Chef Rick Stein talks to Ella Walker about revisiting France, the problem with salads, and why food is a great equaliser


Rick Stein's latest cookbook (and the recent BBC series which accompanied it) are both a love letter to France – that beloved bastion of cheese, bread and wine - and a credit to his 30-year long collaborator and director, David Pritchard.

"My early influences and inspiration came from France," explains the Padstow-based chef and restaurateur, who owns Rick Stein Sandbanks in Poole, "and my director David sadly died recently. We both shared a love of all things French, and I think he thought it was time to revisit. He could see that France means so much to everybody."

Rick Stein's Secret France is the result, and the project saw the 72-year-old set off on a culinary trawl of the country's best dishes, while deftly tackling some of the more pointed questions around French cuisine and its quality.

"We've always had a bit of a conversation over the years about the way French food has declined in people's estimation," explains the seafood legend. "[We wanted] to ask, if things have gone wrong, why?"

Over the course of making the series, he came to the conclusion that "the sort of things that are going wrong in France are going wrong everywhere". Blame first world economies, where people (quite rightly) want to be paid good money for cooking in hot kitchens and working anti-social hours.

"The reality is, to create good dishes that are well thought through and well cooked, you've got to pay people for it, and there is the rub, because a lot of people don't expect to have to pay a lot for food," says Stein, skewering online delivery meal companies and junk food.

He argues that people are prepared to pay full-whack for Michelin standard food because fussiness tends to call for money, but "if you want to do simple, plain cooking with very good ingredients, people don't see why they should have to pay for it. There's always that suggestion that, 'Why would I eat something when I go out that I could cook at home?'

"Frankly, if I could eat as well when I go out as I can cook at home," states Stein, "I'd be very happy."

In regard to French fare specifically, he says it isn't necessarily that dishes have got worse over time, more that "we've got better - we're so used to eating well now". And our British expectations of eating well in France - products of handfuls of salty frites on childhood holidays, and daydreams of white wine and cream drenched moules marinieres - are often unattainably high.

"You can't just go into a small French town now and expect to eat well," says Stein matter-of-factly. "[The food's] OK but it's not going to make you euphoric, but that's partly because we're all so used to it now, it's familiarity."

One of the things he really does have a problem with in France though, is "the ubiquitousness of about three or four different salads".

He begins ticking them off on his fingers... salad nicoise, Caesar... "You see them everywhere! And it's not that they're bad, they're just so boring!" Hence why he's stuffed the cookbook with new ones, like warm chicken liver, bacon and orange salad, and lentil, beetroot and goat's cheese salad.

A veteran traveller (just look at his TV series back catalogue), you'd think Stein would never feel out of his depth in a new country. However, in the book he admits the opposite – but notes that finding a morsel to eat is something of a cure: "The moment of slight panic I might feel when walking through a challenging part of a city can be much dispelled by good food."

And hunting down good food is always his aim. "It's so wonderful to go somewhere where the cooking is so bloody good," he says with feeling. "It makes you remember what restaurants are all about really; meeting your friends, having a lovely chat, having some decent wine and something decent to eat.

"When you have an evening like that, you forgive an awful lot," he adds. "And when the French are cooking well, they're cooking very well."

Rick Stein's Secret France by Rick Stein, photography by James Murphy, is published by BBC Books, priced £26. Available now.