Words by Hannah Tapping
In conversation with Jill Stein OBE, an entrepreneur, designer and matriarch with Cornwall in her soul.
There are few who don’t identify with the name Rick Stein. Whether that be with the groundbreaking, culinary travel television series of the 1980s, the illustrious volumes of seafood cookery books or the plethora of eponymous restaurants that have opened across Cornwall and beyond. However, although somewhat hackneyed after many decades of use, I have always suspected that the saying ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’ would apply to this story. A pandemic-proof telephone interview with Jill Stein was to prove me correct.
We began with the early days of the Stein story, something I’ve always been curious about and a narrative I have never quite been able to piece together its entirety, until now. Softly-spoken, yet with a voice full of energy, Jill talks of the early days: “The story’s a long one. It’s one that has spanned 46 years and Cornwall has changed dramatically over that time. Padstow, in particular, has seen a transformation, as any town would over that period; it’s a lifetime really and it’s very interesting to remember it as it was compared to what it is now. Maybe that’s a bit like your grandfather saying, ‘oh, beer was a penny a pint’, but you know what I mean! It’s so long ago, but I remember it well and the struggles we had when we first started the business.”
My own formative years were spent growing up in a Cornish working fishing village, so I was curious as to what Padstow was like in those early days when Jill arrived in the town. “As you know, the area has always been popular with tourists. Back in the 1960s, Rock and Polzeath attracted what I called ‘old school old money’ and this was also during John Betjeman’s time when he would spend boyhood summers in Trebetherick. However, back then, Padstow wasn’t on the tourist map at all. In fact, it was quite a rough old town really which is rather nice to reflect on.” Jill arrived in Cornwall as a young woman of 21, and spent her days socialising in nearby St Merryn rather than the working fishing port.
So, I’m intrigued, why Cornwall and Padstow for the business? “Rick had a family connection with Cornwall, his family had moved here in the 1930s. I came down in 1968, not knowing anything about Cornwall. I came from Stockport near Manchester and just decided on a whim that I wanted to get away. And it sort of blossomed from there.” Much to my surprise, the story continues, not with a culinary flavor, but with a nightclub. “This property came up for sale right on the quay. We didn’t have enough money between us to buy it, so we went in with a couple of friends and purchased the whole building. Rick’s mother, who was living nearby at the time, supported him financially and loaned the money to buy it – and that’s how it started – we ran a nightclub. And one which a had a one o’clock license, something that was unheard of in those days.”
It wasn’t long before Jill realised that running a late night bar wasn’t something she wanted to do long term and so left Rick and his friends to it. “The club was eventually closed down and it was the best thing that happened to us. I was doing bed and breakfast at home to make some money and the following year we opened a restaurant with a table license on the top floor of the old nightclub building. We eventually bought our partners out and Rick and I moved downstairs where the old club was and started the Seafood Restaurant, turning the two top floors into bedrooms.”
In those early days the couple were really just learning their trade. Rick was still an amateur chef and Jill furnished the interiors of the bedrooms more by necessity than anything else. “I used to go to the sale rooms and buy all vintage bits and pieces. We did it piecemeal, investing any money we made from the year before, back into the business.”
So, I ask, neither of you had a background in hospitality then? “No, not at all,” replies Jill. “It was just a kind of an organic learning because that’s what we had to do. We had this building. We had this dream. We had the idea of opening a restaurant, because in those days there weren’t any speciality seafood restaurants around, just a little place called the Blue Lobster, which was above The Shipwrights in Padstow. Rick had no formal training, other than a stint at the Great Western Hotel when he was about 18, and I had no idea. All I knew was I had to work very hard to get things done.”
In those early days, other than the cooking itself, Jill looked after everything else; front of house, the bookings, the accounts, the wages, the rooms and more…all while bringing up their three boys, Jack, Ed and Charlie. “It was a hard job, with long hours, but it was worth it. Because of the Seafood Restaurant, other businesses were attracted to Padstow. It kind of feels as if that was the start. Rick got the publicity from being on the television and that was the thing that really drove our business at that time. And it still does. Rick was certainly the face of the business, but he couldn’t do it all on his own, it was me who supported him. I can remember I was in our gift shop one day, a long time ago and two ladies walked in, looked around and said, ‘is there no end to this man’s talent?’ That did make me chuckle to myself but I thought, well, it doesn’t matter, that’s what fame is all about.”
