In a frank and revealing interview, Jill Stein talks to Janet Harmer of her pride and enjoyment in the restaurants and rooms she helped create in Padstow, and her life and continuing role since the end of her 30-year marriage to Rick Stein
It's a bittersweet irony that the medium that turned Rick Stein into a global brand and was the impetus behind creating a culinary empire with an annual turnover of £10m in Padstow, Cornwall, is also the one that destroyed his marriage. His former wife Jill - they have the decree nisi for their divorce - is under no illusions that it was Rick's rise to fame through his incredibly successful television work that was the undoing of their 30-year marriage. "Television is an unreal world and puts people into a different place," says Jill.
The past five years have been difficult for Jill, but she describes herself as being very happy now. She loves working in the business every day, and despite having reached the age of 60 - Rick is 60, too - she's appalled at the suggestion of retirement. "I don't think I'll ever retire. I wouldn't give this up for anything," she says. "I'm a tough person and I've ridden out the storm. We've been separated for five years now and the emotional side is behind us. We work very well as a team and will continue to grow the business together."
The suggestion that one or other of the couple might have bought the other out of the business was never seriously considered by the Steins. "We couldn't have afforded to do so anyway," says Jill, pointing out that there are other divorced couples - such as hairdresser Nicky Clarke and his former wife Lesley - who have successfully continued to run their businesses together following a marriage break-up.
While Rick Stein's name is the one that's known worldwide and has provided the opportunity to expand the business into one that today comprises three restaurants, 34 bedrooms, a cookery school, pâtisserie, delicatessen, fish and chip shop and gift shop, Jill has been involved in running and inspiring the growth of the company from the very beginning.
In fact, with Rick often away filming around the world for the BBC or spending time at the house he shares with his new partner in Australia, Jill has been the mainstay of the business. Last year Rick spent only 12 weeks in Padstow. "He loves it when he's here - it keeps him grounded," she says.
At times Jill has found it frustrating that she hasn't been recognised for her contribution to the Rick Stein phenomenon. "When Rick first went on TV, people used to push past me to get to him, and whenever the Seafood Restaurant received an award it would always be presented to Rick, although we've always been an equal partnership and created this baby together," she says. "But what can you do? The chef will always be the star of the business and I don't see how that's going to change. I'm not a pushy person, so I've never shouted about it."
Although Jill is clearly a determined businesswoman, there's not an ounce of bitterness about her lack of recognition. She's charming and welcoming, and delighted that I should have taken the time to travel to Cornwall to meet her. Jill met Rick nearly 40 years ago when she and a girlfriend decided to escape office life in Manchester and take a job at a small family-run hotel at Treyarnon Bay, a couple of miles outside Padstow. "Rick had just returned from a trip to Australia and was staying with his mother who lived in Cornwall. He was rounding up some girls to invite to his 21st birthday party."
The couple got together, although it was several years before they settled in Padstow as Rick spent the next three years at Oxford University, where he read English. On his return, he and Jill bought a property - a former granary - overlooking the quay, where the fishing boats are moored. "We ran it as a club, but it wasn't very sophisticated and was full of drunks," Jill recalls. "After some fights our licence was taken away. That's when we decided to open the Seafood Restaurant [in 1975] in its place. We were amateurs and had no real vision as to how we were going to develop the business. It was very much a case of learning as we went along, although Rick had undertaken a short management course at the Great Western hotel in Paddington, as well as going on a day-release course in Camborne."
The early days were tough, particularly once the children came along - Edward, now 28, and working in the Steins' bakery, Jack, 26, a sous chef at Rick Stein's Café, and Charles, 22, a sociology student at Cardiff University. "Looking back now, I wonder how the hell we did it," says Jill. "It was such a hard slog that we almost didn't have time to eat. I would go off to the restaurant with the children crying and asking me not to leave, before making some treacle tarts and then getting on with the restaurant service. We'd then go to bed at 2am and be awake again between 5am and 6am with the children."
In the beginning the decor - with fishing nets and masses of pictures adorning the walls - was bistro-like compared with the sophisticated look of the Seafood Restaurant today with its white walls enlivened by the occasional splash of colour from carefully chosen pieces of modern art and plumped-up banquette cushions providing comfort and luxury.
The food was simple, its freshness from the nearby fishing trawlers always a trademark. "People have always liked our simple grilled lobster and Dover soles and our fish soup," says Jill. "But initially the guidebooks didn't recognise that simplicity was a good thing, although it's what everyone is doing now. We never got a Michelin star and Rick thought we should have, but it never bothered me, as all the restaurants we liked - such as Sally Clarke's, Bibendum and the Walnut Tree - didn't have one either."
In the late 1970s and 1980s Cornwall wasn't considered a foodie destination, and there certainly wasn't enough business to keep the Seafood Restaurant open during the quiet winter months. "We wanted to get more people coming to see us and so that's why Rick decided to write his first cookery book," says Jill. The resulting publication - English Seafood Cookery, published by Penguin in 1988 - was an enormous success, winning the Food Book of the Year in the 1989 Glenfiddich Awards. And so began Rick Stein's first steps towards global celebrity status and the couple's expansion of the business.
