By Rob Morris
It took years for Gary Rhodes to become a leading chef. Like many others, he started at the bottom.
It took years of hard graft for Gary Rhodes to establish himself as a leading British chef. But with 10 restaurants, numerous cookbooks and TV shows to his name, he is enjoying the fruits of his labour.
Gary Rhodes has never looked more menacing. With a terrifyingly large meat cleaver in one hand, the British chef is slowly advancing towards us, a crazed expression etched on his usually cheery face.
Moments later, a photographer thankfully calls time on the shoot and normal service is resumed. Rhodes takes a few moments to oversee preparations for his Dubai-based restaurant's one-year anniversary. Several workers scurrying round Rhodes Mezzanine at the Grosvenor House hotel remove tables and chairs, arrange lighting and position colourful ornaments for the evening's social event.
Once he's satisfied everything's going to plan, Rhodes finds a quiet spot in one of the hotel's bars for a chat. Considering he was recently voted off British television's popular Strictly Come Dancing, he appears in good spirits. Judges on the celebrity talent show, which sees contestants from sports stars to singers performing ballroom and Latin routines with professional dancers, said Rhodes' act was as "flat as a pancake". The Michelin-starred chef was subsequently kicked out of the competition for scoring the lowest marks that week, much to his chagrin.
"It's disappointing but I always said to myself I can't dance like this and never have done," says the TV chef, who has penned several cookbooks and opened 10 restaurants during a career spanning three decades.
"I've always said whenever there is a critique, whether it is from a restaurant critic or dance judge, you have to try and take the positives, because if we all responded to pure negatives we would be so depressed and either give up cooking or never dance again. There is always going to be somebody who has to be the failure and I'm afraid this time it was me, but I enjoyed every minute of it."
The criticism Rhodes took on Strictly Come Dancing was rather tame in comparison to some of the damning food reviews he's received. In particular, The Times writer Jonathan Meades - a man Rhodes describes as "the Godfather of critics" - pulled few punches when slamming his dishes. It was a rude awakening for a chef with six Michelin stars to his name.
"Jonathan really understood the depth of flavour in food and knew the ingredients," Rhodes says. "I really loved to read his reviews; I had some great write-ups and one where he absolutely ripped me to pieces and gave me a damn good spanking. I thought, ‘He's right'. I went back and looked at the dishes and realised they were dead."
Unsurprisingly, other critics have offered more favourable reviews, with Rhodes insisting all chefs receive both good and bad critiques throughout their careers. For some, it's a sensitive issue but Rhodes remains calm when discussing his negative press. Indeed, he believes taking criticism on board has made him a better chef.
"It's foolish to claim you have always had good write-ups because I haven't," he admits. "I try to take the positives but it does hit you when you are young. You think, ‘There is no way that food was like that because I was there and I cooked it'. You can be over-protective and feel you can do no wrong, and that happens with young chefs."
Sitting in Dubai's Grosvenor House, the conversation naturally turns to Rhodes Mezzanine. With some 120,000 UK expatriates living in the emirate, Rhodes was convinced a restaurant serving classic British fare would prove popular. He eventually decided Grosvenor House, with its "English feel" and well-groomed staff in "pinstripes and bowler hat-type" ensemble, was the right location.
Having agreed to open the restaurant, Rhodes and his team of chefs set about developing a British-centric menu. Classic dishes and desserts, such as bread and butter pudding, fillet beef and roast loin of lamb were chosen. But within months a drastic rethink was needed.
In between sips of his coffee latte, Rhodes reveals French influences were slowly creeping into the restaurant's principally British dishes. "The first menu was predominantly British with a French influence and I lost my way slightly at one point on some menu changes; I was making the dishes more French. It's probably because that's what I was doing at one of my restaurants in London."
Further changes will take place next year, with at least 80% of the menu offering British fare. Among the dishes, a steak and kidney faggot will be introduced while the jam roly-poly, an old favourite among diners, is set to return.
The latter may be a rather uninspiring if traditional dessert, but potentially bland, stodgy puddings like this sound like a taste of heaven when Rhodes waxes lyrical. His eyes suddenly light up as he enthusiastically explains how to transform a bread and butter pudding into something special.
He begins with the consistency, saying a good blend of vanilla, nutmeg and crème anglais custard is required. Rhodes continues his methodical breakdown, insisting the bread should be left 48 hours to remoisten before soaking it in custard: "People don't realise the time and effort that goes into this little bread and butter pudding," he says.
The celebrity chef also talks passionately about other dishes, such as his frothy, white tomato soup served in a modest teacup, and guinea fowl raviolo.
