Gary Rhodes: around the high seas

From his latest venture in Dublin to the art of cooking on board the 'Arcadia' cruise ship, Gary Rhodes tells Kate Simon how he is making waves overseas
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The Independent Travel

I became involved with the Arcadia cruise liner two years ago. I went to Venice while the ship was being built to look at the structure - the size was quite daunting, absolutely huge, and that was just the frame. I thought, "This is going to take a lifetime to build." So it's incredible how it all came together so quickly.

I was very excited at the prospect of being involved with the liner and introducing a Rhodes restaurant on board. It was my dream as a student to be head chef of restaurants across the world, and I think this is the closest I'll ever get to that - one minute in the Caribbean, the next in the Mediterranean.

After several meetings with the owner, P&O, I realised that the company believed 100 per cent in Arcadian Rhodes, down to my involvement in choosing every single plate and piece of cutlery and glassware. It wasn't just a question of "Here it all is, Gary, move in and get on with it". The architecture of the restaurant was in place, but I was very involved in deciding the fine details, like what sort of linen we were going to have - would it be white or off-white, should we have napkins with the Arcadian Rhodes logo or not. And that was a good 12 months before the ship was even launched.

It was very important to me to be part of that process. It's the same with anything that I get involved in - either I'm part of that project or I'm not part of it; it's not just a question of sticking my name on something. So although I don't own Arcadian Rhodes, I do feel that it is my own.

I've been working on the menus over the past year. I'm trying to establish certain dishes that I feel belong to Arcadian Rhodes and won't feature elsewhere. The moment I bring a menu together, the chef who's looking after the restaurant for me will come over to the UK for maybe a week or two, whatever I feel is needed, and together we'll just cook that menu. They will learn it, taste it and try to understand what the dishes are about so that they know exactly what they have to produce for me. And I hope that at the same time they'll point out problems, tell me things like: "Look, Gary, it will be almost impossible to get hold of that produce on board. We'll be out in the Caribbean." It has been a learning process for me too.

There are certain dishes now that people really like. A lot of our guests return - they get hooked on Arcadian Rhodes - and they always hope that a certain dish is still on the menu. But it's going to take quite a long process to establish what I'd like to think of as the Arcadian Rhodes classics. I want to make sure they only belong on this ship and in this particular restaurant. Sometimes I like to leave them where they were born.

Eating on board is different to other experiences. At Rhodes 24, in the City of London, you've got your business gentleman, perhaps entertaining his clients. But on Arcadia, there's such a wide audience - people from all walks of life, it is so mixed. I never do a walkabout in the restaurants, but I do it here on the cruise ship because it's a different feel. People are on holiday. They're here to enjoy - you want to try to give them more. So I can spend three hours meeting the diners, because the most important thing is to have made them feel like they've really got to know the restaurant, the chef, myself.

Cooking on the move is very similar to cooking at a hotel. I've done cookery demonstrations on the QE2. Bit of a shaky old trip, though, across the Atlantic. And I've done the occasional function on board the Orient Express. There, you cook in a little box, one of several throughout the train. I take on three or four of my lads to be responsible for each box. I'm in one of them, they're in the others and it's off we go, full steam ahead.

Andrew is responsible for Arcadian Rhodes. He's a very talented chef - a great manager of the kitchen as well as a good cook, which is a wonderful plus. He's cooked with me several times in London now. The experience on board is much the same as in a restaurant because it's the same process, the way the orders come in and then out goes the bread and the little amuse - you could be anywhere. The only thing is that now and again you might get that little wobble from the ocean. That you don't get in London.

My other business interests outside the UK include my restaurant at the Calabash in Grenada. I first started visiting the island 10 years ago. I was quite surprised at the amount of Brits holidaying there: Grenada isn't unknown, but it feels untouched. It's certainly not a commercial island, and that's what I love about it. I went there to do a Christmas TV special for the BBC. Two years later I returned for a holiday with my family. We stayed at the Calabash and got to know the owner, Leo Garbutt, who has become a very good friend.

We fell in love with Grenada and holidayed there for the next three or four years. Each time Leo would say: "Why don't we get together?" But it was a few years later that I thought, "You know, I'd like this." A couple of my chefs were looking to get out of the UK so I set them up there. Only one of them remains, but he wants to spend the rest of his life on the island. It's wonderful, a Rhodes chef on permanent location working with all the local lads, who are brilliant too - it's a great team. I introduced a British theme with a Caribbean twist. It's taken off very, very well - 80 to 90 per cent of the guests at the Calabash are Brits, and we get a lot of diners visiting from the other hotels.

