Spotlight on ... Jack Stein, Development Chef, Stein Restaurants

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th April 2012
Some images with kind permission from David Griffin. Jack, it’s difficult to escape who your father is, growing up as a young person does that mean that you are destined to be a chef or was there pressure put on you to be a chef or was it just a natural choice or was it circumstances of your surroundings that you end up becoming a chef?  No there was never any pressure put on me to become a chef but growing up like I did, in a family that was so heavily involved in the industry it was only natural. Every winter we used to close the restaurant for two months of the year and travel to Australia via India and South East Asia and as a six, seven, eight year old kid in the mid 80s that was quite unusual. I didn’t like it much because it was a lot of hanging around in airports and the difficult things you see like all the childhood poverty. Australia was different because that was much more like England. All that said I think I vicariously picked up a lot about how food and culture are linked without ever really realising.  When you went to university was it set in your mind that you were going to be a chef? No not at all. The only thing that rung in my ears was obviously my upbringing because you can't escape the way you’re brought up and I was brought up around food and travel. And what course did you do at university? Psychology. I think there was a spark during my second year when we had a lot of taste and smell lectures, we studied sensory perception and that made me think, not only am I enjoying cooking for my housemates but there’s a science behind perception and taste which really interests me. I started to feel a real calling to be a chef and I wanted to be part of a team and so I spoke to Stephane our head chef at The Seafood Restaurant and I said I'd really like to come in as a commis chef. There's no pulling rank then? No, far from it. My first chef de partie was a guy called Dominic who was a Swiss Army captain. I was working on the starters section or just chopping veg and he had no idea who I was and I was never going to say, “Do you know who I am?” because it sounds ridiculous and I would never do something like that. I think in the kitchen it’s probably detrimental to mention who you dad is as you’d probably get more stick, you just have to keep your head down. Most of my friends at university didn’t find out who my father was until the second year because you just don’t mention it. For me he's my hero, he's my dad and a legend. It’s great that I've got the benefit of having somebody like that as my dad but we never talk about it, it’s just how it is. But there must be advantages as well to Rick being your dad? I mean it must open certain doors for you. It does and it doesn’t. I don’t ever talk about it for example if I go to a restaurant I don’t ever say who I am or who my dad is. One thing about Rick is that he’s got great integrity and humility, he’s not walking around being flash or thinking that being a celebrity is more important than him being a man. I guess in the nicest possible way he's earned his money hasn’t he? His family was always well off but he started with a nightclub which then developed into a restaurant and he’s built it up from there. We don’t live in London and we don’t have lots of houses across the country. Padstow is our home and the people around us, the local people, are the reason why we're here. Without them we wouldn’t have anything. We've been very fortunate because dad went on television at a very opportune time and the BBC has been really good to him and we’ve gained great success from that. We’d never like to be seen as flashy, we just do our job. We work hard and that's what both my mum and dad have taught me, just work hard. I like the inclusivity of Cornwall. I like the fact that ourselves, Nathan Outlaw, Paul Ainsworth, Mark Hicks and Mitch Tonks and other chefs from the South West are very open. There's no closed book and we do pop ups in each other’s restaurants and I really like that because Cornwall’s not London. I've nothing against London, I love London but I find my creativity here.  Tell us about your day to day now then Jack, you've gone through the kitchen, you've cut your teeth what is Jack Stein’s role now within the Stein Group? I'm head of development I suppose you’d call it. What does that mean? I control any changes made to dishes in the restaurants. Change happens whether you want it to or not and to ensure consistency you need to have an open policy. For example a young commis chef may find a quicker or better way of doing something relating to a dish. Sometimes they’re just trying to cut corners but from time to time it actually makes the dish better and my job is to check. I’m also in charge of new dishes and tasting.  So there's a purpose to change? Yes. The bigger any operation becomes, there enters a degree of structure, a degree of systems and a degree of inflexibility so yes my role is essentially to…  Be a creative nucleus? Yes, not to be chaotic but you have to have someone in place, if you just let systems overtake your company it becomes a corporation which we are big enough to be but I don’t want that.  With the type of business you’re in being a food business, you have to have creativity don’t you? Back in the day there was no room for experimentation of your own dishes in the restaurants because it was all Rick’s food. It wasn’t that he didn’t want new ideas but he didn’t want to suddenly let everyone start creating new dishes in case he wasn't there to taste them and he didn’t feel comfortable with that. Now he trusts me to do that and to run tastings when he's not here. Last year I went on a (brief) stage at The Fat Duck. They do a lot of blind tastings there to ensure there's no bias and it’s very similar to what we used to do in the psychology department at Cardiff. Rick does them on his TV shows too and so we’ve taken this on in the development of dishes. It’s great to watch and it helps to develop everyone’s palette.  It’s about building up memory banks isn’t it? Yeah exactly and it’s all about object and pattern recognition in your cognitive centre. Encouraging your staff to get involved in improving dishes doesn’t make you any more money but in terms of staff retention and morale it’s amazing. I went into the kitchen the other day and it was great to say to the sous chef “The new bass dish, we love it, the old man loves it and the changes work, it’s on the menu as of tomorrow!” So what does the future hold then Jack? Where is Jack Stein going to be? Are you going to be at some stage the marketable face of the company? Is that what you want? I just do what I do, I'm very, very fortunate and I remind myself daily how lucky I am to live and work in Cornwall which is where I love to be, by the sea where I've grown up. I'm just going to stay in Cornwall and do my thing. If it’s anything to do with championing Cornwall, Cornish produce, Cornish chefs or the South West I’ll be there. I’m so proud that our alumni have gone out to the likes of Noma and The Fat Duck. Some have gone all over the world and two of them in particular, Nathan Outlaw and James Knappett have credited us in the press. I went to Noma and their head chef René said, “Oh James worked with you and he said it was the best time he ever had as a chef because he learnt so much,”. Nathan said the same thing and these guys are two massive stars. Yeah absolutely. I'd like that to continue. I'd like for us to continue to teach and train chefs in the simple things because we do things simply and that's because we live by the sea and there’s no need for smoke and mirrors, if you look out of the window, there's the fishing boat that caught the fish you’re cooking with and that's what I'd like to continue to do. We’re working with the head chef of the café who has got a farm just outside Padstow, it’s very à la mode. It would be brilliant for us to have our own farm but he's been farming for us at the moment. The produce is really good and he's giving us samphire, sea beet and purslane and we're looking to how we can invest in that at the moment. As well as local veg growers we've obviously got our local fish and lobster suppliers and we know the importance of keeping those relationships going because without them we're just like any other restaurant.  Okay well listen thank you very much for your time. No worries. you can follow Jack on twitter @jackstein
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th April 2012

Spotlight on ... Jack Stein, Development Chef, Stein Restaurants