As he gears up to open Rhodes W1 Restaurant, Gary Rhodes talks to Gaby Huddart about his ambitious goals for the venture and why he's looking to French cookery for inspiration
When Gary Rhodes graduated from Thanet Technical College 28 years ago, he never dreamed he would achieve so much. During his career he has headed the kitchens of five Michelin-starred restaurants. He has written 17 cookery books and has enjoyed regular appearances on the small screen for 20 years. Even the Queen recognised the chef's importance to the nation, when she awarded him an OBE in late 2006.
More than enough accomplishments to leave Rhodes heartily content, one would think. And yet, during our interview, it quickly becomes clear that he is ambitious for still more. As he prepares for the opening of his latest venture as a consultant to Restaurant Associates - Rhodes W1 Restaurant in London's Cumberland hotel, which is set to open for business on 18 May - Rhodes is evidently driven by the desire for still greater accolades.
While he doesn't specifically state he's out for two or the ultimate three Michelin stars at the restaurant, it is unmistakable from what he says that this is his aim. "I want to take this restaurant to a level I haven't done before," he says. "I would like to reach the level of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, what Michel Roux Jnr is doing at Le Gavroche and what Gordon [Ramsay] is doing.
"I really want the Michelin inspectors to come here and recognise that it's more refined than anything I've done in the past."
Ambitious goals indeed, but more than a flight of fancy, argues Rhodes, who goes on to explain how the restaurant will achieve more sophistication than previous ventures. "For a start, it's small. We have just 45 seats here, so we can obviously put more work into the dishes than at a 100-cover restaurant," he says. Rhodes W1's sister restaurant, Rhodes W1 Brasserie, is also housed in the Cumberland hotel.
Moreover, with the restaurant opening five days a week, Tuesday to Saturday, the same kitchen brigade will work at every service, ensuring complete consistency of product, Rhodes says. "And absolutely everything will be cooked from scratch every day. This is about maximising the flavours of everything and achieving real refinement."
The nine-strong brigade is being headed day-to-day by Brian Hughson, who worked for Rhodes in the late 1990s at Rhodes in the Square and who has more recently gained experience at Pétrus and the Savoy Grill. Most recently he was head chef of 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) in the City.
Rhodes explains that he personally will be in the kitchen for the first month or so and will then visit regularly, with his group executive chef Wayne Tapsfield also heavily involved. "Putting the menu together has really been a brainstorming between the three of us: Brian, Wayne and myself," Rhodes says. "There's a really good gel between us and we're coming up with some fantastic dishes."
Although the menu is still being fine-tuned as Caterer goes to press, Rhodes reveals that it's quite a departure from the updated classic British cooking for which he has become famous. There'll be no bread and butter pudding, no Jaffa Cake pudding, no jam roly-poly and no cottage pie on offer here. Rather dishes are drawing heavily on French technique for inspiration. "We're still buying British produce where possible but there are strong elements of French cooking in what we're doing."
Rhodes continues: "In my college days, I was taught French classical cooking and my two favourite restaurants in the world are Guy Savoy in Paris and Le Gavroche in London. I enjoy eating French food more than any other and want to take that passion I have for French cuisine and give something back to it."
So, for example, the signature dessert at Rhodes W1 will be a soufflé, which will change with the seasons to reflect the best British ingredients available. "I've never offered soufflés before as the numbers in my restaurants have always been too great to do them in the past. Here we'll begin by offering a summer fruit soufflé when we open. Then in autumn we'll probably do a pear soufflé and around Easter next year, we'll do a chocolate one."
Similarly, the duck main course will be based firmly on French technique, while harnessing British produce. "We're presenting the duck in two servings, which you only really see in France. The whole duck will come out of the oven and be presented at the table, where the breast will be carved in front of diners and served with a garnish of caramelised turnips, spinach, foie gras and a roast duck jus.
"The legs will then come back to the kitchen, where they'll continue roasting and then be presented as the next dish with a summer beetroot and Jersey Royal salad. You can really see with that dish that we're stealing from both food cultures."
So, too, with the beef main course, which is based on a 50:50 Charolais/Hertfordshire crossbreed that has "been properly hung and aged". The roast fillet will be served with a braised faggot, watercress purée and a beef jus. "I won't be serving faggots as a dish on their own, but they work beautifully with this dish and give another element to the beef fillet," Rhodes says.
Even a vegetarian dish of cauliflower lasagne has a foot in both English and French cookery, Rhodes says. With the sauce made from Kirkham's Cheddar, the flavours of a traditional cauliflower cheese are instantly recognisable, though the dish is much more refined and the sauce is light and modern French in style, incorporating crème fraîche rather than any flour or butter.
In total, the à la carte will offer eight starters, eight mains and seven desserts, while another unusual feature of the restaurant will be its parallel menu of small tasting plates. These will be mini versions of everything on the à la carte, plus several additional dishes.
"The idea is to offer portions that will appeal to ladies with lighter appetites," says Rhodes. "For example, on the à la carte we're offering a scallop and langoustine dish with a caviar hollandaise sauce and on the tasting menu we'll offer the same dish but with just one scallop rather than three or four."
