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After graduating, Stein converted a mobile disco in Padstow, which he had run as a student, into a quayside nightclub with his friend, Johnny. It became known for its freeze-dried curries. However, the nightclub lost its licence and was closed down by the police, mainly due to frequent brawls with local fishermen. The pair still had a licence for a restaurant in another part of the building, so they continued with that to avert bankruptcy. Stein ran the kitchen using the experience he had gained as a commis chef. Eventually he converted it into a small harbour-side bistro, "The Seafood Restaurant", with his first wife Jill in 1975. As of 2015, his business operates four restaurants, a bistro, a café, a seafood delicatessen, a pâtisserie shop, a gift shop and a cookery school. In 2007 threats against Stein's businesses were made by Cornish nationalists. His impact on the economy of Padstow is such that it has been nicknamed "Padstein".
In 2009, Stein made his first acquisition in the nearby village of St Merryn, 3½ miles from Padstow, taking over the Cornish Arms public house on the village's outskirts, intending to keep it as a traditional Cornish pub.
In October 2009, Stein and his future second wife (fiancée at the time), the publicist Sarah Burns, opened "Rick Stein at Bannisters" in Mollymook, Australia. Stein said at the time of opening, "Ever since a memorable weekend eating Pambula oysters and flathead in Merimbula in the sixties, I've had the image of the clean blue sea and sweet seafood of the South Coast fixed in my head so when I was introduced to Mollymook about six years ago I knew that one day I would open up a restaurant celebrating local fish and shellfish but keeping it really simple."
In 2018, Stein opened up a second "Rick Stein at Bannisters" in Salamander Bay in Port Stephens, with his second wife, Sarah. Stein has become a popular television presenter on food programmes. After appearing once as a guest chef in Keith Floyd's 1985 series Floyd on Fish and in his 1986 series Floyd on Food, he was offered the chance to present his own series – like the "travelogue" style of cookery show pioneered by Floyd – on BBC television, using Floyd's producer and director David Pritchard. This caused some rivalry, even feud, only resolved shortly before Floyd's death. His shows have included Rick Stein's Taste of the Sea, Fruits of the Sea, Seafood Odyssey, Fresh Food, Seafood Lovers' Guide, Food Heroes, French Odyssey, Mediterranean Escapes, Far Eastern Odyssey, Rick Stein's Spain and Rick Stein's India. In the last five series, he set out in search of the best in the region's foods.
Until his 2007 death at the age of 17, Stein was often accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier, Chalky. So popular was Chalky that Sharp's Brewery named two speciality beers after him, and an early day motion was tabled in the British House of Commons lamenting his death. The early day motion however only gathered three other signatories.
Much of Stein's television work has been released on VHS tape or DVD, but the BBC have yet to release some of the early pioneering series. Since late 2018, however, much has been licensed to the Good Food cable TV channel, where it has been broadcast with some heavy editing (and therefore omitting up to 20% of the original broadcast footage) to allow for the inclusion of adverts.
A book has accompanied each series, and Stein's book English Seafood Cookery won the Glenfiddich Award for Food Book of the Year in 1989. Stein was awarded the OBE in the 2003 New Year Honours for services to tourism in Cornwall and the CBE in the 2018 New Year Honours for services to the economy.
On 22 June 2020, it was confirmed that Stein's restaurant in Porthleven, Cornwall would close permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant had been closed since March 2020. In July it was announced that chef Michael Caines would take over the restaurant.