By Susan Young
I HADN’T PLANNED ON DOING AN INTERVIEW WITH CHEF GARY RHODES THIS MONTH, BUT ON A NEW YEAR’S BREAK TO DUBAI MY HOST WITH THE MOST, MARK TOLLAND, INTRODUCED ME TO HIM IN THE BUDDHA BAR, AND LO AND BEHOLD AT SOME POINT IN THE EVENING HE AGREED TO DO A WEE INTERVIEW WITH THE DRAM.
Gary Rhodes OBE, as I am sure many of you know, is one of the UK’s best-known chefs and restaurateurs. He won his first Michelin Star at the tender age of 26, and gained his second in 1996 for the Greenhouse in Mayfair. The following year he opened City Rhodes and in 1998, Rhodes in the Square.
Both were awarded Michelin Stars. He then expanded into Manchester, Edinburgh and West Sussex with three brasseries under the name Rhodes & Co. He also opened various other restaurants which went on to gain Michelin stars too.
Five years ago he moved to Dubai and today has two first class restaurants in the city – Rhodes W1 in the Grosvenor House Hotel and Rhodes Twenty 20 at Le Royal Meridien, Gary explains, “When I came over here to live I only had one restaurant left in the UK, but due to my move I decided to close it because it had a Michelin star and I didn’t want to lose it… I’ve never lost one! Today the only thing I am involved with in the UK is a business called Rhokett and we create deserts for M&S, along with Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, as well as other supermarkets and airline companies. I have a business partner in the business and we have three factories in Kent, so it’s looking very healthy.”
Gary is also looking fit and healthy, despite having just worked Christmas Day at Rhodes W1. He tells me, “I made a promise to my wife Jennie that I wasn’t going to work Christmas day, and then as it got closer and closer, I thought ‘yes I am going to do it,’ and already I know that I am going to do it again next year. The restaurant was packed and busy and I loved doing it. Since I’ve been here I’ve worked every Christmas Day, I don’t have to, but I get a real kind of buzz from doing it.”
Although Gary moved to Dubai in 2012, he first started visiting 14 years ago, and opened Rhodes Mezzanine (the forerunner to Rhodes W1) in the Grosvenor House Hotel in 2007. Explains Gary, “Pam Wilby who is the MD of three hotels, Grosvenor House 1, Grosvenor House 2 and Le Royal Meridien, approached me to set up a restaurant but at the time I was still involved with another hotel and couldn’t do anything for a year, but Pam luckily kept the offer open.”
As a result Gary launched Rhodes Mezzanine at the Grosvenor House Hotel in 2007 to great acclaim winning Restaurant of the Year amongst other accolades. However, after seven years Gary changed the name and the offering in 2014 with the opening of a more casual but chic offering, Rhodes W1.
Explains Gary, “We went through a period whereby fine dining was thrown out the window. People wanted to go to places that were noisy, loud and lively, where you could throw things on the table and help yourself. As a result Mezzanine’s audience shrunk. That’s why we rebranded and changed the menu.”
However, it now appears that Rhodes W1 customers are changing again. Says Gary, “The biggest problem we found while trying to introduce different styles was that our audience wanted to return to having their own choice and they didn’t want to share. So we have listened to them and we have changed tack. It’s working because we have got a lot busier. They order what they want, it is not thrown on the table, and they are willing to pay more for it too, particularly at this time of year, when we are very busy.
“There is still an audience here who want something more exclusive, so I have gone back to individual dishes and this year we’re hoping to return to tablecloth style, which will help change the decor and look of the room itself. I’m not 100% sure yet what I will do with the décor to make the room a bit more exclusive. But I want my customers to know if they come here to Rhodes W1 at this hotel, nothing will match what we are doing. I’m not saying other restaurants are not as good as us, but the style of what we have here is different and it is working for us we have got a lot busier. There are masses of restaurants here and not always enough people, only a few restaurants in the whole of Dubai can really fill on a daily basis. So you have to be on the ball.”
He continues, “We are changing the menu later this month to keep the interest up. I try and change it as much as a can, but I don’t do it more than four times a year, and I don’t change every dish. I’ve already done the menu and will start the training very soon. Training is a massive part of what I do. My staff have to know the dishes inside out before we start serving them. And I make sure they try them all several times before we put it on the menu.”
He continues, “People come to Dubai for inspiration and similarly I’m always looking at different foods and restaurants for fresh inspiration, often a dish I’ve tried will hold an element I fancy introducing into a dish of my own, however, it’s not about copying, as these points I’ve chosen can so many times result in something inventive, but they did provide the inspiration I needed! For instance, I’m an Ambassador for the Great Britain culinary campaign and have had the privilege of cooking in many countries around the world, including Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia, showing off what’s Great about Britain and the fabulous ingredients it produces amongst its Classics!”
Gary also runs Rhodes Twenty10 at Le Royal Meridien Hotel in Dubai, a grill, which he opened in 2011. Says Gary, “Before I took it over I had gone for dinner there and every every single course came with sauces and sides, it was all a bit too much. I went to see Pam and said to her, what’s the chance of me running that restaurant? I feel their just trying too hard and simply want the guests to feel they’re in control of what they wish to eat. I couldn’t believe how quickly Pam replied with ‘yes, let’s go for it’! Rhodes Twenty 10 is just a grill room/Steakhouse, but it’s become even more popular than RW1. We serve top quality meat, including Waghu Steaks, that are not over played with and you can create your meal by choosing what you have with it from the sauce to the vegetables.”
