Gary Rhodes has enjoyed a glittering career that has seen his restaurants receive multiple Michelin stars and he an OBE. Here, the Dubai-based superchef at Rhodes W1 at Grosvenor House talks about club sandwich marathons, keeping calm and why we all need more lemons...
When did you first fall in love with food, Gary?
We’d become a one-parent family, and when I was about 12 or 13 my mother decided to go back to work – and one thing I loved doing was cooking the evening meal for us all. I’d get home, ignore my homework and get on with the meal because I got so much more pleasure out of cooking than school work. I could see mum was delighted to come home and see food on the table and we’d all sit down as a family and munch away, and that’s what inspired me.
What memories do you have of your first day working in a professional kitchen?
I remember it well – it was back in 1979, and my buddies were going to work in London whereas I wanted to do something a bit more international. I wrote to (legendary French chefs) Paul Bocuse and Michele Guérard – I still have the letters telling me ‘thanks but no thanks’ – but I did get a yes from the Amsterdam Hilton. My first day there I was quickly told I’d have to be up at dawn, work till three, take two hours off and I’d be there till midnight.
What task were you assigned that first day?
Everybody else seemed to be able to do things an awful lot quicker than me and that really drove me on. I was put to work in the coffee shop doing all the cold food – jobs like making club sandwiches – but it was permanently packed.
I had a line of orders in front of me a metre long, and the chef kept sending people over to see if I needed a hand. I kept saying, ‘No thanks,’ because I didn’t want to be beaten. I got through it, and that gave me a real buzz.
When did you feel that you’d made it as a chef?
There have been different times, but the first time it felt like the door was starting to open for me was back in ’83. I’d been in Amsterdam and came back to the UK and was working at a little place called Winston’s Eating House, my first time running a kitchen. One day Brian Turner, a Michelin-starred chef in London, came in to eat and then he called a few days later asking me to go and see him, which I did. When he said, ‘I want to offer you the job of my right-hand man here at the Capital Hotel’ I was so grateful that I could almost have fallen on the floor and burst into tears.
Do you ever get angry?
I was a lot tougher in days of old: in the mid-90s I was a lot noisier and pretty strict. I’ve calmed down over the years because there are chefs out there who will bawl people out – you’ve seen them on TV – and I’m thinking, ‘You’ll never get the best out of anybody like that.’ So I’d rather go in and nurture people now. The moment I lose my rag in the kitchen the whole team doesn’t know what to do and it ends up being a shambles.
What flavour pairings have you tried that you hoped might work but definitely didn’t?
I remember one time when I was at The Reform Club in Pall Mall in 1982 I did a one-off plat du jour that was roast baby chicken with a strawberry sauce. It was absolutely disgusting and never featured ever again.
What do you particularly like about Dubai?
I love where I am – I’m in the Marina. I look outside and I think, ‘Am I actually in this world?’ because I look out and see all these luxury yachts – sadly none of them mine – and I do think, ‘Wow!’ I never imagined living here but I’ve been here for seven years, and it’s just an incredible place to be. I also love it that I can be sitting outside in a T-shirt at midnight having a light bite with some friends and everything is lit up and I do think, ‘Wow!’
If you couldn’t choose one of your own restaurants, where would you go out for dinner in the UAE?
I tend not to eat at my own restaurants because I always feel I’m on duty, but I have to admit one of my favourite restaurants to go to here is Zuma because I love Japanese food. Otherwise, nearby there’s a little Italian called Bussola at The Westin Hotel. You can see the beach, you can sit outside, and I can even walk there if I want to.
What should we all be putting more of in our fridges?
It’s a little harder to do here in the UAE, but it’s great to buy as seasonal as you possibly can because it means you’ll be eating food when it is at its very best. I also like to make sure I have lemons in the house because so many things can be changed with one little squeeze or one little touch of zest.
Finally, Gary, what would your death row meal be?
I’d probably go for true, true, British classics. I’d like to dress up in a beautiful designer suit and enjoy the dishes that have helped me in my career. For the main course, braised oxtails, which I adore, with lots of creamy mashed potato. And I’d finish up with good old-fashioned bread and butter pudding. I’d totally over-fill myself, but who cares?