I am in Padstein. It used to be a fishing village, just north of Newquay. It was Padstow then. But then came Rick Stein.
Padstein has the smell of a theme park. This is a village made over by one man; it belongs to him. In my hand I have a map of every Rick Stein outlet in town, numbered for ease of access — four restaurants, five hotels, a cookery school, a cottage, a pub, a gift shop, a patisserie, a delicatessen. People queue to buy Rick Stein chutney, drink Rick Stein-endorsed wine, eat Rick Stein chips or sleep on Rick Stein pillows. He is expanding into Falmouth, opening a bookshop. Perhaps he will write all the books. Who knows?
He actually lives in Australia, which makes me wonder how much he likes the town he created. Perhaps, like God, he made a universe so perfect he could not bear to watch others live in it. But as I explore Padstein, I do not feel more than three inches from the centre of his brain, which never stops. I feel I am behind his eyes. Does he talk to the fish? What deal has he struck with them?
His original restaurant, the Seafood Restaurant (established 1975) faces the car park, which is useful, but not pretty. This is one thing Stein could not change, although I suspect he would like to dig it up in the night and sign his name on the rubble. Inside is a wall covered with his many awards and another with his many books. Promotional material for his other ventures is everywhere, in tidy piles. He is the control freak’s control freak.
It is very clean — white walls, wood floors, a central bar with a pig’s leg sitting on it. There is interesting art — a painting of a man with the head of a pig and breasts, wrapped in a nurse’s outfit — and staff as blonde and fresh as von Trapp children. The menu is a long love-letter to lobster and Chablis. Padstow, as one, must have belched when Stein turned up. What about the soggy pasties? What about them?
The customers are English, but they do not look English. They are too well scrubbed and laundered. Only the English seem this panicked about dressing well. They planned this meal; they even washed for it. They stare at the menu, suck the clams.
My companion wants lobster and foie gras salad but fears lobster, so it comes without, with no complaint. The foie gras is sublime, almost worth torturing a goose for. The summer greens risotto is lemony and beautiful, strangely like an ice cream. Cod and chips are the best I have had — solid and fragrant — and Heinz Ketchup and Sarson’s vinegar arrive too, with no threat of violence. A tiny strawberry Pavlova comes next; I am always amazed that a sugary dessert is named after a ballerina who would never touch it, but I eat the irony too. Vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce finish us off; they make the sauce at my companion’s request. We are high and giggly now, as if we have taken opium.
Afterwards, we go to the terrace, which has big sofas and cocktails. There is an unmistakable whiff of Cornwall squeezing itself into Martha’s Vineyard, and thrashing. My companion turns to the hotel beside us. It is a grand hotel on the skids: the Metropole. ‘I would like to stay there,’ she says. Instantly a Stein employee is at her shoulder. He is friendly, smiling and very clean — a Stein-bot, one of hundreds. ‘No, Madame,’ he says, ‘Stay with us.’ He indicates a small slate hotel with teal window-frames. It is a Rick Stein hotel, of course, and we too smile. Padstein will not let us out.
The Seafood Restaurant, Riverside, Padstow, Cornwall; 01841 532700; www.rickstein.com
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