RhodesD7 in Dublin is the latest project. We've just opened in Capel Street, not far from the centre of town. It's brasserie style, a place for lighter eating, not a place where you come along and think, "Oh dear me, I've got to sit up straight and I've got to have the three courses." I want people to come in and feel they can have a bowl of something and a glass of something and then disappear.

I didn't take over the restaurant; it was constructed from start to finish. We had French Monet kitchens fitted, probably the best on the market at the moment - it's sensational. I like to get involved with businesses that really want the best because it isn't just about the best on the table. To produce the goods you've got to have the best equipment behind the scenes too. Quite often that's ignored. One of my chefs who has worked with me for about eight years will be running the show.

I chose Dublin because everyone had been talking about how good business is in the city. It's booming. Consequently, I thought, "Right, well I'll go and take a look and see what's going on." I'd already made a few trips to Dublin for leisure. I love the architecture and there is a real spirit in the people - they love to eat. I told the people I was going into business with, "Right, I'm coming over, but I'm coming over on a Monday, Tuesday and a Wednesday. I don't want to come at the weekend because you're going to be packed anyway. I want to be impressed by the beginning of the week."

And, goodness me, I was quite shocked at the amount of people eating out. In London we don't suffer too much; we've always got eaters in town. But, let's face it, most other places outside of London in the UK, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday there's got to be a special offer on the menu, otherwise you never fill the place. In Dublin there's a spirit for enjoying good food, good company. The social point of the world is the dinner table.

My cooking is about the great British classic, but with a French influence. When I cook at events in the States, France, South Africa, Australia, I tell them I'm going to do British cooking and they say, "What British cooking?" So I say, "Well, I'm going to show you what British cooking is all about." That usually shocks a few people. Yet we've got some of the finest produce in the world. It's just that for many years we weren't quite sure what we should perhaps do with it, or how to get the best out of it.

I mean if you look across Europe, the French, the Spanish, the Italians, they want to buy all of our lobsters. They want to buy our scallops, our langoustines from Scottish and Cornish waters. They want Welsh lamb, the beef from Scotland. And they're trying to tell us we can't cook! So if we've got the product, let's show everyone how we can use it and what we can do with it.

In the 1980s, I worked in a couple of three-Michelin-star restaurants in France that were restaurants with rooms. The places were permanently packed with damn good cooking. I think there's so much more of that happening in the UK now. Of course in the past five years, the gastropub has hit the scene and become really trendy. There's a lot of fashion mixed with food in the UK. That's why I like to hold on to great British cuisine. Eating habits are totally changing. Once people just thought, "Where can we stay?" Now people think, "Where can we stay and get good food?" They'll go a little further to get a wonderful dinner."

People seem to think that the UK has just one cuisine. That's just not true. I've realised that from the experience I've had when trying to open restaurants. Years ago I thought we should open a range of brasseries called Rhodes & Co. We had three at one point - one in Crawley in Sussex, one in Manchester and one in Edinburgh. Well, please, I thought you could put one menu on. Forget it. What they'd eat in Manchester they wouldn't eat in Edinburgh. Things they'd eat in Edinburgh, there was no way they'd eat in Crawley. Each had a totally different style of eating and approach to food.

When I filmed Rhodes Around Britain, I really enjoyed visiting the north of England. There was a lot of solid and hearty fare, more so than in the south. I remember being on a pig farm with this father and his two sons - they weren't lads, they were guys, 10 years younger than me and twice the size. They'd go home for lunch. They'd start with soup made from the stock of some boiled pig. Then they'd be munching on trotters, before they got on to the roast pork as well. And I said, "Is this lunch?' And the mum replied: "Oh, yes, there's still dinner to come." I thought, you're in a different world here. What a treat.

From April to November each year, P&O Cruises 'Arcadia' operates itineraries in the eastern and western Mediterranean, Baltic, Norwegian fjords and Atlantic isles, departing Southampton. Prices for a typical two-week cruise start at £1,269 per person. Between November and April, 'Arcadia' repositions to the Caribbean and offers 15-night fly-cruises, departing Barbados, Acapulco or New Orleans. Fares start at £1,599 per person. Prices are based on two adults sharing, full board, including charter flights to the Caribbean where relevant. For more information call P&O Cruises (0845 355 5333; pocruises.co.uk)

My favourite county

My favourite place in Britain is Kent. I've lived there for many, many years, and there is something about the county that I adore. There are farms down in Kent with 50 varieties of apple and you can go and pick your own. There's another place I go to as well, just outside Sittingbourne, where you can pick your own asparagus.

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