An Education in the Life of Rick Stein, Master Chef

'We were savages at prep school'

Rick Stein is the proprietor, with his wife Jill, of The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, where he recently opened a cookery school. His first book, English Seafood Cookery, won the Glenfiddich Award. Rick Stein's Seafood Lovers' Guide, was published last month, and his BBC series, of the same title, started yesterday.

Rick Stein is the proprietor, with his wife Jill, of The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, where he recently opened a cookery school. His first book, English Seafood Cookery, won the Glenfiddich Award. Rick Stein's Seafood Lovers' Guide, was published last month, and his BBC series, of the same title, started yesterday.

Primary school: I was terribly homesick for the first two terms at Wells Court, a prep school just outside Tewksbury, Gloucestershire. There was the appalling anxiety of finding you couldn't go back home. But I'm quite good at coping with situations, and after that I did enjoy it. We built two-storey houses out of branches and leaves, and in gangs we would raid each other's houses and set them on fire. When I later read Lord of the Flies, I thought, "I've been there, been a savage!" (William Golding lived in Cornwall and used to come to the restaurant.)

From 10 to 13, I went to Wells House, the Court's bigger sister-school at Malvern Wells, where the spring water comes from. The headmaster, Alan Darvell, was very enthusiastic about the open air, and allowed us to roam over the Malvern Hills and build camps out of corrugated iron filched from farms. We used to dry old man's beard, a sort of vine, and smoke it in four-inch strips. We wore shorts and lived outside: windows open, ice on the bedclothes, and cold baths. At both schools we used to swim naked in the swimming-pools, which seems odd, looking back, but there was no underhand behaviour.

Secondary school: I worked reasonably hard and passed the Common Entrance to Uppingham. My brother was at Winchester but I was appalled when I went round it to find that they were still washing in bowls filled with water from jugs. There was always the fear of older boys. They had almost the power of life and death; there was the strange business of beating younger boys. Stephen Fry is an old boy and everything in his autobiography is true. My real enjoyment came from playing rugby and I realised that doing well in sports was a bloody good way of getting on.

I'm not A-stream, but I got eight O-levels; I worked quite hard. I started to come adrift after that. At 16, I started to question the whole values of the public school. I listened to rock'n'roll. I got involved for about a year with a girl who worked in one of the houses as a waitress - we called them "maids". We used to meet in a barn down the road.

I took A-levels in English, history and geography. Me and my chums actively enjoyed not doing the work and I failed them all. Then I went off to a crammer in Brighton and got an E in English and history.

After I left there, I was going to be a hotel manager and worked for six months as a chef in the Great Western Hotel, Paddington. Then my father died; he committed suicide. Everything came to a crisis for me and at 19 I went to Australia, where I did all kinds of labouring jobs. I worked in an abattoir and as a clerk in a naval dockyard. Being on my own, I read a great deal and felt I had not given academe a chance. I applied to Oxford and got in.

University: I edited the student newspaper; Peter Stothard, now editor of The Times, was on Cherwell at the same time. I had some very good tutors, who included John Bayley [professor and husband of the late Iris Murdoch], but I only got a Third in English.

I can't say that Oxford was the making of me, but I had a great time. We did cook quite often. It is such a pity that people regard cooking as a manual job which has to be got over with. There is a lot to being a cook; it's not just a matter of frying onions!

Jontysale@aol.com

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