Executive chef of the Rick Stein Restaurant Group, Jack Stein, has been busy promoting Cornish spuds since the crop’s season start in mid-June, in his new role as 2016’s Cornish Potatoes brand ambassador. Here, we talk to him about local sourcing, his Cornish home and, of course, those fresh, flakey skinned potatoes that signal the most abundant season.
Born and bred in Cornwall and the middle son of TV personality and celebrity chef Rick Stein and his business-partner wife Jill, Jack Stein has not had, it is fair to say, a typical upbringing.
Traveling the world and eating his way through some of the best market places and restaurants, and growing up amidst the Steins’ burgeoning Padstow-based fish-rich restaurant empire, Stein’s career in the kitchen started when he took up kitchen porter posts in the family restaurant The Seafood Restaurant from the age of 12, and then took stages in both Paris and Sydney.
But home is evidently where the heart is and now, with more than 20 years’ catering experience, Stein finds himself back in Cornwall managing 200 chefs as executive chef, and singing the south-west county’s produce’s praises loud and proud.
Roasted Cornish new potatoes add comfort and flavour to any dinner.
Produce Business UK: Why get involved with the Branston-funded campaign for Cornish Potatoes?
Jack Stein: I have always loved Cornish potatoes – my first memory of them is our old gardener, Raymond, turning them with a fork, and I remember being really excited that they came from the ground.
In the best way possible, promoting Cornish potatoes is the easiest job ever for me; I could talk about how brilliant new potatoes are forever, without doing any of what I would consider, work. They are also one of those rare products that consumers understand the seasonality of quite well – I jumped at getting involved.
PB: The campaign claims that UK consumers have fallen out of love with potatoes. Why do you think this is?
JS: The food landscape has changed so much in Britain since the big celebrity chefs, like Keith Floyd and my dad, came onto the TV scene, bringing new dishes and food ideas from their travels. Potatoes are such a European thing, and now rice, pasta and noodles are commonplace, which is a good thing. But my aim is to eat as much local produce as possible, because it’s fresher and better for you, and be aware of where your food comes from, as well as appreciate the different and exciting influences we have now.
PB: Why are Cornish potatoes so important as part of the potato supply?
JS: Potato harvests start early here, as we are on the coast and protected from the frosts that might hinder potato crops inland. The weather is milder in general, so the potatoes grow well and have a unique taste.
You’ll always get stored potatoes, but it can be a struggle to get good-quality potatoes all-year round. Winter is hard and it can be especially hard to find good chipping potatoes, but when Cornish potatoes start, it’s a relief and a great signal of summer.
You’ll find Maris Pipers on the shelves whatever the time of year, but when I see people buying Cornish potatoes at a supermarket, I see them smiling as they pick them up – it’s a real feel-good product.
Seaweed roasted Cornish new potatoes.
PB: How important is provenance?
JS: From the viewpoint of myself and my family, we have always tried to find the best product. Around 90% of the fruit and vegetables we use are grown in the South West of England. It is hard to get everything and it’s a constant mission to get something new grown in the UK. Recently we have found a grower to produce wasabi root in Dorset and we have some great suppliers who will suggest alternatives to products we like that are grown too far away. For instance, Rick was keen on using green mangoes for a dish he had recreated after a trip to Asia, and we found a green apple grown in England that looked and tasted just the same. Customers trust us to be well sourced, but I think they understand that well sourced could mean that the best product is from France, for example.
PB: Have you found fresh produce sourcing difficult?
JS: There aren’t the problems there used to be in the 1980s. That’s the reason we had a garden – Rick couldn’t get the fresh herbs he wanted from anywhere, and there were only a few suppliers in Cornwall. But logistics have changed and suppliers distribute great product. We now approach growers to grow certain produce for us and guarantee we’ll buy so many months of that product, like kale or asparagus. We have received top marks in the Sustainability Restaurant Awards for two years running now, and that is crucial to us as we want these suppliers to be around in 10 years’ time, so we can still source from them.
PB: When did you first realise your passion for cookery?
JS: My two brothers and I were encouraged to work as early as we could, so by the time I went to university [to study psychology], I was making my own fish stock and mayonnaise, and didn’t really realise that these were not basic skills for teenagers. I think doing something else made me realise I wanted to be a chef – I just knew I had to go back to it. Being a chef in Cornwall is hard work, but it’s a great life. You work eight or 15 hours a day, but at the end of it Cornwall is waiting for you.
Hungry for more?
Eat Jack Stein’s food here: The Seafood Restaurant
Jack Stein’s best meal: was after a local fishing trip with friends, going back to one friend’s house and spontaneously pan frying the pollock and serving it with a beurre blanc made from fresh shallots, and Cornish potatoes just dug from the garden, washed down with some Cornish cider.
His top tip: Add fresh mint or lovage to the boiling water when you cook Cornish potatoes.
Restaurant trend predictions: Higher quality meat and less of it used on menus; alternative protein sources, like chickpeas and insects; and good-quality fast food.
Favourite up-and-coming product: flower sprouts
More info: www.rickstein.com