On screen, celebrity chef Rick Stein is known for his affable persona and impressive knowledge of seafood. Whether chatting to Cornish fishermen about their latest haul or regaling viewers with travel tales and fish curries, Stein is a natural.
But what goes on beyond the glossy veneer? Despite a self-described “idyllic” childhood and wealthy background, Stein is no stranger to darker times. In his candid memoir, Stein writes with brutal honesty about his personal life and ascent to celebrity chef-dom.
The title, Under a Mackeral Sky, hints as to what lies ahead: a mackeral sky refers to the small cirrocumulus clouds that form ahead of depressions. Also telling is the opening quote from James Thurber: “All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.”
Stein depicts himself as a man wracked with insecurities and grappling with his identity. His self-doubt, he believes, stems from a deep desire to be liked and to gain the attention of his distant father, who suffered from manic depression.
Stein’s father, who died when Stein was a teenager, looms large over much of the book. His death is a defining experience for the young man, who throws in an early job as an apprentice chef to hitchhike around Australia and the USA in the mid-1960s.
Stein shares colourful stories from his time repairing railways on the Ghan and cleaning abattoirs in western Queensland. The work is hard but Stein is motivated by grief: “I was trying to act like a manly Ernest Hemingway character, when all the time I was on the run from the memory of my father…”.
These early travels and Stein’s first forays into business (a travelling disco, no less) are described in rich detail, with references to rock ‘n’ roll, poetry and literature providing historical context. There’s clearly much more to Stein than his love of food – his passion for Dostoyevsky and ability to quote Browning and Kipling display a literary flair which he nurtured during his studies at Cambridge.
The book is also a love letter to Cornwall, his “summer palace” where he first holidayed as a boy. Stein writes of the “romantic bleakness” of Cornwall’s headlands, the “gnarled endurance of the fishermen” and the parties, girls and songs which defined his early time there. Today, his Cornish empire is so large that Padstow is known as ‘Padstein’, which he admits is an ego-boost.
Evocative descriptions of food are peppered throughout these recollections – Stein makes pig slaughtering and Parisian andouillettes (intestines) sound lyrical. Even boarding school provided the young Stein with some happy food memories: greasy-fry-ups and steamed treacle puddings that, “…were the stuff of the Great British food revival.”
Aside from endearing anecdotes about his TV sidekick Chalky (Stein’s pet Jack Russell), there’s a dearth of behind-the scenes stories, which may disappoint fans. Indeed, Stein speeds through his prolific TV career in the last 50 pages of the book.
Stein doesn’t always paint a rosy picture of himself. There are plenty of less flattering tales: boozy street fights with fishermen, his first amateur TV appearances, panic attacks, a horrific car accident caused when he was drunk, and cringe-worthy early encounters with women (with unnecessary detail). The most recent scandal in Stein’s life, his affair with an Australian publicist and subsequent divorce from wife of 31 years, Jill, is understandably treated with caution and brevity.
All these revelations may come as a surprise to those who only know Stein from his TV shows and cookbooks. Yet the overall impression is of a complex man with an indefatigable spirit and a great zest for life. Despite, or perhaps because of, his insecurities and indiscretions, many readers will find Stein even more likeable, which will undoubtedly give the author great pleasure.
Under a Mackeral Sky: A memoir
By Rick Stein
Ebury Press, 320pp, $19.99