Gary Rhodes obituary: among the first chef’s to make cookery the new rock’n’roll
Rhodes was one of a new breed of TV celebrity chefs and owned a string of restaurants in Britain, Ireland, the Middle East and the Caribbean
Gary Rhodes: despite the high-profile name above the door, his Dublin restaurant struggled Photograph: Georgie Gillard/PA Wire
Born: April 22nd, 1960
Died: November 26, 2019
Gary Rhodes, distinctive for his spiky hair and passion for British cuisine, was one of a new breed of TV celebrity chefs, rising to prominence in the 1990s alongside Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Ainsley Harriott and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Rhodes was among the first to make cookery the new rock’n’roll, marking a progression from traditional television chefs such as Fanny Cradock, who imparted recipes while dressed in a ball gown, and Delia Smith, whose style was down-to-earth, no nonsense cooking.
“Traditional” was a firm favourite in Rhodes’s cooking, though. For his early signature TV series on the BBC, Rhodes Around Britain (1994), More Rhodes Around Britain (1995) and Open Rhodes (1996), he went in search of native dishes that had fallen out of favour, updating classics such as Lancashire hotpot. He also demonstrated how to make veggie sausage rolls.
Off screen, Rhodes had by then already earned his first Michelin star while head chef at the Castle Hotel, Taunton, Somerset, aged just 26. The same role at the Greenhouse Restaurant, in Mayfair, central London, earned the establishment a Michelin star in 1996 and brought him to the attention of TV producers.
Once his was a name on television viewers’ and foodies’ lips, Gary Rhodes was the title of two more BBC series, another tour of Britain in 1997 and a “culinary tour of the six-course menu” in 2001.
Having been a guest on the BBC TV show MasterChef, featuring amateur cooks competing for the title, during the 1990s – when it was a Sunday-afternoon series – Rhodes became presenter of the American version for its first two runs (2000-01). He also hosted the 2001 peak-time revamp in Britain, but it received a critical panning and the programme was dropped until its revival four years later, minus Rhodes.
Nevertheless, he took over from Ramsay to join Jean-Christophe Novelli as one of two “head chefs” tutoring contestants in the second series (2005) of the ITV reality show Hell’s Kitchen. Ramsay, in his subsequent programme, The F Word, said he named his family’s Christmas turkey after Rhodes because of its “spiky bum”.
Rhodes owned a string of restaurants in Britain, Ireland, the Middle East and the Caribbean, and took his enthusiasm for cooking out to schools to encourage a younger generation.
In July 2006, he opened Rhodes D7, on Capel Street in Dublin on a busy corner site. The 250-seat modern brasserie opened to a fanfare amid doubts expressed about his choice of location.
For his Dublin opening, Rhodes moved away from the British classics that had made his name. In an interview in The Irish Times he said: “One thing I’ve been absolutely sure of from the beginning is that what I’m not going to try to do is take a British restaurant to Dublin. I want to try to create an Irish restaurant. I have that British label hanging around my neck, but it’s not as simple as that. I’ve always chosen British dishes that I’ve wanted to add to – a new twist, a new edge, the French influence. And that’s exactly what I want to do in Rhodes D7. I want to work with the great old Irish flavours and ingredients, and add my personality to them.”
He also demonstrated an appreciation of the importance of provenance and local sourcing that was not as common then as it is now. “ I want to make sure that the cheddar we use is an Irish cheddar. I don’t want to use a cheddar from the [English] West Country. And I want to do something with Irish gammon, as well. So I want to find a farmer who can provide gammon that is just so sensational that we can feature it, and use the name of the place that we’ve sourced it from. I want people in Rhodes D7 to know that what they’re eating has come from home soil.”
But despite the high-profile name above the door, the restaurant struggled. By December 2006, five months after opening, it was advertising a €10 “business lunch,” perhaps hoping to bring in customers from the courts and legal offices nearby. The restaurant closed in early January 2009 “for renovations” and was due to reopen in March, but its doors stayed closed for good.
The size of the premises – 250-seaters were almost unheard of in Dublin at that time – was thought to be a factor in its failure. The restaurant may also have been a bit ahead of its time. Capel Street is now home to a string of restaurants, many of them Asian, along with Brother Hubbard North, which moved into the Rhodes D7 site in 2017 and now operates a 300-seat cafe, restaurant, shop and coffee roastery.
Born in south London, Gary was the son of Jean (nee Ferris) and George Rhodes, a school caretaker. They moved to Gillingham, Kent, and when he was six, his parents separated. As one of two boys and two girls, he took over some of the domestic responsibilities, including cooking, while his mother worked as a secretary.
On leaving the Howard school, Rainham, he took a catering course at Thanet technical college, where he met Jennie Adkins whom he married in 1989 after a 10-year engagement.
His first job in the industry came as a commis chef at the Amsterdam Hilton, but it proved short-lived after he was hit by a van, which left him with a blood clot on the brain.
After six months recuperation he worked as a sous chef in restaurants at the Reform Club and the Capital hotel, both in London, before becoming head chef at the Whitehall hotel, Dunmow, Essex, and then at the Castle Hotel in 1986. Two years later, he was featured in an episode of Floyd on Britain & Ireland, cooking braised oxtail with the TV chef Keith Floyd.
In 1990 he took over as head chef at the Greenhouse, where he earned his reputation for reviving British classics, and the following year he presented four episodes of the BBC series Hot Chefs, in which he featured “the best of British cooking”.
Other series of his own included Gary Rhodes’s New British Classics (1999), The Great British Menu (2006) and Great British Food Revival (2011).
His first restaurant, City Rhodes, opened in London in 1997 followed a year later by Rhodes in the Square, both in partnership with a French catering company. They closed in 2003 when he launched Rhodes Twenty Four at Tower 42, then London’s tallest building. For a while, he had restaurants in Christchurch, Dublin and Grenada, as well as brasseries in Manchester, Edinburgh and Crawley, West Sussex. In Dubai, where he eventually moved, he opened Rhodes Mezzanine (later renamed Rhodes W1) at the Grosvenor House hotel in 2007 followed by Rhodes Twenty10 at Le Royal Méridien beach resort. His Abu Dhabi restaurant, Rhodes 44 at the St Regis hotel, opened in 2013.
Rhodes’s commercial endorsements sometimes led to criticism. In the 1990s he was accused of selling out when he appeared in three dream-like adverts for Tate & Lyle sugar and treacle products intended to encourage home baking. A decade later, the Advertising Standards Authority censured a Flora Buttery campaign that he fronted, which claimed that based on a sample of just 200 interviewed people preferred the spread to a named rival.
Rhodes was also at the centre of a row in 2008 when he appeared as a contestant in the reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing. Eliminated in the third week, he not only failed to impress the judges but he struggled to meet the demands of the competition. His professional dance partner, Karen Hardy, said she had been “driven to the limits”. She lost patience with Rhodes and arguments ensued.
In 2006, Rhodes – who wrote more than 20 cookbooks – was appointed OBE.
He is survived by his wife and two sons, Samuel and George.