When you look at Rick Stein on the telly, it’s hard to believe he owns a restaurant that turned 40 this year.
It’s even more difficult to imagine him running a nightclub, which is exactly what The Seafood Restaurant, based in Cornwall’s thriving port of Padstow, first started life as. Stein and his then-wife Jill bought the club in 1974, but they had to shut it down after too many fights broke out between burly fishermen. A year later, it emerged as an eaterie and ‘Padstein’ - as it’s known - was born. Stein has certainly brought the tourists to this pretty part of north Cornwall, but he also now appears to own half of it.
Over the past four decades, the chef has opened a restaurant, bistro, deli, bakery, fish and chip shop, fishery, cookery school, cafe and gift shop in the town (plus a pub in nearby St Merryn), and you can rest your weary head at one of the 40 rooms dotted across his different venues.
It’s very much a family business and despite now being divorced, Jill still plays a large role, recently renovating the town’s luxurious St Edmunds House for guests to stay at, while also working closely with the buyers at Stein’s Gift Shop. Their three sons, Jack, Edward and Charlie, are also involved in the businesses in various different guises.
Myself and my food-obsessed husband James check in to one of the 16 rooms above The Seafood Restaurant and delight in dining somewhere where there’s often a waiting list, particularly in the height of summer. It’s good to know, however, that the Oyster Bar situated in the middle of the restaurant does not take bookings, and there’s also a little terrace upstairs, where you can sit outside and clink cocktails, with no reservation required.
This relaxed ethos is important to Stein. Despite being a renowned foodie haven, The Seafood Restaurant has no dress code whatsoever - you’re as welcome to turn up in a tuxedo as you are in shorts and flip-flops - and guests do both. Children over the age of three are also welcome here, and this extends across all the properties.
The food, unsurprisingly, is delicious - my personal highlight being a goat cheese and thyme souffle (I’m vegetarian), while James chomps his way through some lovely local razor clams, crab, John Dory fillets and some cracking Cornish potatoes. We even wash it all down with Stein’s Spanish red wine - his own blend of tempranillo and syrah, which is quaffable and creamy - and actually a bit of a bargain at £25, compared to a lot of wines in fancy restaurants.
Eating out is all well and good, but being given the chance to get your hands dirty is an experience loved by foodies everywhere. Stein’s one-dish evening courses offer superb value for money, starting from £40, and there are tasting evenings for even less.
As we don our Padstow Seafood School aprons, head chef Mark Puckey gathers us around and talks us through the first steps of a seafood paella.
We take to our stations - MasterChef style - and attempt to follow instructions, chopping veg, sweating it down and making the stock, all while guzzling back delicious white wine, which is discretely topped up at every available opportunity.
There’s a mixed bag of people here. Sally and John have come from Bristol and have food intolerances, there are some young lovers enjoying a more innovative date night, ageing locals and even older singletons, who love cooking but want to learn more.
Puckey’s suggestion to keep your head back when throwing oil into the paella pan with the prawns should not be taken lightly. The fire that rises is pretty intense, and very capable of removing a couple of eyebrows, possibly even a beard.
Half a bottle of wine in and it’s difficult to care about which comes first - the oil or the seasoning (if you’re interested, you should always season first, or else it creates a barrier) but the hunger pangs are kicking in now, and to the untrained palate, there isn’t a huge difference.
As the paellas are ready for eating, we grab a seat at the enormous table by the window, which looks out on the harbour and towards Rock (another foodie haven where Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw now owns a restaurant, hotel and pub). More wine is served and we tuck into our meals, being offered any leftovers to take home.
As Rick Stein continues to expand his business and multimillion-pound empire (now not only comprising of Padstow but also Falmouth, Porthleven, Fistral, Winchester and the new restaurant set to open in Poole’s Sandbanks this autumn), the only fights likely to break out these days are from hungry diners hoping for a place at one of his sought-after tables.
• Claire Spreadbury was a guest of Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, where doubles cost from £154 per night, including breakfast. A three-course winter lunch at The Seafood Restaurant starts from £31 (subject to T&Cs, please see website for full details). For more information, visit www.rickstein.com