It was only when Jill and Rick opened 14 bedrooms above the Seafood Restaurant that they started to make money, which they went on to reinvest in the business. It also gave Jill an opportunity to use her interior design skills beyond the restaurant. "I did it out of necessity at the beginning, but quickly realised I really enjoyed it," she says. "I basically do what I really like and luckily the guests like it too."
Jill describes her designs as simple with a touch of luxury. Light Mediterranean colours are evident throughout, as are discreet reflections of the nearby sea - whether it be arty black and white photographs of fishermen or pale blue-painted weatherboarding reminiscent of beach huts. She's particularly proud of the six bedrooms in St Edmund's House, which stands directly behind the Seafood Restaurant.
Over the years, staying in one of the individually designed rooms - dotted around Padstow at a number of different addresses (see panel below) - has become an equally important element of the Rick Stein experience as securing a table at the Seafood Restaurant. With an annual occupancy of 98%, the rooms are also the most profitable part of the business. "Once they're up and running they very much take care of themselves as long as they're kept clean," says Jill. "The restaurants are very labour-intensive."
Having run the service in the Seafood Restaurant for 25 years, Jill has a less operational role today. She continues to design all the new elements of the business - she's currently working on a new four-bedroom property in the town - as well as looking at new business opportunities.
Ensuring a strong workforce is in place is therefore essential to the sustainability of the business, and Jill says she and Rick are fortunate in having a very loyal team of staff - currently numbering 270 - led by executive chef David Sharland and general manager Rupert Wilson. It's clear the staff are very fond of their boss: everyone spoke warmly of Jill during my visit to the various Stein properties.
Expansion of the Steins' business is likely to continue - in Padstow and maybe beyond. Jill says they're always looking at new properties in the town, often in response to sellers approaching them. "The fish and chips business has been incredibly successful and would probably do very well in a town where there's a stronger year-round business, such as Plymouth or Exeter," she says.
Another idea buzzing around in her mind is a group of chic seaside hotels, along the lines of what Malmaison has done in cities. "There's a real shortage of good hotels on the coast, particularly in Cornwall, where so many small private hotels are being bought up by developers and turned into surf pods. I would have liked our plans for a hotel in Newquay to have been the first of such a group, but it didn't work out."
Jill is referring to her and Rick's plans to redevelop the site of the Rocklands hotel overlooking Towan beach in nearby Newquay. The project for a new 35-bedroom hotel with lift access to the beach was abandoned when costs escalated from £1.5m to £6.5m. "I still regret not going ahead with it, but it was a difficult time as we were going through the separation," she says. "I don't think Rick's heart was ever really in it, whereas I tend to be more radical."
Jill's current attention is focused on the forthcoming refurbishment of the Seafood Restaurant. The siting of the toilets in the basement will create space for more covers in the restaurant, resulting in a total of more than 140 seats. A central bar is to be installed, where customers will be able to sit and order food without making a reservation and the decor, while remaining similar to how it is at present, will be smartened up. "It's very difficult to get all our residents into the restaurant at the moment, and with more bedrooms opening soon, we need more tables," says Jill.
Despite the sadness of recent years, Jill appears to have no regrets. She talks of having had a very good marriage for nearly 30 years and is sorry that it didn't last, but she's very positive about the future and the growth of the business. "I sometimes think we should be consolidating, but it's exciting to still be growing and developing," she says.
the stein empire in padstow
The Seafood Restaurant The 110-seat flagship restaurant, soon to be expanded to 140-plus seats, with 14 bedrooms. Average food and beverage spend is £56 per head, excluding VAT. A three-course dinner could include scallops with ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil and spring onions (£13.50), chargrilled fillet of sea bass with a tomato, butter and vanilla vinaigrette (£28.50) and pavlova with summer berry compote and white chocolate ice-cream (£8.50).
St Edmund's House Six luxury bedrooms, situated behind the Seafood Restaurant.
St Petroc's Hotel and Bistro Ten bedrooms and unpretentious 60-seat eaterie. Average spend in the bistro is £31 per head.
Stein's Patisserie Sells cakes, chocolates and pastries made in the Steins' bakery in Padstow, which supplies all their restaurants.
Rick Stein's Café Open for breakfast, morning coffee, light lunches and three-course dinners. It has 42 seats, and average spend is £26 per head. Three cosy bedrooms upstairs.
Stein's Gift shop in the heart of Padstow's old town, selling jewellery, ceramics and soft furnishings which Jill has sourced on her global travels.
Padstow Seafood School Offers fish and shellfish cookery courses, and specialist fish classes in Italian, French, Thai and Southern Indian cookery. One-, two-, four- and six-day courses available.
Stein's Deli Sells a wide range of fresh ingredients, plus ready-made fish pies, fish cakes and sandwiches. Incorporates a wine and cook shop.
Stein's Fish & Chips Successful offering from the Stein empire, which sold 1,525 portions of fish and chips over the August bank holiday weekend. Grilled or battered fish cooked in beef dripping is available to eat in or take out. Take-out battered cod and chips costs £5.95.
Bryn Cottage One of Jill's latest design is this bedroom cottage, which is the epitome of seaside glamour with a sleek contemporary decor, wet room and far-reaching views over the estuary.
Prospect House Four suites are being developed here and will open this month.