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No fisherman's friend: rumours surface of bitterness against Rick Stein in Cornwall

Local fishermen complain their catch is spurned by celebrity chef’s restaurants, but his team defend record of creating jobs and attracting tourists


Fisherman Gary Eastwell was pleased with his morning’s work. Shortly after dawn he had chugged out of Britain’s most southerly port on his boat, the Morning Star, and by lunchtime was back on the sunlit quayside at Porthleven with a haul of pollack and lobster.

His mood turned when asked if any of his catch would make its way to the restaurant of Cornwall’s most famous chef, Rick Stein, where diners were tucking into starters a minute’s walk away.

“He doesn’t buy any fish from us. We get beautiful lobster, pollack, line-caught bass, monkfish, everything you can think of. He could walk over here and buy it but he doesn’t. He gets it from a fish merchant instead. It winds me up. He hasn’t bought one fish from me.”

Gary Eastwell, Porthleven fisherman. ‘He could walk over here and buy it but he doesn’t. He gets it from a fish merchant instead.’ Photograph: Ben Mostyn for the Guardian

Eastwell’s pollack is sold instead on the quay to local people and visitors; his lobsters head for the holding tanks of a shellfish merchant en route to high-end British restaurants or are trucked to the continent. None of it ends up at the Stein restaurant on the quay. “I think a lot of the people who go to the restaurant would be surprised at that,” Eastwell said.

The question of where Stein sources his fish came to the fore this week when a small fire broke out in a bin store next to his Porthleven restaurant. Nobody was hurt and the story would probably only have made a brief in the local paper, until someone wondered if a frustrated fisherman could be to blame.

There is no suggestion that there is any truth in the idea – and Stein’s people believe the fire is more likely to have been caused by an electrical fault – but nevertheless the story ran. A Telegraph headline said the culprit could have been one of the chef’s “many enemies” in the village. The Mail claimed there had been “years of bitterness” between Stein and the local community.

Rick Stein on the rooftop of his Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall. Photograph: Alamy

Now, it is true that Stein is not universally loved in Cornwall. He and his former wife Jill founded the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow on the north coast in 1975 and have opened so many satellite businesses in the town that it has been dubbed (unaffectionately) “Padstein”.

In recent years, the empire has expanded to Falmouth on the south coast and to Porthleven, where the Stein restaurant opened in a grade II listed former china clay store three years ago.

Porthleven is an interesting village, remote and tight-knit. The local paper, the West Briton, still carries the shipping news and glorious old-fashioned obituaries complete with names of funeral mourners. In the summer it heaves with tourists, and harbour-side homes can sell for half a million pounds.

Yet it also ranks among the most deprived parishes in England. According to the blog of the Porthleven mayor, Andrew Wallis, a tenth of homes do not have central heating, while 16% of children and 17% of pensioners live in poverty.

Emily (left) and Martha, local residents. ‘I can’t imagine ever eating there. It’s for posh people,’ said Martha. Photograph: Ben Mostyn for the Guardian

Perhaps it is not surprising that some look askance at Stein’s business. “I can’t imagine ever eating there,” said Martha, a 17-year-old college student sitting on the green overlooking the harbour. “It’s for posh people, not for the likes of us.” Her friend, Emily, also 17, agreed. “I’ve seen Rick Stein on the television. I don’t really think of him as Cornish. He’s not chilled enough.”

That may not be quite fair. Although he was born in Oxfordshire, Stein’s family has had connections with Cornwall for the best part of a century. He spends much of his time in Australia now, but those close to him say he still thinks of Padstow as home. His friends also say he is pretty chilled.

Over the years Stein has brought millions into the Cornish economy and this summer will employ more than 450 people here. About two-thirds of managers have been promoted from within and some staff have been with the business for decades.

Many Porthleven people do see this and accept there are advantages to having a celebrity chef in town.

Peter Webster, who was walking his dog, Bruce, on the quay, said the Stein name brought in new people. “And when they come they realise how lovely it is and keep coming.” Had he eaten there? “Once. It was very nice but small portions. I wished the chippy had been open afterwards.”

“Think of the jobs he’s brought here,” said Jonah Jones, who is restoring the fishing boat Sapphire on the quayside. “Much-needed jobs. The idea that someone would try to burn his place down is just bollocks.”

Boat restorer Jonah Jones: ‘Think of the jobs he’s brought here.’ Photograph: Ben Mostyn for the Guardian

But where does Stein’s fish come from? A couple of hours before the Morning Star arrived back in port, a Matthew Stevens van delivered five boxes of fish – cod, crab, prawns, mackerel, mussels and bass. Just over £200 worth. Three boxes contained fresh fish, two frozen.

Stevens is a fishmonger based 17 miles from Porthleven at St Ives. He has worked with Stein for 20 years. Stevens’s fish comes from various sources, including the market at Newlyn and dayboats that work out of ports around the coast. It is prepped and sent on to the Stein restaurants in Cornwall and further afield (he has branched out to Wiltshire, Hampshire and London).

Stein’s people argue that this means customers will receive the same excellent fish whether they are in Padstow, Porthleven or Barnes in London. Their chefs prepare menus in advance and want a reliable, consistent supply. The vagaries of the weather mean that people like Eastwell and his colleagues at Porthleven are sometimes unable to get out of port for days.

A spokesperson for Stein also pointed out that this model meant the business could be sure the fish it was serving came from sustainable sources.

Porthleven lobster fisherman Jonathan Fletcher was sympathetic to Stein, arguing that he provided the “antique shop effect”. “You get one good or well-known restaurant in a place and it attracts more people. It also means that everyone has to up their game.”

He explained how last summer a local cafe did take fish straight from the quayside icehouse and was doing a roaring trade – until the authorities stepped in and said they needed to fill in paperwork to move the fish the few metres from store to kitchen.

“They couldn’t be bothered, so stopped. That’s the problem. That’s where we’ve got to. Getting a fish from a boat to a restaurant has become a bit more complicated than it ought to be.”

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