The plan was to get Rick Stein to talk about what he had eaten that weekend. The problem was that in the United Kingdom, it was still very much the weekend.

"I think he's gone swimming," said the woman who answered the phone.

"It's an interview," I explained.

"Ricky," she called. "Ricky, it's an interview ... "


And so it was that 24 hours earlier than expected, and really quite early for a Sunday morning, a gracious Stein gave up his swim to talk about weekend food. Lazy breakfasts, easy Friday-night teas and long, liquor-soaked Saturday night dinners with dessert. All, preferably, consumed in another country.

Stein's latest book Long Weekends takes the celebrity chef from Bordeaux to Bologna, Copenhagen to Cadiz and six other lesser-visited European cities, including Reykjavik. He was a bit nervous about the latter.

"I'd read quite a lot about the food history of Iceland and it was very off-putting and I was quite panicky with David [his longtime producer]. I said 'we're not going to find anything to eat'."

Of course they did. Excellent fish. Excellent lamb. "But, above all," says Stein, "There are some young chefs there doing some really good food. A bit like the Danish chefs, just sticking to local ingredients. I found that in Copenhagen they go a bit too far with garnishes and elaboration. In Iceland, yes, some were a bit 'cheffy', but some of them were really, really excellent."

The halibut soup on the menu at the Stein seafood restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall? It comes from a restaurant in Reykjavik. Yes, says Stein, he's a bit of a culinary magpie.

"It's a bit naughty of me. But it's a bit like a designer going around India and looking at the colours on the walls and the saris, you get ideas much more from local cooking than you do from a chef's over-imaginative ideas ... "

Recipes in the new book reflect his ideas of the various countries he's visited, says Stein.

"If a recipe is good, I'm not going to mess with it, but they are recipes I've spent quite a bit of time getting right. You can use the internet. I use it as well, I keep forgetting, for example, how many eggs are in a Yorkshire pudding. So I look on the internet and it's just a waste of time. There are so many recipes and you get nothing out of it and most of them are so bad, and most of them are the same."

In short: "I do think there is continuing sense in people buying recipe books from somebody they trust."

Stein, who turns 70 in January, is both trusted and loved, with 23 books and 45 television shows to his name. But he famously began his cooking career serving freeze-dried curries at a quayside nightclub. When the liquor licence was lost (one too many bar brawls), food became the main focus, mostly to avoid bankruptcy. In 1975, he and his wife Jill Newstead officially launched their first seafood restaurant. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Jill recalled putting fliers on parked cars and going around caravan sites with a loud hailer, exhorting custom.

Today, Stein is a seafood legend who travels the world meeting chefs and cooks for the projects that keep him famous. If you look hard, he claims, you can find good food anywhere.

"Though I did get into a bit of trouble in Winchester last night. I was doing a Q and A and one of the questions was how come I hadn't opened a restaurant in Dubai. And I said that I just don't like Dubai. It's such a weird collection in the middle of what is, to us, not to the locals, nowhere. It's just not somewhere I'd like to have a restaurant ... I just wouldn't like to be cooking in a large city that I had no connection to."

How many eateries in the Rick Stein empire?

"We have, um, quite a lot of restaurants now. About 12, I think. Maybe 13 counting the one in Australia. But they're all different."

Fish and chip shops, a pub, a seafood bar, restaurants proper including a new one in London, a cooking school, a patisserie, a gift shop, and an accommodation business that sleeps 40.

"Have I missed any out?" Remind him his Twitter account recently mentioned a book shop? "Oh yeah, I've forgotten that. I've just taken that over with Sas, because she was in publishing in Sydney for years."

"Sas" is Sarah Burns, his second wife. He maintains a business relationship with Jill, with whom he has three children. One of those, Jack, is now executive chef of the Stein group. What did Rick Stein eat this weekend?

Rick Stein's Long Weekends features recipes from his extensive European travels.
Rick Stein's Long Weekends features recipes from his extensive European travels.

"I'll tell you what I ate yesterday, because I was on the book tour, I had a very nice lunch in my new restaurant in Marlborough. Guinea fowl with haricot beans and smoked chorizo. I must have had a seafood thing ... Oh yes, mackerel. Mackerel fillet with winter salad.

"It had quite a lot of vinegar in it but it worked a treat with the oiliness of the fish. I remember when Jack first did it for us, saying 'for god's sake put a bit of sugar in it.' And he didn't, and now I really like it."

In Stein's book (literally) Saturday brunch and lunch are interchangeable. In the earliest days of his cooking career, he and Jill would shut the restaurant in winter and travel the world. At home, they would invite friends for long weekend house parties, where Stein would test recipes for late risers.

"A time to try some slightly daring cooking," he writes. "If you think of Saturday as a sort of sine wave, this time on a Saturday, you are definitely on your way up."

Segue into dinner. A few weekends from now, he says, he'll host the film crew that made the television series that goes with Long Weekends (screening dates here have yet to be announced). He'll cook a dish from a long weekend in Cadiz, Spain, called arroz verde - green rice with garlic, parsley, clams and prawns. It's from a restaurant called La Marea, where he ate almost daily while filming in the coastal city. Stein loved it - but his crew insisted on paella.

"And like a lot of paella in Spain, they put too much yellow colouring in it. Not saffron. We filmed the whole crew. I said 'look, I'm not having the paella, you need sunglasses to eat that'. And the next shot is all the crew putting on their sunglasses. I thought, right, I'm going to give them arroz verde."

Stein says food is playing an increasing role in people's weekends.

"In the old days, certainly in my old days, the weekend was just about Sunday lunch ... now people have time to do something a bit more complicated, a bit more elaborate, and that sits nicely with this idea of going away to some nice city in some nice part of Europe."

He concedes that's harder for New Zealanders - "you need about 10 hours to get anywhere apart from Australia!" - but on the plus side, stay-at-home cooks have an abundance of choice.

Forced to cook for a weekend in New Zealand, Stein says "I would go for the fish, because it's just brilliant. In fact, I just think you're very lucky, you have some of the best fish and the most sustainable fisheries in the world. If I could get my hands on some paua, I'd cook up, maybe not a fritter, I do like the fritters but I quite like doing other things with abalone. And the fruit and veg is exceptional. I do think it's just a great country for really good raw materials."

Lowdown: Rick Stein's Long Weekends, BBC Books, $65.
Prime Planet: Rick Stein's Taste of Shanghai screens tomorrow (November 6) at 7.30pm on Prime