He continues, “Prime cuts of meat are always number one, but there is another audience willing to be more adventurous and going for different cuts. The optimum age for prime cuts of beef is 4 weeks….As for asking me what knife I’d like to use, this has become a bit of a gimmick and I’d rather simply say – a sharp one please!” “I have to admit I’d love to look after Geales restaurant at Le Royal Meridien, I feel it holds so much potential and already doing very well. But us chefs, we can become greedy and I just love a new challenge to take that restaurant on to a whole new level (but I haven’t mentioned that to Pam yet!).”
Gary definitely has a work ethos second to none. He tells me, “Being a chef is tough and you really have to believe in yourself. If you want to get on you have to work hard for it. Nothing comes to you, you have to go and get it. I’m very particular if I really want to chase something I will work for it, and chase it as much as I possibly can.”
In Dubai it’s not just restaurants that he has an interest and a passion for, he has also done a deal with Vox Cinemas. Says Gary, “They approached me two years ago and asked me if I would like to get involved with taking over a division covering all of their Emirates cinemas, so we formed another company. Three of us own it, and what we have done is change the whole style of eating in cinema restaurants here. We make great burgers, even butchering and mincing the meat, adding extra flavours to the mix so it stands out. We now have six sites, ranging from 2-4 cinemas within each site, and there are more happening. This year we are opening in Doha and Egypt.
“We have VOX thEATre by Rhodes, which we look at as the equivalent of an Airlines first class, providing a top quality service in luxury surroundings with fine food to match (for instance the menu includes crab and asparagus bruschetta and foie gras and truffle butter panini). Then there are our Gold cinemas, which offer a slightly different style in larger sized cinemas and at a more competitive price. All of the other cinemas within VOX are looked after by another division of the company.”
That’s not all. Gary also provides school dinners! He explains, “We look after five schools all together including a couple in Abu Dhabi. We provide what I would call healthy food. Every single item is freshly made. There is nothing bought in and we give them a nice balanced menu – three courses, a vegetable soup, a solid main course, and a small sweet, (which don’t contain a lot of sugar). When I’m out folk, whose children are at these schools, come up to me and say ‘what a headache you have caused me… my children say our meals at home are not as nice as Gary’s at school’’… but really they are delighted because they want their kids to eat school lunches.”
And there is more… having 19 books under his belt, the first of which was printed in 1994 and was called Rhodes around Britain, which was turned into a TV series, Gary now feels it is time to revisit the original concept but 25 years on! So he has two years to get the plan in place.
He says, “I want to do the series all over again, but with a 25 year gap. I’d like to see how has the UK changed, and what has happened on the culinary scene. I think it will make a really good interesting series. For instance 25 years ago you didn’t have the young with the knowledge of food they do today. The whole style of eating has changed. Things then were very traditional, but during the 1990’s – 2000 – 2005 a different style of eating evolved which saw everything put on table and people munching in, now this is quite massive. The young of today were either babies or not born when I did the original series. And they were born into a whole new era and new style of food. I want to see how different it is now from yesterdays audience. It will be almost educational but interesting to see. Have foods totally changed or have we just tried to take the very much same foods but present them in a different style and format?”
Gary has been called the ‘Chefs Chef’, I asked him why he thought he got the nickname. “It was written about some time ago, when I was on TV and had my own series. I mean TV on the culinary scene can sometimes become a bit tricksy, I’m not even sure if everyone actually knows quite what their cooking, or if it really works as a complete dish. Having said that, there’s also some top quality chefs out there who really have to be 100% sure they believe in what their putting together, and that’s exactly how I like to work.
“I have to be convinced the reason that I am telling and selling it to the general public is that I believe in it. I suppose I wasn’t ever just a TV cook. I am someone who is 100% solid chef, and I have dedicated my life to industry, but I don’t try to turn the viewers all into professional chefs but everything I have given them comes from being a professional chef.”
Gary also had a restaurant in Edinburgh for a couple of years, but unfortunately he didn’t often get out to eat in the city. He explains, “I would go up and work, work, work and then go back to London. Although I like Edinburgh, it is a beautiful place, it doesn’t quite have the life that Glasgow has.” I asked him what advice he had for young chefs coming into the business.
He says, “Sometimes young people say to me, ‘I love to be a chef but when you are starting out the pay is really bad compared to other jobs… but I say to them that may be the case, but ten years from now it will be a different story particularly if you dedicate yourselves to this industry. It is tough and you don’t earn a lot of money initially, but in the long-term it totally pays off. It can give you a great life and the scope for the industry is phenomenal. You may miss out in your early days, but the gains are there later on. The scope for the industry is phenomenal, you never stop learning as each day, month and year passes.”
If there is anyone who is a fine example of that it is Gary Rhodes, but probably what comes across is that he loves what he does, and he enjoys the life he has.
He concludes, “I love my life over here”.