Rick Stein approves new changes at Sam's

Celebrity chef visits Chiswick to film television special

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Eating out in Chiswick


It’s the start of autumn and the streets are bathed in a mellow glow. Already, some restaurants have started to advertise their Christmas parties. TV chef and restaurenteur Rick Stein has abandoned his Cornwall base for a while to visit Chiswick and film a BBC programme. And while he sips coffee in Sam’s Bar and Brasserie, he talks of how his travels to warmer climes have brought a touch of the exotic to the new menu at the popular local restaurant.

The radical overhaul of the menu - the first in in six years - gets the seal of approval from Rick, whose Goan Fish and Prawn curry features as a main course and is a reminder of his travels and TV series in Asia. In designing the menu both Rick and Sam have included well-loved dishes from their travels around the world. Sam’s love of America is evident in items like the New England clam chowder, and in the light-bites menu in the refurbished New-York style bar. Rick’s seafood-loving influence comes into play with Cornish plaice, salmon dishes, and oyster and mussel dishes. Sam has included ‘comfort food’ favourites such as steak and kidney pie, and pork chop in recognition of the colder weather approaching

In a difficult time for restaurants, the Rick Stein brand manages to come up trumps. The ‘Telegraph’ newspaper recently pinpointed him in a list of 1,000 companies that had prospered and created jobs in the past year. According to the report, sales at the seafood restaurants hit £11.6 million , up 7 per cent and generating £1.6 million pre-tax profit. He currently owns four restaurants in Padstow, the Cornish Arms pub in St. Merryn, a fish and chip shop in Falmouth, and then there’s the seafood deli, cookery school, patisserie , and accommodation for 40 guests –small wonder the area is known as Padstein.

So how does Stein, in the middle of of challenging economic times, when restaurants are closing or offering cut-price deals in order to survive, manage to main his success in Cornwall.

“Of course its a tough time for restaurants. You’ve got to be keen on pricing and spend money on marketing. I think marketing is very important these days .”

And where the general public are concerned, he thinks there is only so much gloom and doom that people can take.

“I think people are deciding to spend money on going out and forgetting their problems.”

He praises Sam’s Brasserie and Bar – of which he is an investor and mentor, for being independant and ploughing its own furrow. “It’s not a chain, he’s doing his own thing and and I like that”.

As we talk,the BBC are setting up in the restaurant, preparing to film a programme which will be shown as a Christmas special but which is a spin-off of his recent series on Spanish cooking. The programme reunites several cooks and chefs, some of whom live in London, who were filmed for the series, and the Spanish Ambassador is also due to attend for a Christmas-themed lunch. A traditional Christmas meal in Spain is usually eaten on Christmas Eve, he observes, and is likely to be a stuffed fish such as bream, cooked on a base of potatoes and onions in the oven. Langoustines and prawns are also very popular during the festive season.

Years of cooking and travelling the world have not diminished his enthusiasm for food and for extolling the virtues of fresh and local produce.

For the latest series he spent three months in Spain, often travelling off the beaten track in Galicia, the Basque country, throughout Catalonia and into Madrid. Naturally there was plenty of seafood on offer, often cooked with smoked paprika, saffron or garlic. He is on record as saying that nobody cooks fish with more respect or grills meat better than the Spanish. What he looked for on his travels was the secret of Spanish ‘ duende’, the soul of the food. The term is usually ascribed to flamenco dancing but Stein thinks it can equally be ascribed to food. Cooking with care, attention and respect for the ingredients are what matters to him.

“I think we have had a bit of an inferiority complex in this country and now we are beginning to understand that our food is okay. Spanish food is superb in that they have the amazing raw materials. You cannot do well in cooking without great raw materials, fresh fish, organic chickens. I think people in this country now appreciate there is a difference in taste when you use the best raw materials possible.”

Acknowledging that many people are trying to feed a family on a budget and cannot afford high-priced items, he points out that in Asia, people cook wonderful food with very little meat and that quality and freshness are the key to the best-tasting food.

“People often say to me, why bother having an AGA? I say it gives you a discipline, you have to work with it, you can’t always predict how things turn out. You do need boundaries in cooking too.”

Born Christopher Richard Stein , he was privileged to have been exposed to foreign food as a child. He was taken by his parents on holidays to France, Italy and Spain and says his mother was a great and inspiring cook. “She wouldn’t have anything to do with ketchup, except on fishcakes.”

Having read English at Oxford and having spent many childhood holidays in Padstow, he opened his first business there in 1974. It was from that tiny Cornwall base that he first introduced the nation to fresh seafood. Since then Rick Stein has spent many years travelling the world highlighting regional cooking in his television programmes. Two years ago, he opened a restaurant in Mollymook, Australia and is enthusiastic about the freshness and energy which Australian chefs bring to the table. Sydney is “really lively” and the chefs there are almost on a par with New York, he says.

An author of eleven cookery books, he received an OBE in 2003 for services to tourism in Cornwall. As a frequent visitor to Chiswick, he was happy to see the newly-refurbished area in Sam’s. The bar has been remodelled to give it a separate identity to the restaurant and Stein heartily approves. Coming back from Spain, with its emphasis on light bar food snacks and tapas, he thinks its important to have a natural flow between the two sides. The new bar menu has an international flavour with nibbles such as Padron peppers, mini chorizo, dips and flatbread, lamb koftas and deep fried squid, the sort of food people might have enjoyed on holidays abroad.

So does he fraternise with other chefs in his ‘down time’? Many of his friends are chefs, but he is just as likely to be seen chatting with local fishermen. His next trip abroad is a truffle-hunting expedition to Alba, and of course there will be a new television series at some stage. He generally does one every two years but planning for the next one is at an early stage.

It’s difficult to let an interview with Rick Stein go by without mentioning his beloved Jack Russell terrier Chalky who died in 2007 and who often featured in his TV programmes. Has he ever been replaced?

“Sadly no, but then I am away for a lot of the time now, so it would be very difficult at the moment.” And with that, it’s off to greet his guests and immerse himself in food once again.

Anne Flaherty

September 23, 2011