Gary Rhodes takes immense pleasure in being in the kitchen. For more than 40 years, the legendary British celebrity chef has assiduously spent most of his days cooking. Prior to our morning chat at the Singapore Polo Club, where he would be headlining a whiskey-pairing dinner two days later, Rhodes had already clocked in several kitchen hours. He strode into the sun-dappled alfresco dining space in his whites, sheepishly apologising for the sheen and aroma.
“I have never been a chef who hangs up the chef’s jacket. Never,” he said. “I have a job to do and it has my name on it. I want to have my hands on it.”
It was perhaps this enduring innate zeal that miraculously rejuvenated his sense of smell, of which was damaged days into his first job in the late ’70s. Straight out of college, Rhodes’ first 12-day schedule as a young commis in the Amsterdam Hilton’s kitchen had no day-off. Several co-workers offered to bring the new kid out on his twelfth evening. “I was the lad who had just arrived. On my first night out, coming from the UK, I looked the wrong way. I was hit by a transit van, which sent me right across the road and smashed my head into the curb,” Rhodes winced.
The impact was devastating. A major brain surgery had to be done and his ability to smell, and hence taste, took the toll — a chef’s biggest nightmare. Yet merely four months after the colossal accident, his resilience brought him back to the kitchen, and gradually, he regained back his palate.
Rhodes’ relentless pursuit in plying his craft, and sharing it with the world through as many mediums possible warrant him the alleged title of being the most prolific chef of his time. He’s revered by his peers as “the chef’s chef”. He has opened eight restaurants, which sprawled from London’s upscale Mayfair district to Dublin. And his magnitude swelled beyond kitchen parameters: Rhodes has a namesake cookware line, bread mixes and has authored more than 20 cookbooks. He’s fronted TV shows such as MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen; and starred in his own series, Rhodes Around Britain, since the heyday of television.
Before the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Clare Smyth were household names for modernising British cuisine all the while juggling out-of-kitchen duties, there was Rhodes. In the mid-’80s, at a time when English fare was still hardly perceived as fine dining — for one, there was, and perhaps still is, the universal misassociation of the nation with a bland palate for boiled mutton or porridge — he was the bold harbinger who declared that there was infinitely more to British cooking.
“It has an old image and old images die hard,” Rhodes posited. “People either think of fish and chips, or roast beef and Yorkshire puddings. But if you do your homework and you look at history, back into the days of Mrs Beeton [Isabella Beeton was a 19th century English writer], there was a huge Indian influence from when the UK took over the country. Mrs Beeton would be inundated with diverse recipes that were sent to her from readers. She took and played with the recipes for herself, putting them into her cookbooks. The difference in flavours, over each decade or century, changed the style.”
First published in 1861, ‘Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management’ was an exhaustive guide tome to running a household in Victorian Britain.
This was the exact sensibility that Rhodes reinstated. In 1985 at the Castle Hotel in Taunton, Rhodes, as the hotel restaurant’s head chef, brought back the forgotten inventiveness of the Mrs Beeton epoch and put “really hearty, good British food” at the heart of his menu. He said, “I introduced it in a lighter, softer way, with more imagination about the dish. I was laughed at by many other chefs — but it took off.”
It did, indeed. The novelty of English food, executed in a dissective and intelligent manner, garnered Rhodes his first Michelin star at the age of 26. A remarkable feat even today. Rhodes noted he was the first-ever chef who cooked mainly British dishes to be awarded a star. This kickstarted the changing of archaic perception of the nation’s cuisine.
In 1990, Rhodes helmed Mayfair’s Greenhouse Restaurant. Here, he delved even deeper into the recalibration of what was unthought-of everyday fare — faggots, fish cakes, bread and butter pudding. Rhodes did his homework: He studied their history, investigating their ingredients, before revamping them into the echelons of nouvelle cuisine. Rhodes persisted in this vein, and in 2006, he was knighted by the Queen with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for pioneering the revival.
Now at 58, Rhodes is still very much preoccupied with innovating the unexpected. That doesn’t mean he isn’t attuned with his guests’ evolving palates. Quite the contrary.
Just a few days prior to our chat, Rhodes was in Dubai, where he has been based in since 2012, hosting a Lancashire-themed evening function at Rhodes W1, one of his two restaurants in the Middle East city. With it being a casual stand-up fete, Rhodes decided to concoct an unconventional array of bite-sized dégustation inspired by the native flavours of the hilly English country region. The response was, according to Rhodes, phenomenal.
“There’s a great classic dish called Lancashire hotpot. It’s lamb cutlets slow-cooked, on top of sliced onions and potatoes, in a big earthenware for about eight hours. Because of the method, all the sugar from the onion creates a delicate caramelisation as it continues to cook. It has this fantastic depth of flavour,” Rhodes explained, visibly excited to reveal the ingenious twist. “I decided to turn that into a ravioli. It had all the depth of one big pot — but condensed.”
To Rhodes, good food simply means consistency in refinement. That, and truly understanding his clientele. What he did — prioritising the need of his function guests to be flexible to socialise, rather than imposing the rigidity of having pretty food on pretty plates — is one of many instances that goes to show that Rhodes continues to learn. And he doesn’t intend to stop.
“Many chefs, over the years, become selfish and only cook what they want to cook, and not cook what guests want to eat. What I love about this industry is that it’s a continual education,” Rhodes smiled. “There is still so much more I could learn.”
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