he left Jill for his second wife, Sarah, an Australian publicist 20 years his junior, after a five-year affair, there was much public interest. Then, as the Stein empire grew, so did rumours, fuelled by tabloid interviews with angry local people, about a bitterness between the locals and the interloper. But the suggestions that he moved in and took over, or that he did not buy the fish for his restaurants locally, proved to be incorrect, and Stein himself is no outsider in the area. He has been in Cornwall for nearly 50 years, and spent childhood summers there. His connection to the area goes back even further, to his grandparents, who bought a house there just after the first world war.

In Stein’s 2013 memoir, he wrote vividly about growing up on a farm in the Cotswolds, and his exposure to food. His dad, the managing director of a distilling company, liked to point out, at Sunday lunch, that everything from the meat to the vegetables had come from their land. “If you are used to eating well as a child, you will end up probably being quite serious about what you eat as an adult, so I feel very blessed with that.”

The flipside to Stein’s otherwise idyllic and privileged childhood was his father’s bipolar disorder. In his book, he writes that his mother protected him and his four siblings from the worst of his father’s depressive periods, but he also wrote that his father was “someone I was scared of”. When Stein was 17, his father killed himself. He spent the next few years travelling and grafting his way around Australia and the United States – working on ships and railroads and in an abattoir. He was trying to be a “manly Ernest Hemingway character”, he writes, when really he was “on the run from the memory of my father” and his death. Back in the UK, despite his two Es at A-level, with the help of a private tutor he wangled a place as a mature student at Oxford to read English.

Stein has a close relationship with his children and his two stepchildren. How did his relationship with his father shape him as a parent? “It really made me want to be a lot more communicative with my own children,” he says. Despite his difficulties with his father, he says, “I still think of my dad as being somebody really special in my life.” His wife notices, he says with a laugh, when he starts trying to dress like his stylish, charismatic father. “I guess it’s the same with all children, really: they have this sort of pathetic longing to be like their parents were.” But can that be difficult when the parent is a complicated character? “I think it’s very confusing,” he says. “Because in some ways, obviously, your parents are your heroes, even though you have to reject them, I think, as part of growing up. If your heroes are obnoxious or unpleasant, it’s quite a tricky place to be. On the whole, my dad was a hero, it’s just that it got really difficult in his depressive phases, very introspective. And I think he took it out on me really.”

In his book, Stein describes himself as shy and lacking in confidence, with the result, he says: “I think the natural reaction [is] you almost think it’s something you’ve done.”

He has said before that his father’s death made him more driven. “I think so,” he says now. “I’ve definitely got a sense of not being very good at stuff. It’s sort of absurd, because, you know, I’ve done really quite well for myself, but I still really doubt myself. It’s just the way I am.”

Has he had therapy? “Oh God, yeah, a lot of therapy. I understand it now. It’s fine, I understand it.” His wife comes into the room to remind him that they need to go, and he tells her he’ll be a minute, then returns to the thought. “But it’s silly. It’s difficult to tell, isn’t it, whether you are naturally a person that likes hard work and does things, or whether you feel you’ve got to prove something?”

Asked for his biggest achievement, he takes a long pause. “I think the restaurants, really.” It seems impressive, I say, that the business managed to survive the Steins’ divorce and that Jill is still very much part of it. “I think it was just too good a business to… People feel very strongly about restaurants if they’re involved in them. It tends to take over your life for good and bad.” Was it difficult to keep everyone together, including Jill? “It’s not always been great, I have to say.” He smiles but is clearly not prepared to go into it further. (I’m also aware of someone, his wife I think, wandering around in the background.)

Restaurants “are so personal”, he says, going some way to explaining why the business remained a family one, even if the family changed. “And that’s why I feel so sorry for so many people who have lost their restaurants. It’s like they’ve lost…” He pauses again. “You put so much into it, just to have something like [coronavirus] take it all away from you, it’s tragic, really.”

There is also a hint that, horrible though this time is, Stein seems to thrive on the challenge. You don’t, after all, go into the restaurant business for an easy life, and you don’t try to push fish and seafood in a country that is traditionally suspicious of anything that doesn’t come in batter or breadcrumbs. “I ring up Ian and a few of the other managers, and there is this sense that we’re going through something together,” he says. “There’s a tremendous feeling of bonding with people. That’s what’s good about the industry anyway, because it is tough at times, you do tend to rely on each other.”

He says he knows “it must be very depressing” for his employees who will lose their jobs, but he says that, among his staff, “It’s a real sense of us all working together to keep the business running. It’s better to fight and all go down together sort of thing.” And he has been pleased at the way his three sons, who are all involved in the business in some way, have “sort of taken over. It’s made them a lot more responsible. That’s made me very proud of them.”

Just over a week ago, Stein's middle son, Jack, who is chef director of the company, echoed the anguish of other British restaurateurs, including Tom Kerridge and Paul Ainsworth, over the number of no-shows – more than 900, across the group's restaurants in just over a week, which Jack said had cost the business £46,000, or more than €50,000. "Normally, we get no shows, of course," says his father. "But to get them now when everything is so precarious is quite tough."

The idea of charging a deposit is not something he likes, but these are not normal times. He did it in his Australian restaurants and now believes he should have done it with the UK ones, too. “We’ve always ummed and ahed about doing it because it’s a balance between making the right money and being agreeable and amenable” he says. “[But] at the moment when our cashflow is so parlous, I think we should have done.”

But no-shows aside – and he is quick to say he understands if people suddenly feel uneasy about going to a restaurant – the experience of reopening has been good, he says. “People want to go out and eat, there’s no question about that. It’s not something that’s just going to go because of Covid. It’s heartening the way people have come back to restaurants.”

Stein has coped with the stress of the pandemic by swimming every day. During Sydney’s lockdown he did a lot of gardening and DIY, and read. Like many people, he learned to make sourdough bread. He kept in touch with his UK empire every day, and although he has a business partner in Australia who oversees the running of his restaurants there, he says, “There’s plenty going on. And I’m doing some TV as well.”

The cooking-and-travel shows will be put on hold once he is back in the UK – he splits his time between there and Australia – and he is going to do a programme about Cornwall. “I doubt there will be a lot of travel for the next six months. But that’s great, I’m quite missing Cornwall.”

Can his Cornish businesses survive with all the changes that have to be made, including fewer tables? “I don’t know,” he admits. “I think at the moment we’re doing quite well. It’s just a question of whether we can take enough to compensate for the months we were shut, and what happens in October and November.”

He will fight on, in his own hardworking and slightly diffident way, in a business in which he has spent nearly half a century. He is, he says, “very optimistic about the future. I think human beings thrive on communication, and pubs and restaurants are a great way of communicating, a great way of enjoying each other.” Restaurants are still, he says, “really important”. – Guardian