Like purists everywhere, I was incensed by Gary Rhodes’ TV work, particularly his shows on India and China. There’s a moment in ‘Rhodes Across’ India where he cooks lamb korma with food historian and cookbook author Salma Husain, who champions the subtlety of flavour, aroma and colour that is central to the Mughlai kitchen. It’s that subtlety that Rhodes — who died in Dubai this week from natural causes,according to a Dubai Police statement — went to India to learn.
That was apparent from another episode on authentic Goan vindaloo, which he found was a far cry from the travesty served up in the British curry houses, and which he said, “made him feel like a man”.
My beef with Rhodes was with his arrogance: when Husain tells him to add an ingredient for colour, he baulks and then says the colour of a dish isn’t important, so he’s going to skip that step. I almost threw my coffee cup at the TV in anger: In that moment he’d shrugged off centuries of Mughal culinary refinement (this was a cooking style where every grain of rice was coated with silver leaf to please the emperor and soothe his digestion). I wasn’t alone. I found out later: Several people took to Google Groups and TripAdvisor forums to vent their irritation at the way Rhodes rode roughshod over the local experts he’d come to learn from.
Gary vs Delia
What he was really doing, though, was making up for past transgressions. When the spiky-haired Peter Pan of British cooking first appeared on television screens in the late eighties (inspiring many bad haircuts along the way), his dishes were complicated, fussy works of art. Those who tried recipes from his first books complained they could never get them right; he was also criticised by no less than British national treasure Delia Smith. (For his part, he turned around and famously said he didn’t need to be told how to boil an egg — a jab at the way she once showed TV viewers what boiling water looked like, and offered a step-by-step guide to making toast.)
Rhodes appeared to embrace some of Smith’s evangelical spirit in later years. His 2007 cookbook, Keeping It Simple, stripped away the fiddly instructions and complicated techniques that earned six of his restaurants one Michelin star each over the course of his career, to focus on simple ways to coax the maximum flavour out of everyday ingredients. It was an ethos that was apparent the first time I first interacted with him as a food editor, in 2011. For that year’s Gulf News’ 'Good Food and Fine Recipes' annual cookbook, I wanted recipes from some of the celebrity chefs in Dubai who had Michelin-starred restaurants elsewhere. Rhodes responded with a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, as well as a steak and kidney pie. I was irritated at first, then struck by his genius. His version of the classic Caprese salad was an easy, approachable recipe that anyone could throw together in minutes and say they’d recreated a Gary Rhodes dish. He shared that with Delia: before food TV became entertainment, millions learnt to cook watching him on TV.
Moving to Dubai
Rhodes had just moved to Dubai with his wife Jennie and his two sons at the time of that Gulf News cookbook outing. After years of regular visits to cook for the Jumeirah Group, he’d resettled here to run Rhodes Mezzanine (the forerunner to Rhodes W1) at the Grosvenor House hotel, and told me later it was one of the best decisions of his life. “I love walking out when I’m at the top. I think it was a great move to make, it was the right move.”
A 10-year contract at one of his two Michelin-starred London restaurants had come to an end, and rather than begin the grind again in hyper-competitive London, , he felt it was time to seek new adventures under Dubai’s sunny skies. He promptly opened a second restaurant, Rhodes Twenty10, at the Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, and continued to oversee his three other venues — in Grenada and on the P&O liners Arcadia and Oriana — as well as putting out a succession of new cookbooks.
To TV viewers everywhere — even those I met as late as December 2017 when he was demonstrating economy Christmas dishes for community shoppers at Spinneys supermarket in Bur Dubai (top tip: try a turkey risotto with all those leftovers for Boxing Day, but add all the liquid into a risotto at once and stir only occasionally) — Rhodes was still best known for his TV work, for his appearances on ‘MasterChef’, ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and of course, his ‘Rhodes Across’… series. One woman told me she loved the way he elevated British classics such as faggots and treacle sponge. She wasn’t alone; following the announcement of his death, fans and celebrities talked of their favourite Rhodes recipes on social media posts.
“His banana and syrup loaf was the first thing I baked all on my own. The pages are stuck together with syrup,” tweeted Great British Bake Off winner Candace Brown. I empathise, my own (signed!) copy of Gary Rhodes 365 is stained and dog-eared at (what else?) the brunch section. Bacon and egg salad, anyone? How about baked potatoes stuffed with stilton, leeks and mushrooms? Pompous as he may have appeared on the telly, in real life he was funny, friendly and down-to-earth. His missionary zeal for teaching people to cook remained strong. He confessed how he wanted to teach school kids in the UK to cook. Like Jamie Oliver, he developed healthy recipes for school kids here in the UAE, but as he told me, he wanted to take that one step further, with cooking classes incorporated into the curriculum.
He himself learnt to cook as the son of a single mum; if he could build a career from cooking, he felt, other kids could at least learn to eat healthy. Only days before he died, Rhodes was back where he’d begun, filming an ITV series, featuring fellow celebrities Vineet Bhatia and Reif Othman. His wish to do more TV had come true. As one of the early generations of TV chefs, predating the 24-hour food stations, Rhodes said he wanted to go back onto the box, and told me he would have liked to work on a series called Rhodes Across The Middle East.
“I feel the Middle East has never really been touched and I’d definitely want to do it,” he said. Part of me shuddered at the thought (What would he make of balaleet? Would he want to reinvent koshary?), but I also would have welcomed the show. If he could have excited local viewers enough to want to throw a qahwa cup at the telly, perhaps that would have prompted at least some of them to step into their kitchens and learn to cook for themselves, if only to prove him wrong. Together with his other shows, that would have been a fantastic legacy to leave behind. At 59, Gary Rhodes had many more Rhodes across the telly to traverse.