Following revamped menus and the surprise closure of award-winning Rhodes Mezzanine, Penelope Walsh sits down with the great British chef to learn more about his culinary history and ever-growing future in Dubai.
The Rhodes restaurant empire in the Emirates is certainly enjoying a peak right now. Having just extended beyond Dubai’s borders with the opening of Rhodes 44, Abu Dhabi’s first restaurant by chef Gary Rhodes, Rhodes Twenty10 in Dubai will also be introducing a brand new menu in the new year. Sounds like the man at the helm of all of this has quite enough on his plate already, but we can also reveal that Rhodes Mezzanine, winner of the inaugural Time Out Dubai category for best British restaurant in 2013, has closed permanently, but there’s good news: it’s in order to make way for a concept that sounds like it could be fresher, better and altogether more British.
In fact, with Gary Rhodes increasingly prominent in Dubai now, a man who has been paramount when it has come to putting UK cuisine on the global map, the future is looking bright for British cooking.
Meeting Gary Rhodes in Dubai to discuss the new developments at his restaurants here, he concedes he hasn’t quite moved to Dubai lock, stock and smoking barrel: ‘I still have my house in the UK, I haven’t sold everything and moved here, however I see my future here. Things have been tough in the UK in our industry, because eating out is a luxury in many respects. I found there were more cuts rather than re-investment.
I love the positivity here. I’m proud to be British, and a Londoner, which is why I want to share the great foods of this country here and I see my culinary future here.’
Having trained, like most chefs, at a French school, and later in Amsterdam for three years, Gary Rhodes was one of the first chefs to begin reclaiming Britain’s own cooking heritage, even wining an OBE for his contribution to the UK’s culinary scene. It is a move that can be claimed to have sparked Britain’s own re-engagement and gradually re-established pride in its own cuisine, sparking the Rivington Grills and The Ivy’s of this world, to begin showing off the Best of British.
For Gary, his ‘first little taster of British cuisine’ came with a stint working at the Reform Club, a gentlemen’s club on London’s Pall Mall, where 60-70 percent of the dishes on the menu were British.
The real passion for his native cuisines, however, was sparked by his time at the Castle Hotel in Taunton, in England’s West Country. ‘They were so inspired by good food, the hotel owner was a true food enthusiast.
He made me very much aware of the phenomenal local ingredients that you could get within a 20 mile radius of the hotel and I found that inspiring.
‘One man in particular, he was a doctor in fact, was such an enthusiast, he used to grow all of his own fruit and vegetables. Everything, from an ordinary leek or cabbage, right the way through to globe artichokes. I found I could say: “Can I have those leeks when they are very young?” I’d rather pay more for something at its absolute best, when it’s young and it’s got a certain sweetness to it, rather than always just this acidic bite.’
As much as 80 percent of the produce used in the Castle Hotel kitchens was locally grown, reared or sourced. ‘Because this was British produce, and we really wanted to show that off, I really wanted to create British dishes to go with it, and I became inspired by that.’ Gary began delving deeper into what the classics were, researching the recipes of greats such as Mrs Beaton, and other cookbooks going back a century, or more into the history of British cooking. ‘There were so many spices being used because of the influence of India at the time, those flavours were coming back to the UK, and it was amazing that there was so much more to British cooking.’
Looking at the menus at Gary Rhodes’ restaurants in Dubai, and seeing how fine French flair enters into British classics such as hearty, humble bread and butter pudding, we venture that allowing external influences to elevate our food, is part of the DNA of the ‘modern British’ revival that has taken place. For example, Gary points out, while some British classics are suited to their native climate that is very different to our climate in Dubai, to make those dishes continue to be relevant, a little updating is sometimes necessary. Moreover, while French food has always been an inspiration for him, Rhodes admits he is increasingly influenced by Italian ideas too.
‘There are other influences I like to introduce. I don’t want to walk down one straight path and never venture off it, because that would be one long boring walk. If you look at the Great Wall of China, it is one road, but it takes every kind of angle you can image along the way. That’s how I look at what I did with British food. I never let go of it, but I make sure that I can share other things with it. Otherwise it can be a limited repertoire.’ Proving that this is a chef that looks forward on that road, the decision has been made to close Rhodes Mezzanine, not with saddening finality, but to make way for the re-birth of that same space as a fresh vision for Dubai in 2014.
‘I went to the hotel at the beginning of the year and said, “I know I’m being cheeky, but I want to close Rhodes Mezzanine.”’
‘When we reopen this is going to be even more British than we have ever done before. I want to change the whole concept. I really want to show off the simplest of simple home favourites to everybody, but introduce them with nothing but quality. I want to make a simple thing like corned beef hash, which I grew up with as a child. But there is no way I’m going to be opening a tin, we will be salting our beef in a brine for three to five days before we even begin the slow cooking process. Then I can just break down the fat content and turn it into a wonderful corned beef. I could turn it into corned beef terrine and serve it with home-made piccalilli on the side and a little salad, or break it down, work it in with caramelised onions and just broken potato, and turn that into a lovely little corned beef cake. I also want to include what I call British favourites, which doesn’t mean to say that they are all originally coming from Britain.’
While this re-invention sounds like exciting news for Dubai, it is with some surprise that we learn the award-winning restaurant that stood in its place is finished. ‘It’s the seven year itch, isn’t it. I just felt it had its life. Because it was a fine dining restaurant, I think it became a special occasion restaurant. If it was anyone’s birthday or anniversary, we had them in, but it wasn’t that everyday restaurant you want to come back to time and time again. I wanted more freedom, rather than everyone feeling they had to book, or come best dressed in a collar and tie. I wanted to take that away, and open it to a larger, wider audience, who can come in and eat as little or as much as they like.
‘I just felt the restaurant had become starchy. I had a fantastic seven years in that restaurant, we won several awards along the way. With Time Out, we got best British restaurant, which I felt very proud of, so that was good to go out on a high. And I am somebody who would rather go out when all the going was good, rather than when you’re desperate because it is not so good.’
With the restaurant taking on a more casual dining and accessible tone, Gary agrees ‘100 percent’ that this is the direction that Dubai as a whole is moving towards. Currently due to open in the new year, the restaurant is undergoing a total refurb. The new restaurant will serve breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner, and Gary is keen to open a bar on the terrace serving British summer beverages.
‘I want to make this a special restaurant – fresh, young and lively,’ he says.
Rhodes Twenty10, Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa, Dubai Marina (04 399 5555).