Celebrity Chef Gary Rhodes' on his new project in Christchurch Dorset
Joanna Wood catches up with the celebrity chef to hear all about his new project in Christchurch, and to discover that he's definitely happier in the kitchen than he is on the dance floor!
There's been a bit of a revolution going on in the town of Christchurch. A food revolution. And it's thanks to celebrity chef Gary Rhodes and Dorset-based hotelier and businessman Nicolas Roach, who, together, have opened two rather chic restaurants in the town - Kings Rhodes and Rhodes South.
I'm meeting Rhodes, 48, on a grey winter's day in the latter. The 72-seat restaurant is impressive; an airy, sinuous bay-hugging space with huge window frontage and great views over Mudeford Quay and Christchurch Bay. It's an eco-minded new-build restaurant (think compressed sawdust walls, a 'living' sedum plant roof).
"It's an absolutely gorgeous view," enthuses Rhodes, "and during the summer we're going to have alfresco eating alongside here and do some beautiful light lunches, so I'm hoping it's going to be packed."
But how did Rhodes get involved with the project? The answer lies with Roach, who owns both the Christchurch Harbour Hotel (in whose grounds Rhodes South stands) and The Kings Hotel nearer the town centre, which houses the duo's second restaurant, Kings Rhodes. Roach has spent millions over the past year refurbishing and modernising both properties and wanted restaurants that reflected their new boutique-hotel-style sophistication.
Taking a sip from a morning cuppa, Rhodes explains: "It all started a couple of years ago when a mutual friend phoned me up and said that Nick had mentioned the possibility of having a 'British' restaurant down here, so I came down, we had lunch, and I liked the whole approach" and the rest, as they say, is history.
It's easy to understand why Rhodes was a good fit for a British-leaning restaurant like Rhodes South. He is, after all, the chef who almost single-handedly revived the profile of British cuisine during the 1990s, when he showed how classics like faggots, braised oxtail and bread-and-butter pudding could be made modern without losing their culinary identity.
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Of course at Rhodes South, diners will get a chance to tuck into some of Rhodes' trademark Brit-dishes, often presented with a dash of theatre at the table; hot jam (locally sourced from the New Forest) poured over jam roly-poly after it's been unwrapped from parchment paper with a flourish and the like. Finding local food producers is something that Rhodes is very keen on, particularly since being a judge on UK TV Food's Local Food Heroes competition.
"We're working hard at finding the right suppliers down here in Dorset and Hampshire. The fish we're getting here is absolutely lovely. Beautiful scallops and the local mussels are sensational. Wayne Tapsfield, my executive chef, was telling me he came down to the jetty just outside the restaurant on his break the other week, when the tide was high, and there were some huge sea bass just swimming around it," he says, with the passion only a chef can muster for food. "Unbelievable, unbelievable," he adds, unable to believe his luck at finding such delicacies literally on Rhodes South's doorstep.
The clock is ticking inexorably towards lunchtime and Rhodes' is beginning to get a bit twitchy, obviously wanting to get back in the kitchen where he feels most at home. He's far too polite to say so, of course, but he's clearly anxious to keep a close eye on things while he's down in Dorset (he plans to pay frequent visits - at least six visits over the first year - leaving a trusted team to run both Rhodes South and Kings Rhodes in his absence). But before he goes, he's eager to stress a few salient truths about his two Dorset restaurants.
Most importantly, he's keen to let the world know how competitively priced they are. Kings Rhodes, for instance, which has a modern Med-inspired menu and is trendy but casual, has some great sharing plates for �3.50. "If there's three of you and you order six of those between you it's still only coming in at around �7 a head," he says. "And," he adds, "we've been really strict with our pricing at Rhodes South - lunch is �25 for three courses and we're doing a three-course plat du jour menu for �19.50. It's great value. If you don't overcharge you get bums on seats. Greed is where you'll fail."
Naturally, failing is not on the Rhodes agenda. And a continued high profile on our television screens (he's filming a series on the Caribbean and talking about a remake of Rhodes Around Britain, both for UK TV Food) and, hopefully, a flow of customers throughout the year feeding through from the Christchurch Harbour's new all-singing-all-dancing spa will ensure that Rhodes South and King's Rhodes will be around for a long time to come.
There's one more thing that I need to know about Gary Rhodes before I let him escape from the interview. Why did he sign up for the BBC's last series of Strictly Come Dancing, when strutting his stuff in spangly shirts was so obviously out of his comfort zone? There's a one-word answer to that - Jennie, his wife, who's an avid fan of the show. "It's true, I did it for her," he says with a rueful smile. But then, he comes clean and adds: "I have to admit, when the show first started I used to watch it and say, 'I can do that' - but it was infinitely more difficult than I ever, ever thought.
"Before you start they tell you that all you need to do is 12 hours training a week - but that's rubbish!" he continues. "You go through the rota and you see just one training session is six hours. I can tell you, after two hours you've had enough. After six hours you just don't want to do it - your feet ache, you're forgetting things you were told six hours before... I'm a lot happier in the kitchen - it's easier in there!"