Have you heard the way Rick Stein pronounces paella? He does it the way you would expect any rando Englishman from a village in Cornwall to pronounce it: “Pay-el-la”.
Except, Stein isn’t just any rando Englishman from a village in Cornwall. He’s a star chef, author and TV presenter. He’s incredibly well travelled. He’s spent a lot of time in Spain. And yet still. Pay-el-la.
This is the sort of thing you need to know about Rick Stein, the unlikely travel genius who provides what might just be the best escapism on TV today: he’s daggy. He’s sweaty. He gets things wrong. His pronunciation of foreign words is almost wilfully appalling.
And for all those reasons and many more, we have to doff our chefs’ hats to one of the greats.
I’ve been watching a lot of Rick Stein recently, while spending a chunk of time at home. I’ve been watching Rick Stein’s Long Weekends in particular, a series that was released by the BBC in 2016, and yet for some reason is only just being screened on SBS.
You’ve heard of comfort food? This is comfort viewing. Stein is the daggy dad of TV travel.
(Though he’s also an unlikely sex symbol. I know of multiple people of a certain age who look forward to the scenes where Stein strips off his top and goes for a swim.)
This isn’t the normal way to do things. You may have seen the American actor Stanley Tucci’s recent foray into travel TV, Searching for Italy. It’s a great series. I love it.
Tucci is debonair. He’s stylish. He’s suave. He’s a glass of fine Barolo.
Rick Stein, meanwhile, is not. He’s usually wearing a polo shirt and boat shoes, and almost always clutching a notebook to write down everything he sees. He’s the pint of ale you have down at your local.
Even the opening sequences of Stein’s many travel series manage to stand out with their amazing lack of currency or cool. Anthony Bourdain had Queens of the Stone Age record his theme song. Rick Stein has jazzy, Sinatra-style vocals and cheesy animations.
And yet still, I connect with Rick Stein, as I’m sure so many viewers do. I want to go on holiday with him (as opposed to, say, Phil Rosenthal from the series Somebody Feed Phil, whose grinning schtick would wear thin within minutes). I want to eat and drink with him.
And Stein does do a lot of eating and drinking, which might be part of the connection. I love eating and drinking when I travel. I also love what Stein calls “mooching about”, as he just wanders around cities discovering and jotting notes in his dorky notebook.
There’s a certain pace to a Stein travel series that you have to enjoy, a certain style. He stays in accommodation that makes you think, hey, that’s just like the place I stayed in. He eats in restaurants that make you think you could actually afford to dine there. He catches public transport. He walks places.
He was also one of the original slow travellers in this age of TV hosts who can go anywhere from week to week. Stein’s series are often complete journeys, with a set beginning and end, journeys of discovery that, again, would be reasonable and in fact admirable to attempt to recreate. Barely any flying. A lot of time spent on the ground, discovering.
Other TV series don’t do that. It’s more like: this week we’re in France; next week Brazil; next week Boston. Stein just gets on a barge and floats down the Canal du Midi for 10 glorious, boozy, sunny episodes. Or he makes his way slowly and sweatily across South-East Asia for an entire series.
And he doesn’t like some things, which is surprisingly refreshing. Sometimes, places or experiences or meals just aren’t his cup of tea, and he says so. That’s fine, because it’s not cynical, and these small moments of gentle complaint are balanced by an air of wide-eyed wonderment, of genuine enjoyment of the world, of amazing things ready to be committed to the notebook even after so many adventures.
You get the feeling Rick Stein could actually make you a better traveller, maybe even a better person. He’s always quoting great works of literature, most of which I have never heard of before. He’s always stopping for a drink and snack when so many of us would be tempted to fit in just one more attraction, one more place.
In some ways, Stein the travel presenter is defined by what he’s not. He’s not stylish, he’s not cool, he’s not particularly wild or daring. And he still can’t properly pronounce paella.
Yet he does travel right. And he might just be the best presenter on TV.
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