It has been nearly seven years since he turned his back on Michelin success by moving to Dubai, but Gary Rhodes doesn’t regret it —— even if he is going to be working on Christmas Day, filling orders at his eponymous New Dubai restaurant.
In fact, the British celebrity chef is loving every minute of it, he says, as he interacts with fans and poses for selfies at a culinary event in the city in the run-up to Christmas.
“I love walking out when I’m at the top. I think it was a great move to make, it was the right move,” he says, sitting down with me after a community demonstration at Spinneys supermarket in Bur Dubai. He explains how he was coming to the end of a 10-year contract at one of his two Michelin-starred London restaurants, and decided he wanted to move his operations to Dubai, where he was already heading Rhodes Mezzanine (the forerunner to Rhodes W1) at the Grosvenor House hotel.
“I was already coming out between eight and ten times a year, which just got out of hand. It was ridiculous, so when the contract came up, I discussed it with my wife and we moved over.” At the time, he says people told him the appetite wasn’t strong enough, that he’d be bored quickly and want to return. “There are so many restaurants you read about in Dubai that come and go very quickly — but look at us now, we’ve got two restaurants and one of them has come up for its 10th anniversary the other we’ve had eight years now.”
But how does anyone turn their back on the money? Why give something up to start all over again? In contrast to the many expats who moved here for better economic opportunities, Rhodes insists it wasn’t about the money at all. “It’s about being happy — the money is purely a supplement,” the soft-spoken chef says, not a hint of irony on that face so familiar to TV viewers around the world.
“When I started in kitchens in the ‘70s, with a weekend job while I went to college, the salary was a pittance — £7 (Dh34.3) a week — and never in those days did we have any sort of celebrity status, or aspire to great financial success. You were a cook down in the dungeons and you had to get on with it. You had to love it and, you know, I still love it. So money’s always been secondary.
“When that contract came up, I just felt we’d taken it as far as we could with that operation in London, and I wanted to go on to something fresh, and I felt I could do that here. I wanted to prove a point over here and there are many more things I still want to do here.”
He has since launched a second restaurant at Le Royal Meridien Dubai next door, and has expanded beyond the rarefied world of fine dining. Besides the collaboration with Spinneys, film buffs across the region can tuck into foie gras and truffle butter panini at what he calls the movie equivalent of the first-class airline experience. Rhodes’ partnership with Vox Cinemas extends to 11 sites and nearly 40 individual cinemas across the region.
The 57-year-old chef is also the most glamorous school dinner lady you’ve seen, providing healthy meals to five schools across the UAE. Every dish, he has said, is freshly made and is designed to appeal to children. “We’re seeing that through to the end of the year and then I’ve got to decide whether or not we continue with it,” he says, citing other commitments.
What he would like to do next is get back on TV, doing the sort of food discovery shows that made him a favourite with TV viewers for the easy way he broke down recipes from everywhere. In fact, he’s just back from a trip to London to discuss the idea, he says. “You know I don’t mean to tar them all with the same brush by any means but there are many programmes that I look at and think, this is predictable and boring. And I want to add something else, to offer something a bit more real or not all the rehearsed nonsense.”
So can we expect Rhodes Across the Middle East next? “You know, I never thought my name would work because I wasn’t French, but it’s got a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I feel the Middle East has never really been touched and I’d definitely want to do it,” he says.
Looming on the horizon is another stab at Michelin greatness — when the venerable red guide finally launches in the region. The guide’s international director, Michael Ellis, said at an industry conference recently that it was “only a matter of time” before the brand announces a list of the best restaurants in the UAE.
“I’ve never lost a star, so it would be great to be recognised for what we do here in Dubai,” Rhodes tells me, but echoes industry belief that the Emirate’s restaurants aren’t ready yet. “As exciting as it is there is still an awful long way to go before we can match the offering in New York or London at the moment. That’s why I love living up here because it’s still growing — whereas in London, it’s very difficult to be filled every single day.” Rhodes W1’s Christmas tables sold out in October, and there’s a waiting list for a meal he has personally supervised.
“When I first started coming out for Jumeirah, there were hardly any restaurants over here, so every restaurant then was doing very, very well and now there are probably far too many. So I feel privileged that we’re still open and we can just about hold our own but I think it’s going to get tougher and harder,” he says.