He adds that there will be total flexibility with both menus, so diners will be able to switch between full-size and mini dishes as they like. "I don't want to make demands on my customers. There's no requirement to have six tasting plates. If a woman wants to have two or three small plates, or one small and one normal size, that's fine."
But isn't such a departure from everything he has done before a bit risky for Rhodes, with diners perhaps turning up at the restaurant expecting to see their favourites from his Brit-focused cookbooks? It's a question he quickly brushes aside. "It's a risk to a point because we'll undoubtedly get diners from Rhodes Twenty Four looking to use the restaurant when they're in the West End," he says. "But the food will be good enough to win them over to what we're doing here."
Once the restaurant is up and running, Rhodes might be expected to rest on his laurels for a while. But, in fact, both further restaurant openings and more television work are in the pipeline for the coming months.
At the end of June, Rhodes will be out in Dubai to launch a restaurant with his name above the door at the Grosvenor Hotel. This, he anticipates, will be particularly popular with the expatriate community out there as, in contrast to his latest London venture, it will showcase some Brit favourites, including the likes of bread and butter pud.
And later this year he hopes to open a "funky, stand-alone brasserie operation" with a partner in Los Angeles. Details are currently sketchy, but he does reveal "the aim was originally to launch in September or October this year, but it's now looking like it'll open next year, if it goes ahead".
Even more vague are plans for another London eaterie, but he does reveal that he's in talks about a further operation in the capital that would be different from any of his existing restaurants. "All I can say is that it's very exciting and it's coming soon, but it's not signed and sealed yet."
Meanwhile, in the first two weeks of May, directly before the Rhodes W1 Restaurant launch, Rhodes will be filming a series of programmes for UK TV Food in India, in which he will cook his own versions of some traditional Indian dishes. And he's also hopeful that a recent pilot programme he has presented for the BBC will also be commissioned as a series later this year.
"The pilot was around the take-away issue, with me showing people how they can make good food at home in the time it takes to have a take-away delivered. They are so pleased with the pilot, it's actually being shown in June, so we're hopeful it will become a series."
Despite his excitement about being back on the small-screen, however, Rhodes is as adamant as he has always been that it's cooking rather than TV fame that's his chief motivation. "My life started with cooking and will finish with cooking," he says. "TV is a supplement and it's fun, but it has never been my purpose. I've always hung on to cooking and restaurants and my real hope is to be respected by the industry as a chef not as a TV star."
Gary Rhodes's star trek
Five times in his career Rhodes has headed up restaurants that have achieved a Michelin star:
• 1986 - The Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset, wins a Michelin star, when a 26-year-old Rhodes is head chef.
• 1996 - The Greenhouse restaurant in Mayfair, London, wins a Michelin star, while Rhodes is head chef.
• 1998 - City Rhodes in London wins a Michelin star only a year after Rhodes opens the restaurant.
• 2000 - Rhodes in the Square in London also wins a Michelin star within months of opening.
• 2005 - Rhodes Twenty Four in London wins a Michelin star.
Kelly Hoppen designs
World-renowned British designer Kelly Hoppen, whose work includes the interiors for British Airways' first-class cabins as well as many international projects for residential and commercial properties, yachts and private jets, adds restaurant design to her portfolio with the launch of Rhodes W1.
Hoppen wanted the space to elegantly reflect Rhodes's English and French menu and a focal point of the interior is the antique French chairs. Upholstered in black or taupe with a silver frame, many of the chairs have Rhodes's recipes printed directly on them in his own handwriting - instantly giving the restaurant an individual twist.
Other design touches include eclectic antique napkin rings, delicate mother of pearl cushion buttons, vintage-style silver cheeseboards and fine Irish linens. Antique mirrors have been wrapped with lush velvet fabrics in blacks and deep purples.
Several glamorous Swarovski crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, while the bar area has rich overtones with a dark wooden floor and a distinguished, durable stone used for the bar surface. Hoppen has hung a taupe fringed screen to delineate the largest table in the restaurant, allowing larger parties to have a sense of their own space.
The deep purple, taupe, black and silver colour palette of the interior is complemented by flowers from John Carter florists.
Rhodes W1 Restaurant - Fact File
Gary Rhodes's restaurant consultancies
• Rhodes Twenty Four, 24th floor, Tower 42, Old Broad Street, London EC2N 1HQTel: 020 7877 7703
• Rhodes W1 Brasserie, The Cumberland Hotel, Great Cumberland Place, London W1A 4RFTel: 020 7479 3838
•Rhodes D7, The Capel Building, Mary's Abbey, Dublin 7, Republic of Ireland. Tel: 00 353 1 8044 444
• Rhodes Restaurant at the Calabash Hotel, Grenada, West Indies. Tel: 00 1 473 444 4334
• Arcadian Rhodes aboard P&O cruise liner Arcadia www.pocruises.com
• Oriana Rhodes aboard P&O cruise liner Oriana, www.pocruises.com.
• June/July 2007: Rhodes Restaurant at the Grosvenor Hotel, Dubai
• Late 2007/2008: plans for a possible stand-alone Rhodes brasserie in Los Angeles, USA
• 2008: currently discussing another restaurant project in London for an undisclosed partner
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