French food uncovered with Stein
Chef Rick Stein’s new cookbook and accompanying BBC series are both a love letter to France – that beloved bastion of cheese, bread and wine.
It is also a credit to his 30-year long collaborator and director, David Pritchard who sadly died recently.
“We both shared a love of all things French, and I think he thought it was time to revisit,” explained the Padstow-based chef and restaurateur.
Rick Stein’s Secret France is the result, and the project saw the 72-year-old set off on a culinary trawl of the country’s best dishes, while deftly tackling some of the more pointed questions around French cuisine and its quality.
“We’ve always had a bit of a conversation over the years about the way French food has declined in people’s estimation,” explained the seafood legend. “[We wanted] to ask, if things have gone wrong, why?
“The reality is, to create good dishes that are well thought through and well cooked, you’ve got to pay people for it, and there is the rub, because a lot of people don’t expect to have to pay a lot for food.”
He argues that people are prepared to pay full-whack for Michelin standard food because fussiness tends to call for money, but “if you want to do simple, plain cooking with very good ingredients, people don’t see why they should have to pay for it.
He stated: “There’s always that suggestion that, ‘Why would I eat something when I go out that I could cook at home?’ “Frankly, if I could eat as well when I go out as I can cook at home, I’d be very happy.”
In regard to French fare specifically, he says it isn’t necessarily that dishes have got worse over time, more that “we’ve got better – we’re so used to eating well now”.
And hunting down good food is always his aim. “It’s so wonderful to go somewhere where the cooking is so bloody good,” he said with feeling.
“It makes you remember what restaurants are all about really; meeting your friends, having a lovely chat, having some decent wine and something decent to eat.
“When you have an evening like that, you forgive an awful lot,” he added. “And when the French are cooking well, they’re cooking very well.”
A veteran traveller (just look at his TV series back catalogue), you’d think he would never feel out of his depth in a new country. However, in the book Rick admits the opposite – but notes that finding a morsel to eat is something of a cure.
He said: “The moment of slight panic I might feel when walking through a challenging part of a city can be much dispelled by good food.” It’s an equaliser, he explained: “We’re all human beings, we all like nice stuff to eat, but you forget that these people living in very difficult situations also like good food.”