Like many other chefs, Rhodes started at the bottom, washing up dishes in a steakhouse. But his determination to create mouthwatering dishes helped him secure his first chef role at the Amsterdam Hilton.
Following a number of other jobs at reputable restaurants, Rhodes eventually achieved his dream of becoming a head chef when, aged 26, he joined the Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset, in south-west England.
Since securing that job, Rhodes hasn't looked back. Apart from holding various head-chef roles, Rhodes has appeared on countless cookery shows and released several books.
In 1997, the chef opened his first restaurant, City Rhodes, in London and has since launched nine other establishments. They include Oriana Rhodes and Arcadian Rhodes on P&O cruise ships, Rhodes Brasserie W1 in London and Dublin-based Rhodes D7.
The transition from head chef to restaurant owner and chief executive - a tag that doesn't quite sit right with the cook - was a difficult one, according to Rhodes. In particular, taking responsibility for managing employees on the restaurant floor as well as kitchen staff was challenging. But after going ‘corporate' 11 years ago, he is now well settled in his dual-role. "You're not a one-man show," he stresses.
"I have guys that have been with me for years, and I treat them with respect and don't pay silly, nonsense wages that they don't want to work for. Look after them and they will look after you."
He adds that taking risks and leaving his comfort zone helped his career. "For years, a head chef will work 18-hour days in the kitchen at one restaurant. Opportunities come along, although many chefs dedicate their lives to one place. I needed variety in my career and wanted to tackle other restaurants, but I never thought 10 restaurants was something I'd achieve."
When asked if he'd open another restaurant in the Middle East, Rhodes won't rule out the possibility. But he insists launching another Dubai-based eatery in the near future is unlikely. And who can blame him? The celebrity chef certainly has plenty on his plate already. "The past 12 months have flown past and I'm dedicating my time to Rhodes Mezzanine, as well as my other restaurants," he says.
"The general manager [of Grosvenor House] is fantastic and I wouldn't consider doing anything with anyone else without her being aware." Rhodes isn't, of course, the only chef to be lured to Dubai. In recent years, TV chef Gordon Ramsay and Mexican counterpart Richard Sandoval have opened Verre and Maya respectively.
And British cook Jamie Oliver recently revealed he is helping design "perfect kitchens" for villas, townhouses and apartments in one of Dubai's latest residential developments. In partnership with German luxury brand Poggenpohl, Oliver is also developing a ‘Kitchen Library' for the Jumeirah Golf Estates residential and leisure complex. The library will be a lending space for culinary equipment and cookbooks, and establish cooking classes for residents with basic culinary skills.
According to Rhodes, Dubai is big enough for several chefs - including Ramsay. Much has been written about the chefs' supposed rivalry, but Rhodes insists it's simply paper-talk. "I get on very well with Gordon, regardless of what some people say," he states.
"There is a mutual respect and I hate it when people write in a derogatory manner about him, ‘this guy that goes around swearing who is now a superstar with lots of money'. Well good luck to him - I hope he is making lots of money and is a superstar, because he has got there through doing 18-hour days for years."
Ramsay may be held in high regard by industry peers, including Rhodes. But living next door to the foul-mouthed Scot - who plans to relocate to Dubai within five years - doesn't appeal: "I have nothing but respect for Gordon; I'm not sure I want to be his neighbour, though - I wouldn't say that."
His commitments in London prevent Rhodes from making a similar move, although he admits swapping the UK for Dubai's glamorous lifestyle is a possibility.
"Funnily enough, my wife Jenny is forever asking, ‘Why don't we come and live here?'. I don't ever throw that idea out of the window; I love Dubai - it's exciting, lively and beautiful. She would love to live here, but at this moment in time I have too much going on in London."
After almost an hour of constant chatter, it's clear Rhodes likes to talk. The chef, however, doesn't have a ready-made answer when asked what the future holds. Following a brief pause, he insists maintaining quality control and consistency across his restaurants are the key objectives. Having worked draining 18-hour days for several years, Rhodes also wants to continue spending more time with his family - and less in the kitchen.
Nevertheless, while reducing his workload is on the agenda, Rhodes says he'll never hang up his whites. It's hard to argue when hearing him explain how he fell in love with the industry.
"I remember reading Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell when I was this young lad finishing school," he says.
"There were stories about being in the dungeons in the kitchens in Paris with endless numbers of chefs. The noise, hiss and spirit for me, as a boy who could only get jobs in kitchens washing up, was so exciting. That and cooking at home as a teenager drove me on.
"I don't think I'll ever retire because I'll be too bored and will probably work 20 hours a week to stay involved," he adds. "But when my time comes to an end, I'd like to be thought of as one of the industry's serious cooks."
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