Rick Stein and son Jack at their new Winchester restaurant
- Credit: Archant
The Stein family have fallen hook, line and sinker for Winchester’s historical charm. We met with Rick and son Jack in their new high street restaurant to find out why
Winchester has long since enjoyed a stash of decent restaurants; The Chesil Rectory, Bangkok Brasserie, the Michelin Starred Black Rat to name just a few. These and many more independently run gems are what sets the city apart from its more commercial neighbours.
But what’s that, Hugh Fernley Whittingstall has set up shop? And now seafood King Rick Stein has seen the value of the one time Capital of England?
With Brasserie Blanc and other chain eateries taking over Jewry Street, does our historical city need another celebrity chef enterprise? After all, we all know what happened to Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks! But this doesn’t seem to perturb Rick and his son Jack, despite the fact that we are sitting in precisely the same spot in which the ‘naked chef’s’ failed restaurant closed just 12 months ago.
“We don’t just want to drop a restaurant in to Winchester. It’s quite easy to look at the customer profile in the city and just assume that you can drop a name in there and it will do well,” comments Jack when I confront them on their predecessor.
It’s clear from the hubbub of friends and family from the night before at the opening party that Winchester means more to the Steins than just its ‘customer profile’.
Rick’s first link with the city was through his brother, who attended the prestigious Winchester College as a child; and now that his eldest son Ed has chosen to make his home just outside the city, it is a place that he has frequented more and more over the past few years.
“We thought that if we were going to open a restaurant outside of Cornwall, then Winchester was probably the place for it to be. We find that loads of our customers in Padstow actually come from this area,” Rick continues.
In the presence of a local magazine, for which they clearly see the benefit of exposure for their business, it is easy to compliment and gush about the county that they are hoping to win over. However, Rick’s knowledge and passion for Hampshire is not for show. Time spent writing books in Lymington and foraging in the New Forest he explains: “has left me very aware of how much good produce there is in the county. If you wanted to go to a place where the British countryside is at its best then it would be Hampshire really;” high praise indeed from somebody who has been lucky enough to experience most places in the UK, and indeed beyond.
They may be known for their fish down in Cornwall, but in Winchester, the family are committed to supporting the county’s local producers. As Jack explains: “We will continue to use our fish suppliers from Cornwall but we will be sourcing everything else – fruit, veg, meat, dairy, icecream – all from Hampshire. It’s been really easy working with the local suppliers; most have found and come to us directly. It’s the sign of a healthy food and drink culture, Hampshire Fare have been fantastic and we’ve found everything to be very sophisticated.”
Hearing Rick and Jack talking so positively about local producers seems very encouraging, and with promises of provenance references on the menus for local ingredients, hopefully their commitment to using Hampshire producers will have a great impact on their chosen suppliers, as Jack summarises: “If we can use a local product and shout about it, they get business off the back of it, they then become better and our product then becomes better; it’s quite an egalitarian way of doing business really.” Perhaps we will even see some local trout on the menu this year!
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Watching Rick and Jack bouncing off each other, taking it in turns to tell stories and talking about the restaurant, it is clear to see that this is a close knit family business.
“All the family members play their own roles”, explains Rick. “Jack is obviously in the kitchen but Ed is responsible for the way the restaurant looks alongside his mother, and Charlie’s done the wine list so it’s great that they all have definite roles and they are all different, nobody competes with each other.”
Cornwall may always be the family hub, but as Rick admits, it can be quite isolating. Moving to Winchester has opened up a whole new world to the Steins and as Rick says, he “still can’t get over the fact that it is just an hour to his flat in London.” But what about the places they call home while they are in the city?
“I’ll often stay at The Wykeham Arms, which I adore, or at the Hotel du Vin” shares Rick. “Or we will stay at my brother’s house, his wife’s from Winchester originally so they know the area well” adds Jack. “It’s such a novel thing that everything is so close up here. It’s great to walk around the city, visiting the interesting shops and taking in the history and culture. ”
But it’s not just the family members who will benefit from working in the City. Jack has chosen several chefs from the Cornwall restaurants to help get things going in the first few months, alongside himself of course. He explains: “I think it’s important to be hands on, and to get to know the local community. We will be doing some wine events and tasting menus and we’ve got a great team that are local to the area.”
Keeping all the restaurants working as one business is something that Rick is keen to promote, telling me: “We want everyone to feel a part of the same business and we will be encouraging most of our chefs to do the odd service up here, just because it’s quite a modern kitchen and elements of it can probably influence and work well back in Padstow.”
With the opening of the Winchester restaurant, I wonder are the Steins getting in to that celebrity ‘chain’ territory. It would be a shame, after all they have said about the city and their close connection, to see more Rick Steins coming to a location near you. But Jack is quick to comment: “The consistency for us is key, the worst thing that somebody could say about a restaurant is ‘I went and ate there in the first week and it was great, I went and ate there a month later and it was rubbish’. The most important thing my parents have done down in Padstow is keep the quality and the consistency - people know what they’re going to get, and that’s what we will do here too.”
With the high expectations of Winchester’s residents, it doesn’t look like they have a choice but to be true to their brand as Jack recognises: “We didn’t want to open a lower end restaurant and for people to be disappointed, we wanted to exceed people’s expectations. It’s not easy for the management, having a different style of restaurant and not being all the same ‘chain’, but as a family we want every town that we open in to feel that we’ve actually thought about the area before we go in.”
When it comes to cooking styles, Rick and Jack’s ideas and opinions are beginning to join up as Jack declares: “I spent a bit of my cheffing career thinking that there was more to life than simple food, and then I realised quite quickly that there wasn’t.”
Rick’s style has always been to use good ingredients and cook them well as he puts it: “I like food that makes me greedy. I don’t warm to fiddly things on plates and I’m always trying to just give people what I like. It doesn’t necessarily get us great accolades in the food guides but it does get us bums on seats.” Jack agrees: “Our philosophy is ‘it’s harder to hide behind simple food’, we call it complicated simplicity. In other words, behind the scenes it’s very complicated because we want it to be exactly right. But on the plate we let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Wise words indeed and something that is clearly working for the business, given that this will be their eighth restaurant in the group. Rick may have a successful TV career, and this probably has something to do with the popularity of his restaurants, but having spent the last half an hour with him and Jack, it’s clear to me that without the passion and enthusiasm for good service, fantastic local ingredients and strong community ties, then this new restaurant in the heart of Winchester would never stand a chance.
Rick’s lasting thought is: “I think we always had an ambition to grow. I remember years ago, the first builder we ever used said to me at one stage, ‘why can’t you just be happy with what you’ve got’? It’s always been the same way.” As Jack chimes in…”If you ever watch him play Monopoly you’ll understand.”