Making Waves – Meet Charlie Stein
Words by Sophie Farrah
The youngest of three, Charlie Stein was born in Padstow in 1985, ten years after Rick and Jill first opened their small seafood bistro on the harbour.
“85 is a good vintage. I don’t get to drink enough of it,” he laughs.
He was brought up by the sea in Cornwall, alongside brothers Ed and Jack, in an environment that was, as you can probably imagine, filled with a sense of lively hospitality, the joys of cooking and the day-to-day demands of running of a busy restaurant.
“Food and drink was always there. Literally there, on the table, but it was also our bread and butter,” Charlie recalls.
“Mum and dad would cook every Sunday at home, and the rest of the time we would be in The Seafood Restaurant, which is basically where I grew up. We spent a lot of time as children there – under the tables and running around the kitchen,” he smiles.
“Now, that restaurant is more important than any building in the world to me. I have such a strong, visceral connection with it. I know that we’re only custodians of these buildings, but it’s more than that. It’s filled with memories.”
When Charlie was younger, The Seafood Restaurant would close for the winter season; time for the Steins to take a break perhaps, but even then, food was still at the top of the agenda. Family holidays were planned solely around their edible opportunities, and it was these early trips that would go on to not only influence many of Rick’s books and TV series, but Charlie’s career too.
“Every holiday we ever took was centred around food, and this was way before global food tourism. We would go to backstreets of India, to Hong Kong, Thailand…” he explains.
“We’d also go to Bordeaux and to Australia to stay with my dad’s friend who’s a wine maker. I didn’t really understand the wine making process – I was too young, but I remember thinking it was very cool, even back then.”
Back in Padstow, business was booming. The family’s second restaurant, St Petroc’s Bistro, opened in 1988, followed by Rick Stein’s Café in 1994. Soon, the time would come for Charlie to start thinking about his own future, but was he ever tempted to follow in his father’s culinary footsteps?
“I was. I went into the kitchen, but I came out quite quickly!” he laughs.
“I actually love cooking, I do most of the cooking at home, and I worked as a chef for a couple of years, but I just didn’t want all the stress that can come in a professional kitchen.”
Instead, Charlie chose to forge his own path and pursue a career in wine. After completing his Wine & Spirit (WSET) qualifications, he went to London to work at new wave wine merchant, The Vintner. He spent nearly 8 years in the industry, before returning to the family fold with his newfound knowledge. Today, he handpicks every bottle in the business, and utilises his connections to bring the very best wines to Rick Stein customers.
“Wine is my life, it’s my passion,” he smiles.
“And it’s a great privilege to have this amazing business that I could come back to. I love meeting producers and hearing the stories about the wines that they craft, and in terms of taste, I look for freshness, body, and texture. It’s a bit like a lightbulb, I just know – ‘that’s the one’. There’s a lot of quality control to make sure that our wines are the best they possibly can be. I have to taste a lot…”
Sounds like a tough job, but, as the saying goes, someone’s got to do it…
“Seriously though, I do have to try a lot of bad wine!” he laughs.
“And after nine hours of tasting wine, all you want is a beer, and that beer is the best you’ll have ever tasted!”
Charlie hosts regular masterclasses and wine dinners, and is an increasingly familiar face on television, having appeared on a number of food and drink programmes. As well as overseeing the company’s wine lists, he is also responsible for the group’s successful online wine shop. Recently, he collaborated with Cornish distillery, Tarquin’s, to create a distinctive gin made with botanicals that can be found along the Cornish coastline, and has been busy sourcing a very special Bordeaux which sits alongside the elegant White Burgundy, fragrant Spanish White and juicy Spanish Red that make up the Rick Stein wine collection.
“Our Stein’s Bordeaux is from a really small chateau and a lovely producer. We launched it last autumn, shipping it over in small quantities.”
In addition to keeping a firm eye on all things wine, today Charlie is also a director of the business and sits on the board alongside Rick and Jill, and brothers, Jack and Ed, all of whom play an active role in the running of the business, and plans for its future.
“I love the business side of things. It’s very big, and there’s a lot to learn. There’s definitely a growing emphasis on us [Charlie, Jack and Ed] to do more, which is great, and feels very empowering. The pull of the family business is incredibly strong with all of us. It’s a way of life for us, as much as it is a job,” he explains.
“You trust your family more than anyone in the world, and so you know that the person next to you is going to do their very best for you and the business. It’s a very strong feeling, all pulling together in the same direction,” he continues.
“And we all get on. The only disagreements we ever seem to have are about food! We’ll sit in the boardroom and argue about bread quality for an hour. Or fresh orange juice – which is very important at breakfast! Those are the things that drive us. Those details are what amount to the business and the quality of what we do.”
Recently, the family firm has gained a new member, although she isn’t expected in the board room quite yet. Charlie and his partner, Laura, welcomed the arrival of their daughter, Romy, at the end of 2021.
“I don’t get out as much as I used to!” Charlie laughs.
“But fatherhood is awesome. It’s very rewarding, and she is the next generation. It’s great to see her in the restaurants, because they are hers, in a way.”
Over the years, Stein’s much-loved restaurants have hosted hundreds of happy occasions, long lunches, lively suppers, and created lasting memories for many. Since The Seafood Restaurant opened back in 1975, the company has grown exponentially. Today, it also encompasses beautiful bedrooms, a busy cookery school, successful online shop, and more, and after nearly five decades, it’s still going strong.
“There have been challenges and there still are, but as my mum says, she’s done four recessions and a pandemic, so…!” Charlie laughs.
“She has worked so hard for 48 years, and she never rests really. I go into St Petroc’s and she’s there, moving things around and straightening paintings. Dad’s the same – he’ll never stop. He taught me the importance of attention to detail, and a passion for the things that really matter in a business like ours, which is what happens when you sit down – the quality of the food and the importance of simplicity, and looking after people,” he continues.
“I am doing a lot more of that – I am really working to look after our people and make a sustainable company for the next 50 years.”
Charlie may well be carving out his own path within the business and looking optimistically towards the future but fear not – this doesn’t mean that dramatic change is afoot.
“We’re not going to go start chasing whatever the new trendy thing is, that’s just not our style,” he says.
“Dad never wanted to do fussy fine dining and that has stood the test of time. Some restaurants have moved towards that, but the reality is that a lot of people just want a simple turbot hollandaise, or incredibly fresh fruits de mer”, he smiles.
“I think people come to our restaurants because they know what they’re going to get – a delicious, classic dish served in a lovely environment, and I don’t think we’ll ever move too far away from that.”
When he’s not busy in a board meeting, being a dad, or visiting wine producers, Charlie lets off steam by running, watching the football, and enjoying the odd glass of ‘nice wine’, whilst splitting his time between North London and Cornwall.
“I love getting out of London – I just pop on a podcast and drive. I stop at our restaurant in Marlborough sometimes on the way down,” he says.
“I also love to surf and just off the M5 there’s an artificial surf pool called The Wave, so I stop there a lot. In Cornwall I head to Constantine or Harlyn Bay, and Watergate is good for surfing too. I go to Trevone as well, which is where I grew up, it’s never quite as busy as everywhere else, which is always good,” he smiles.
“That’s the biggest thing I miss about Cornwall when I am in London. The sea. I love walking along the South Bank by the Thames, but it’s just not quite the Atlantic Ocean.”