By Penelope Walsh
Michelin-starred chef launches ThEATre inside Mall of the Emirates’ new Vox experience
Chef Gary Rhodes is sitting in what can only be described as the cinema seat of the future. While Time Out Dubai’s photographer fiddles with his camera and lighting settings, Rhodes fiddles with the seat’s settings, elevating the foot rest, reclining the back rest, demonstrating what these chairs can do.
“This is rather nice, isn’t it?” he laughs, nearly supine in this super-luxe chair. “I can imagine sitting here and watching a movie with a nice little mocktail.”
We’re in one of the state-of-the-art auditoriums created for Vox’s latest cinema project: ThEATre by Rhodes. Over the years that we’ve spoken to him, there are two important things we’ve learnt about the British Michelin-starred chef. One, at the age of 55, Rhodes is a chef who never stands still, never stops striving to evolve. Two, however simply Rhodes explains one of his dishes, you can expect that this is not just a burger, or a sandwich, or a pie. His will be a version that has involved hours of intricate homemade steps to create a fine and real food version of the recipe.
It is no real surprise then to learn that he has turned his expertise to yet another new project, and that he is also bringing the same Rhodes philosophy found in his restaurants to the menu. The twist this time? It’s in a cinema.
Just launched in Mall of the Emirates’ new extension last month, there are already plans to expand ThEATre by Rhodes into other Vox cinemas in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and potentially beyond. It is effectively a luxury upgrade on Vox’s existing Gold class cinema experience, with a menu created by Rhodes available to cinemagoers before, during or after the film. “If you fly first class, you get a comfortable seat, but you don’t necessarily get good food, too,” Rhodes says. “We are trying to be a cut above.”
You might ask yourself why a top chef would leave his restaurant kitchen, but Rhodes is already no stranger to cooking in unusual places, after working for several years on the menus for P&O cruise ships. “It’s an unknown,” Rhodes says of this new Vox project. “But that’s what I love. Now there is a new challenge. That is what I thrive on. Part of that is the pressure. Everything we do, we are making from scratch. We are not buying anything in. We want to give quality, restaurant quality food, in the cinema.”
Working together with his long-term right-hand man chef Wayne Tapsfield (who is also a partner in the new venture), his son Sam Rhodes and head chef Richard Wilson (who has worked at Rhodes restaurants in the UK and UAE); the chef has an army of familiar Rhodes comrades working with him on ThEATre. Even Mrs Rhodes is involved, typing up the recipe files for the kitchen, Rhodes jokes. The result is an overRhodes of culinary influence...
“It is probably why Wayne and I have worked together for so long. We both believe in exactly the same thing. If we are going to put our name to something, it’s got to have our signature on the bottom. And that is basically saying that everything has to be made. We’ve even been working on tailoring our burger bun recipes to what we want.”
Those buns, he explains, have been tweaked by adding potato to the recipe. “You get a nice crispy finish and the fat doesn’t actually bleed in to the bread, leaving you eating a greasy bun. You can’t have greasy fingers while you watch a movie, and you can’t have a finger bowl in there, because you are in the pitch black.” This is just one of the ways in which the menu has been considered for its cinemagoing purpose. All the dishes, Rhodes adds, are essentially upgraded finger food. There is a lamb tagine, for instance, but all the flavour, sweetness and spices of a messy and saucy tagine have been translated into neat (and delicious) little fritter balls, served with a cucumber raita. There are also paninis, but these are not your average café fare. “You’ve got 30g of foie gras sitting in each little panini. They are toasted with truffle butter melting into them, then some little rocket leaves, the foie gras just seared, with veal bacon and a nice little maple syrup dressing, just drizzled over it. Look at this thick piece of foie gras. It’s gorgeous.”
Burgers are also given the first class treatment, with a beef variety (made entirely from scratch, of course) and a duck burger recipe. “It’s down to the detail. Even with the burger, it isn’t about buying in meat, bashing it down and rolling it out. I don’t work like that. It’s the same with the duck burger – we are mincing the duck meat twice. Into that, we’ve also shredded duck confit, so you get that combination of texture. We serve that with a home-made fig jam.”
With the cinema running an average day of 9am-2am, and expected covers to be in the region of approximately 300-500 a day, we wonder how staff will cope with the different style of service. The auditorium has been laid out with wide galleys between seats so that waiters appearing mid-movie will not block anyone’s view. Even the wooden trays, Rhodes assures us, have been designed so they make minimal noise when placed on the marble tables next to guests.
The kitchen is a fraction of the size of the restaurant kitchens Rhodes is used to. But the important thing, he says, is not space, but making sure the right equipment is in place. Several dishes have been designed so that even if there are several hours involved in the preparation stages, the pre-service prep will be minimal à la minute touches. “Timing is vital, because everyone will order their food in the lounge. No-one can read the menu once they’re in the cinema. The movie starts at 11pm, and one person wants their burger at 11.30pm, but someone else wants theirs at 11.40pm. You just have to get into that rhythm, that’s all.”
As the name “Theatre” suggests, Rhodes is creating a concept that is very much like the London theatre-going experience. You turn up early and relax with a bite to eat and a mocktail in the theatre bar, as Rhodes expects cinema guests will do in the lounge at Theatre by Rhodes. With all the hard work that is going in to the food and service here, though, surely knowing that attention will be divided between Rhodes’ food and Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp on screen must smart?
“I want people to say, I loved that movie. And I loved the food that went with it,” Rhodes says. “We are hoping people will think, ‘This dish is great!’ and suddenly that movie is forgotten for ten seconds. I’d be foolish to think or want for it to compete because you are really and truly paying to go and watch the movie you've chosen. This is about trying to add another dimension to the movie experience. What we are trying to add is that little extra. That little bit of extra luxury into what you’re doing.”
ThEATre by Rhodes is now open at Vox Cinemas, Mall of the Emirates, Al Barsha, www.voxcinemas.com (600 599905).
More than movies A trilogy of new experiences
4DX: Already in three Vox cinemas in the region, including Mirdif City Centre, the sensory overload is now bigger than ever before. Seats fitted with motion simulators are perfectly tuned to the screen, while fog, wind, rain and thunder can also be felt – and even smelled – in your seat. Fans can look forward to The Hunger Games, The Martian and Star Wars, among, others, in the 4DX.
IMAX with laser: Everything is better in IMAX with Laser. We mean it, everything. Brightness (sharper), contrast (more realism), colour (more vivid) and sound ('seriously beefy'), they're all turned up to the max at this, the most complete cinema screen ever created – and a first for the Middle East. The screen launches with The Walk, while Star Wars, Spectre and In the Heart of the Sea are all slated to be screened here.
Kids: Far from encouraging kids to run amok in the cinema, the new party room and screen – with colourful seats and walls – at least gives the little ones the chance to have a bit more fun at the movies. Among the films planned to be shown at these two screens over the coming months are Hotel Transylvania 2, The Peanuts Movie, Goosebumps and Pan, the latter two being screened in 3D.