When Gary Rhodes first burst upon British TV screens in 1994, his series Rhodes Around Britain attracted rather more column inches for its chef-star's spiky haircut than for Rhodes' underlying message. British food was being ignored, he said, and deserved better. And food didn't have to be complicated to be good.
A decade later Rhodes has dozens of TV programmes and a string of best-selling books to his name, plus two successful restaurants in London and another about to open. He's hosted gastronomic cruises on the QE2 and gourmet trips aboard the Orient Express. But still Gary Rhodes has the same evangelical zeal for simple food, prepared well.
'I'm trying to revive a lot of the great old favourites, but with a new fresh identity – a cleaner, crisper flavour,' says the chef who made his name at the Greenhouse Restaurant in London's Mayfair with great British classics such as faggots, oxtails and bread and butter pudding. 'Our new restaurant will be the only one in London serving steamed roly-poly with custard and jam. It's something you just don't see any more, but it's going to be sensational. When it's so light and fluffy with a little hint of lemon that's working into the suet, and then you've got a good home-made jam working through it as well with the lovely accompaniment of the fresh custard – I can't think of anything nicer.'
Though Rhodes champions British classics, winning coveted Michelin stars at both his London eateries as a result, he is quick to point out the French and Italian influences that give his cooking an extra edge – Mediterranean ideas that have lightened traditionally starchy British foods. 'I was trained in French cuisine. I take a lot of influence from that and take a little bit of Italian as well, so you'll see that European/Mediterranean touch happening. I think the great thing about the Italian cuisine has always been to keep a minimum number of flavours necessary and make sure that each one holds its own personal identity.'
One evening on the QE2 – which has kitchens so vast and so well stocked that practically any whim can be catered for – Rhodes called for nothing more elaborate than cool lobster, potato chips and mayonnaise. 'All the other tables were looking quite jealous,' he chuckles.
The idea of allowing fine ingredients to shine in simple combinations translates perfectly to on-board dining on smaller vessels. 'Keep the flavours simple and make sure they shout very loud,' he recommends, recalling a lunch he once had while cruising on a yacht off Cannes with friends and family. 'The food was provided for us and all of a sudden this big bowl of langustines and prawns arrived on the table, and a little bit of salad on the side – really quality mayonnaise as well. We were just breaking open the langustines and dipping them in, they were sweet and they were succulent. It's that style of food.'
A perfect example is the starter Rhodes has selected for our menu, a melon and cucumber salad with gorgonzola and watercress. It quickly has him enthusing about simple, fresh flavours once again: 'Once it's been salted the flavour of the cucumber becomes so powerful. You have the crispness of the cucumber, the melon lovely and ripe, and the gorgonzola ... His voice trails off as the Rhodes palette recalls the flavour of the tangy blue-green veined cheese. 'I'm talking about real Italian gorgonzola. If you can find a really good gorgonzola which is just starting to melt and you drop that in, it really becomes almost like a butter you're eating amongst the salad. What we're creating here are different textures – we've got a savoury, weve got sweetness, then we've got a sharp little bite from the watercress. I've also introduced a little yoghurt dressing which has got the citrus flavour of lime and lemon, and a little touch of orange juice which has been reduced and slightly sweetened with caster sugar – very slightly sweetened. I can imagine if somebody threw a plate of that on the table and gave me a good, crisp white wine to go with it, I would be in heaven.'
Both his new book, The Complete Cookery Year, and the Gary Rhodes website are packed with hints and tips on creating that sublime meal. Rhodes suggests preparing food in advance where possible, as your guests have come to see you rather than just for the food you are serving – again, the principle of making simple dishes with good ingredients helps. But he counsels against dressing salads until the last moment to avoid limp lettuce. It's wise to ask if any guests are vegetarian, and to offer a non-alcoholic alternative if wine is served with the meal. Being relaxed and enjoying yourself is, he says, more important than the niceties of dining etiquette, for hosts and guests alike.
Rhodes is also keen to point out that his recipes are intended to inspire ideas, not to be slavishly followed, and that the menu should be flexible enough to take advantage of produce that is in season at the time. 'You could be looking at something like a simple tomato and basil salad but with a really superb olive oil and a good twist of pepper and sea salt,' he explains. 'Just phenomenal, providing you're eating the tomato during its right season and you've got basil that you've just torn, not chopped and bruised, but broken and sprinkled across the top. I could eat bowlfuls of that sort of thing because it's good, easy food. Those are the kind of flavours I want to be working with.'
The secret is to find a good market selling quality local produce. 'I think Cannes has one of the greatest food markets I've ever been to – the foods there are just incredible. If I was cooking on a yacht I'd be there first thing in the morning,' he says. Then the infectious enthusiasm takes over again: 'I'd be putting out platters. I'd be saying, here we are, throw this on the table straight away – it's just a goose rillette,' – Rhodes pronounces it a la Française, as though the double-L was missing – 'like a very loose goose paté, tuck into that and that'll just get the tastebuds rolling. Here's a nice bread I've chosen to go with it. And then move on and move on. I like food to be continual.'
More gastronomic delights would await us just a few miles from Cannes, says Rhodes. Along the coast to the south east lies the village of La Napoule and the Restaurant L'Oasis, still sporting two Michelin stars even though famed French chef Louis Outhier has now moved on. To the north west, there's the Chevre d'Or in the medieval village of Eze, looking down on Nice and Cap Ferrat. 'You're up on this mountainside and I'd say without a doubt that it's the most sensational view in the world,' Rhodes recalls. 'I'm not kidding, it's that amazing. And the food equals it – it is the most sensational food, amazing. You've got to drink Krug rosé while you're looking down onto the coast – a champagne I'd never experienced before. It's a champagne that blew my mind.'
But Rhodes and his family – wife Jenny, whom he met at catering college, and sons Samuel and George – spend a lot of time on the water during their regular trips to the south of France. 'My wife thinks about having a yacht on a daily basis. When were out on one she'll point at something as it goes past and say "there it is, that's the one I want". And it's a ship! I've got a good bank manager, but not that good,' he jokes. 'We'll always make sure that there's one or two days of our trip when we'll be out all day on a boat – so we can dive off the side, enjoy a good swim, be as lazy as we want. We want it from the morning, we want it till late at night.' The food on board will, of course, be simple but sensational. 'What we'll normally do is have a light lunch, then there'll be a little something in the afternoon. Then when it gets to nine or 10 o'clock at night and we get back into bay, there we are just eating cheese with red wine. A great way to finish the day.'
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Published in Sundeck Yearbook 2004