He may be approaching 70, but restauranter and cosy TV stalwart Rick Stein is still simmering with enthusiasm for his craft - and has no plans to slow down. He tells Gemma Dunn why life's too short not to enjoy the good stuff
Rick Stein's latest foodie mission, Long Weekends, is all about enjoying life's simpler pleasures.
"It's what we do really," quips the 69-year-old seafood maestro, who over the years has cooked for a host of famous faces, including the Queen.
"I'll leave campaigning cookery to other people - people like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who do a fabulous job. For me, it's about saying, 'Hey! We're alive', and what's the best part of being alive? Eating and drinking... apart from the obvious," he adds with a chuckle, "so let's enjoy it while we can!"
For those who haven't caught Stein's BBC Two food-travelogue series, picture a colourful culinary adventure that follows the chef as he embarks on a string of European weekends, in search of good food, wine and traditional recipes.
Meeting at the office of his London publishers, Stein - who splashed onto the foodie scene in the Nineties, with his early seafood cookbooks and TV series based on his life as owner of The Seafood Restaurant in the fishing port of Padstow, Cornwall - cuts a relaxed figure, excitedly reeling off vivid anecdotes of Palermo's bustling markets and late-night dining in Thessaloniki, Greece.
"It's great fun. Crikey - to be paid to go off to these cities," he notes, rolling up his shirt sleeves as he speaks. "For most people that work during the week, having a weekend off is wonderful anyway. But if you add a bit of travel, it makes it so special."
For a man who has now written more than 20 bestselling cookbooks, and incurs coos of 'I love him!' at the mere mention of his name, the decision to pen a tie-in book for this latest series was a "no-brainer".
There are sections dedicated to Friday night suppers, substantial Saturday brunches and Sunday dinners, and the tome is intended to inspire in two ways - as a travel guide for the destinations visited while compiling the recipes, and as a go-to guide for those keen to cook for family and friends at home.
"If you're cooking for your family during the week, you tend to stick to things you know because you haven't got time. But at the weekends, you might well try something - and this is what this book is all about, really."
And the Oxford-born restaurateur (he moved to Padstow in the early-Seventies, shortly after completing his English degree at Oxford) certainly knows a thing or two about rousing enthusiasm in the kitchen, after decades of small-screen appearances on the subject, and having built an empire that includes six acclaimed Cornish restaurants, a seafood cookery school, delicatessen, patisserie, fishmongers, gift ship, pub and cocktail bar.
As a result, Padstow residents once dubbed their area 'Padstein', but in recent years, Stein has also expanded, and now has restaurants in Winchester, Poole's Sandbanks, Marlborough - and the sunnier climes of Mollymook, Australia.
"People say, 'It's crazy, your life', but it's not really," he says, after detailing how he splits his time between Chiswick (where he now lives most of the time), Padstow (where he still spends lots of time) and Australia (where he visits three times a year - and also where he first met his second wife, Sarah).
"I like travel, I don't find it stressful."
As for plans to open more eateries, he's not sold on the idea of a chain, but likes to focus on offering opportunities to people with "considerable skill", as he takes a step back from the day-to-day running of the business.
"I'm 69 - I couldn't do what my chefs do now, I just wouldn't have the energy," says the father-of-three, who turns 70 in January.
"I'm lucky. Because I have such great managers, I can do less and less, but still have an overall feeling for how the business is going," he adds, praising his sons (Edward, Jack and Charlie) and ex-wife Jill for their hand in the design, food, wine and decor fronts.
"If I want to retire, I will, but I don't think I will, to be honest," Stein reasons. "I don't see why I should!"
Fancy a taste of Stein's weekend adventures? Here's a recipe from his new book to try at home...
:: SOUTZOUKAKIA (Meatballs in tomato sauce with cinnamon & cumin)
For the meatballs:
500g minced beef
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
1 egg, beaten
1/2tsp ground cumin
1/2tsp dried oregano
2 slices stale white bread (about 100g), soaked in red wine and squeezed dry
12 turns black pepper mill
3tbsp olive oil
For the tomato sauce:
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
3tbsp olive oil
5cm cinnamon stick
1tsp ground cumin
150ml red wine
1tbsp tomato paste
12 turns black pepper mill
Mix together all the ingredients for the meatballs except the olive oil and, with wet hands, mould into 20-24 rugby-ball shapes. Heat the oil in a frying pan over high heat and fry the meatballs until golden on all sides, or grill on a griddle pan if you like grill lines on the patties.
Make the tomato sauce by sweating the onion and garlic in the olive oil with the cinnamon stick, cumin and sugar until soft, about 10 minutes over medium heat. Add the red wine and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium again. Add the tomato paste and passata, season with the salt and pepper and cook until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.
Add the fried meatballs and simmer for 20-30 minutes with a lid on the pan until cooked through, adding a little water if the sauce is too thick.