“It’s a trusted brand now and we’ve never strayed from our first thought that everything has got to be simple. We’ve always said that, and I think that it’s held us in good stead. We were never on the hunt for Michelin stars. We always just wanted people to come into our restaurants and get good, fresh fish, and to enjoy themselves without it being too precious. A few years ago, I found an old diary that we used to write all of our bookings in for the Seafood Restaurant. In the height of August we would have 23 people back then, and we thought we were busy!, Now we do upwards of 200 covers, it’s incredible.”
“There’s no doubt that the whole restaurant scene has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. I feel like Rick and I were on the frontier. So many young chefs came through our kitchen, learning their trade, going on to open their own successful restaurants in the county. And the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned, because it makes the whole area much more interesting. Cornwall is now firmly a foodie destination. People come for the food as much as the beaches and the beautiful walks, and we always hoped this would happen.”
There have been times when the Rick Stein name has been maligned, ‘Padstein’ is not always a word expressed with fondness and I wonder how Jill feels about this: “I think that there has to be growth and there has to be a way forwards. As much as some people hate the fact that Cornwall is now a tourist destination, without it we wouldn’t have the infrastructure or the employment we rely so heavily upon. If we hadn’t moved on, where would we be? How much can fishing sustain? There’s no mining anymore. We have to move with the times.”
It’s not just the foodie industry that Jill is involved with. After her divorce from Rick, Jill took a back seat in the company, taking some time to decide on the way forward. A chance meeting in a hotel in Barbados was a turning point. “I was with my friends and one evening met Simon Nixon, co-founder of Moneysupermarket. He was buying up luxury properties around the country, turning them into high-end lets and needed an interior designer.
My friend said, “well I know just the person.” So, we were introduced and he bought a house here in Cornwall, at Booby’s Bay – that was to be one of many interior projects with him. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be able to stay in my own business and it took five or six years of sounding myself out to decide what I wanted to do with my future.”
“Although I loved working with Simon on his properties, I came to realise that it wasn’t what I wanted do forever. It was a valuable period that allowed me some thinking time but, at the end of the day, I thought, no, I need to get back into my business full time. When I look back on those interior projects, I’m very proud of them and relished the journey, but I needed to get back to our restaurant business.”
Jill became responsible, among other aspects of the business, for all of the interiors of the Rick Stein restaurants and rooms. Working closely with her son Ed, and daughter-in-law Kate, they are able to cleverly transform the spaces into welcoming, relaxed environments.
Never a business to rest on its laurels Jill tells me that she is just finishing the interiors of some new shepherd’s huts at The Cornish Arms, while also helping her youngest son Charlie with his new coffee shop venture in Padstow. They are also growing the online shop as well as a new menu box side of the business, Stein’s at Home. However, I can’t help but wonder when the time will come for Jill to retire: “There’s a new energy running through the company at the moment,” says Jill. “I have taken much more of a backseat this last year, but I continue to love my business so much, I can’t not work at all. I don’t know what I’d do without it, really.”
Jill’s boys now all play an active part in the business; Jack as Chef Director, Ed overseeing the building and refurbishment projects and Charlie choosing all of the wine for the business as well as pioneering the new coffee shop.
“Our sons are more involved now than ever, taking more decisions, and as a family, we will always have the last say about what goes on. I don’t do anything like what I used to on the operational side now. I ran the Seafood Restaurant for 25 years and understand what the business entails because I’ve done every single job in it and so I’ve got a very good overall view about how difficult it is sometimes to run a hospitality business. However, I wish more people would come into hospitality. It’s sometimes looked upon as a second-rate job, but it really is a great profession.”
Jill’s passion for both Cornwall and the tourist industry saw her become Chairperson of Visit Cornwall in 2019. Chosen for her embodiment of Cornwall’s brand values, her track record of business success in Cornwall and contribution to the local economy, Jill intends to use her tenure “to do everything I can to work on behalf of the people of Cornwall and the businesses of Cornwall so that together we can make this beautiful part of the world even more dynamic and attractive to visitors and to investment.”
As we enter 2021, Rick Stein has undergone some changes, but it has had to move with the pandemic times in order to survive. Its continued success is testament to an agile, hardworking, resilient and talented family. “It’s a sound brand. People trust it. Although it’s been a tough year, we’re in a good place,” concludes Jill.