Rick Stein is well-known for travelling the world in search of the best and most exotic food. Now he's on the road again, reliving a Mexican road trip he first took in 1968.
Head chef of Rick Stein at Bannisters in Mollymook, Australia and owner of 14 seafood and fish and chip restaurants across England, Rick has been on our screens for years, traversing the globe for the hottest chillies, the most succulent prawns and the most fragrant curries.
I spoke to Rick about his passion for quality local produce, the things that keep him coming back to Australia, and his latest road trip from the West Coast of the USA all the way down through Mexico.
Rick’s Mexican Road Trip…
In Rick Stein’s Road To Mexico, Rick will be recreating a road trip he first took in 1968. He was excited to relive his youth and learn more about Mexican food; a cuisine that has become increasingly popular in recent years.
Rick didn’t have much money on his first trip as a 21-year-old and, at that age, wouldn’t have described himself as a foodie.
One of the major differences he noticed this time around was that, although his first trip was an eye-opener – the exoticness, heat, chilli, coriander and flavours he’d never come across before – there was a level of sophistication to Mexican cuisine that he hadn’t observed during his first trip, and which he was eager to explore.
“I was single-mindedly going to find really good food, particularly really good street food,” Rick told me.
Rick found the Mexican people he met along the way to be incredibly welcoming and hospitable, and a culture that was rich and warm. "The people are absolutely wonderful. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t absolutely adore [Mexico],” Rick says.
Using Mexican ingredients in his restaurants
Far from being an exotic cuisine you'd have trouble re-creating at home, Rick speaks of the simplicity and versatility of Mexican ingredients, having incorporated Mexican flavours into the menus at his own restaurants.
In his Mollymook restaurant, he’s got a number of Mexican dishes on the menu; “most of them are seafood dishes, and they’ve been incredibly popular. One of the things I think most people don’t realise about Mexican food is that it’s very light, particularly the seafood,” says Rick.
Making Mexican at home
For the chef and restaurant owner, Mexican food is also perfect for serving a big crowd at home: “it’s great party food and lends itself to the outdoors and the Aussie-style of eating. Either put it on a plate or put it into tortillas and make tacos out of it. It’s very versatile.” For his birthday this year, he made Mexican for 28 people, cooking up two-slow cooked meats, barbecued lamb, guacamole, salsas and some Mexican red rice.
The two ingredients you’ve got to have at home, he tells me, are corn tortillas and dried red chillies.
“Most tortillas you find are flour tortillas, which are very useful for making burritos, but corn tortillas are really nice in terms of flavour,” Rick says. Dried chillies are more difficult to find, but are available in some speciality shops.
An easy dish to make at home is Rick's Mexican version of a prawn cocktail, “which is really spicy”.
His ultimate foodie destination
Rick has got to be the ultimate authority on the best foodie destinations across the globe, having travelled to so many culinary epicentres: “I tend to go where I go because I know the food is good. I really like Malaysia because it’s got masses of different cultures there; somewhere like Penang is a favourite.”
In Europe, he can’t go past Italy or France: “for the Italians and the French, the quality of raw materials is always so important.” The attention-to-detail, he says, is second to none. “In a market in Provence or Palermo, it’s not just about tomatoes – it’s about perfectly ripe tomatoes, and it’s not just about peaches – it’s about perfectly ripe peaches.”
What about the best seafood?
“I think wherever there are plentiful, pollution-free waters, you'll find great seafood,” Rick says. He can’t go past the UK – where he lives and owns several restaurants – for fresh seafood and is keen to get down to the south coast of Chile, where he’s been told he’ll find some of the best seafood in the world.
The Aussie lifestyle and its abundant produce
Rick spends a lot of time here in Australia, travelling to and from the UK three or four times a year. What is it that keeps him coming back? “The climate! And my wife and two stepkids always the say the same thing; how easy life is in Australia. The standard of living is great and it’s a very lucky country to live in.”
Rick’s fond of the Aussie sense of humour and has lots of friends whom he regularly returns to visit. He is also extremely passionate about the beautiful ingredients we produce here in Australia, which he uses as much as possible in his own restaurant. The avocados, Rick says, are the second best in the world (just behind Mexico).
“The meat is brilliant - Australian lamb and beef. In terms of seafood, the prawns are delicious and I love the fish - big snapper fillets, big dory fillets and blue-eyed fillets. The prestige of herbs is particularly serious here. The herbs in supermarkets always come with the roots still on which makes them last longer,” Rick said.
While filming Rick Stein’s Road To Mexico, Rick noticed a huge number of restaurants in Los Angeles catering to vegan diets and food allergies, although it’s not necessarily something he plans to incorporate into his own menus.
“I do think it’s becoming ever more popular. It’s a mixture of people’s worries about how beef and livestock are reared, coupled with a moral sense of being aware that to feed the planet we ought to be eating more vegetables and less meat,” Rick told me. “But I love a balanced diet so I would never dream of becoming a vegan!”
His favourite chefs
“I think Neil Perry is a great innovator," Rick said. "When I first started visiting Australia in the '80s he had a restaurant in Bondi called Blue Water Grill, which was the blueprint for my seafood cuisine because it was not only based on wonderful, local seafood but it was also trendy.”
Rick’s also keen to champion the next generation of seafood cooks, citing Australian Josh Niland from Saint Peter, who he met at Gourmet Escape, as one to watch.
I threw Rick a couple of hairy either/or questions to end the interview.
Mussels or oysters?
Oysters, but it’s a hard one.
Crab or lobster?
Lemons or limes?
Tacos or burritos?
Cod or barramundi?
Cod, but only because there’s just a lot of not very good farmed barramundi around.
Mollymook or Padstow?
I suppose I’d say Padstow because it’s where I’m from but it’s such a hard one.
Sydney or London?
I’ll say Sydney – it’s warm and I’m here and I’m happy.
Fine dining or home cooked?
Red wine or white?
Mushy peas or gravy?
Rick Stein's Road To Mexico starts on Monday February 12, 8.30pm on Lifestyle Food.