As the long-awaited Rhodes W1 finally opens its doors in Dubai, chef Gary Rhodes speaks to Penelope Walsh about how rediscovering Britain’s food heritage has led him to something revolutionary.
The last time Time Out Dubai had the pleasure of sitting in on one of Gary Rhodes’ Dubai-based ventures in the company of the British chef himself, it was with exclusive news that award-winning restaurant Rhodes Mezzanine had hung up its boots forever. To make way, however, for a brand-new Rhodes concept.
Having won Time Out Dubai’s inaugural award for Best British restaurant in 2013, it seemed something of a shock move; until that is, the Michelin-starred chef shared his ambitions to create something bigger, better and even more British in the same space. After a long-anticipated and lengthy period of refurbishment (just shy of a year), this time we meet him at the newly opened Rhodes W1, for an exclusive insight into his latest restaurant launch.
Still present in this space is that overwhelming sense of clean white offset by brilliant colour, but this time to entirely different effect, with fresh green tones, grass-covered walls, glass chandeliers of butterflies trickling from the ceiling, and brightly coloured bucolic murals calling to mind traditional hand-painted English wallpaper. This vision is of an utterly vintage and rural English summer, one of days gone by, but through a sharp 21st century filter. And as it turns out, this is exactly what Rhodes W1 is all about.
‘We’ve already had some guests in who came to Rhodes Mezzanine before,’ says Rhodes. ‘What they have had to say is not so much about the décor or the concept, but “where is the white tomato soup?”’
Nevertheless, that now famous starting point of every Rhodes Mezzanine meal, he states firmly, will not be on the new menu at Rhodes W1. ‘That soup is still Mezzanine, and I don’t want [the new restaurant] to be Mezzanine. We’re moving on. I want to drop that, it had its life and it had a great life. Everything reaches its sell-by date. I wanted to get away from this fine dining feeling that the restaurant was for special occasions only. We could have continued with Mezzanine, and I would have continued to work hard. I really think we could have moved on even further with the restaurant. But it would have been to a limited audience. That is what I didn’t want. I want to open the doors to many.’
So he is taking Rhodes W1 in a direction of more democratic dining. Yes, partly for financial reasons, he concedes, but primarily to bring his restaurant in line with what he considers to currently be the strongest restaurant trend elsewhere in the world.
As a born and bred Londoner, Rhodes reveals it is to the English capital that he has looked to find the dining zeitgeist. ‘It is not just because I am from there, but I think London is the leading city for food, the most fashionable, even more so than New York. When I’m back in London, I’m out virtually every night, to learn from it, because Dubai is probably where it will hit next. Every time I go back to London, I realise how much it has changed. Aside from Heston Blumenthal, the Roux brothers, a Marcus Wareing and a Ramsey restaurant or two, there are very few, really good fine dining restaurants. It is more about simpler, easier eating.’
Dubai, he agrees, is currently ‘not on the same level as London’. Even so, the chef notices changes in the emirate’s scene, citing La Serre (‘one of my favourite restaurants here. There is always lots of life in there’), and the Ivy’s Friday brunch (‘it has a great personality to it’), as examples of how this new dining trend is beginning to inform the Dubai scene.
Part of what will bring new life and a fresher ambience to Rhodes W1 is the bar, with its own menu of ‘nibbles’ featuring items such as sweet pea hummus. There is also an impending outdoor bar set to open on the terrace, specialising in English beverages, juniper based, as well as that fruity garden party favourite. But what of the main menu? It will focus, Rhodes tells us, on ‘British classics’ such as steak and kidney suet puddings, or a potential addition of a ploughman’s lunch. But it will also feature what he terms ‘British favourites’, allowing him to add, for example, a Brick Lane curry, or onion bhajis to the menu.
These last Anglo-Indian touches may well encourage the naysayers among you that have ever questioned the ‘gourmet’ credentials of British cooking. As an English chef who has earned coveted Michelin stars for British cooking, surely Gary Rhodes of all people can shed some light on why the UK has suffered from this shady culinary reputation. ‘I think, simply and solely, that it is because of two world wars,’ Rhodes explains.
‘If you look back two hundred years before this, there are many incredible dishes born of that time. Due to war-time rationing (which, actually, didn’t end until the ’50s), people started trying to create food from very little, to make ingredients go further. There was skill in this, I don’t want to say otherwise – using flour to make things go further, or from a simple stock, producing a big bowl of soup that is going to feed a family for two or three days. There were the young people who were brought up on this. This continued into the ’60s and ’70s, and it was only when we came into the ’80s, with the start of nouvelle cuisine, that this began to change.’
So, nouvelle cuisine, this infamous, ’80s, French-lead, fine dining trend played a part in shaking up London’s restaurant scene. However, just as Rhodes is moving further away from a fine and fussy style of eating (arguably born of the nouvelle trend), he has also moved away from French influences in the food itself. For many modern British menus, French cooking has been a default source of inspiration when trying to refine traditional British food. ‘This is because everyone was taught French cooking, but as time moved on, I felt that British cuisine had far too much French influence,’ he says.
‘Modern British: I hate that term,’ he states. Really? This, from one of the godfathers of the modern British renaissance? ‘What I don’t want to do is to forget what Britain had to offer, because I think years and years before [the war], we had great food, great cuisine, with great culinary skill,’ he clarifies. This British revolution, he reveals, is neither about modernising, nor French-proofing a dish with fancy presentation (‘I don’t want to create any more fancy pictures on plates’).
Just as the Rhodes W1 décor has a vintage English tone to it, tangible despite the modernity of the design, Rhodes reveals he has been looking back to the historic core of British cooking, researching old cookery books in order to create a menu that is new, yes, but rooted in the strong foundations of the past. ‘I’m looking at real, classic British cooking methods.
When I have shepherd’s pie on the menu here, I want it to be something that has taken me two days to create. This is not buying in lamb mince and throwing mash on top. Here, we are braising whole shoulders of lamb, for eight hours, the good old-fashioned way. Same with the oxtail: you can braise oxtail in two hours; I’m braising it for 45 hours.’
Fine or fancy British fare it may not be, but the concept is absolutely refined and in that sense elevated. With Rhodes W1, Gary Rhodes is reclaiming old-fashioned labour and the time-intensive cooking techniques of the pre-war British Isles. In doing so, he is rediscovering a former culinary culture long since forgotten. The principle is Mrs Beeton in the hands of a Michelin-level talent. This is slow food, British-style.
Rhodes W1 is now open. Grosvenor House Dubai, Dubai Marina (04 317 6000).