Gary Rhodes: The south London boy who found culinary stardom

Gary Rhodes: The south London boy who found culinary stardom

November 27, 2019

The south London boy who found culinary stardom: How Gary Rhodes learned to cook by preparing meals for his family when his father walked out on them when he was just six

Gary Rhodes (pictured on the left) as a boy, with brother Kit and mother Jean on holiday

With his trademark enthusiasm and gravity-defying haircut, Gary Rhodes was among the bevy of Michelin-starred chefs to become household names following the soaring success of the television cookery show format in the 1990s. 

But he credited the beginnings of his culinary genius to experiences in his young life, after his father walked out on the family when he was just six.

The chef was born in south London in 1960 before the family moved to the Medway town of Gillingham in Kent.

He later told how the family was left shell shocked after his father, a caretaker, ran away with a next door neighbour and disappeared from their lives.

Their new situation led to Gary become the family cook, and gave him the sense of hard-work and responsibility which never left him.

In an interview in 2008, he told the Daily Mail: ‘My father walking out on me and my brother and two sisters made us grow up so quickly. When I look back, I realise I had quite a responsible head on young shoulders. It made me much stronger, because I had to be – so good did come out of bad.’

‘When he left, my mother had four children, and the youngest – my sister Cheryl – was only a baby. We lived in a council flat and money was tight. When mum had to go back to work as a secretary, I became the family cook.

‘By the time Cheryl was six or seven, I was picking her up from school, taking her home and planning what I was going to cook for her that evening. While other teenage boys were off playing football, I was busy keeping house.’

Rhodes made a brief appearance in a Keith Floyd show in 1988 before appearing in Hot Chefs in 1992, his big break into TV cook shows

At 15, he got a place doing catering  at Thanet technical college, where he met Jennie, who he would later marry and who has been with him throughout his life. She was by his side when he died last night.

His first real job in catering came when he was 19, becoming a commis chef at the Amsterdam Hilton.

The couple returned to the UK following a horrific van accident in Holland, after which Jennie was told Gary could be brain-damaged and might never talk again. The incident also affected his sense of smell.

He needed six months off work, but recovered and returned to Britain to get his ‘big break’ in the industry, becoming head chef at the Castle Hotel in Taunton aged 26.

The move allowed the couple to buy their first home, although Gary later admitted he had to work long hours to retain the hotel’s Michelin star.

He later said: ‘I can’t bear it when young chefs quit because they can’t stand the hours, or they say the money isn’t enough. It was how I started out – you reap the rewards years later.’

Rhodes, one of the first breed of celebrity chefs, with Princess Diana at the gala night to celebrate the film Apollo 13 in 1995

And reap the rewards he did; in 1990 he moved to London and became head chef at the Greenhouse Restaurant in Mayfair. 

He made a name for himself by reviving British classics, including fish cakes, oxtails and bread and butter pudding. Under Gary’s stewardship, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 1996.

By this time, Rhodes was appearing on TV, first appearing on Hot Chefs, alongside other members of the first wave of celebrity chefs; Antony Worrall Thompson and Ken Hom.

This led him on to the series Rhodes Around Britain in 1994 and Gary Rhodes’s Perfect Christmas in 1998.

At a time when Britpop dominated the music scene, Rhodes was credited with injecting the ‘laddishness’ into the kitchen.

His effervescent and affable on-screen persona made him a hit with would-be chefs, though his serious culinary credentials were earned long before he was beamed into the front rooms, and kitchens, of millions of Britons through regular appearances on the likes of BBC series Ready Steady Cook.

Rhodes (pictured in 2011) championed British recipes which had become unfashionable

Reflecting on his career in an interview earlier this year, Rhodes said: ‘When I first started on TV I think I was the very first professional chef to have his first full BBC series.

‘Today, I suppose I have a little bit of pride watching chefs on TV – the reason for that, many of them worked for me.’

Rhodes founded the first restaurant of his own in 1997, when City Rhodes opened. The chain later expanded to open three other Rhodes and Co eateries around the UK.

Rhodes on Strictly with partner Karen Hardy

He starred on Masterchef, for which he found most fame, first in 1993 but in more episodes in 2001, and Masterchef USA.

 In 2006, he was honoured with an OBE for services to the hospitality industry, something he described as ‘just unbelievable’ and even had ‘the edge’ over a Michelin star.

He said at the time: ‘It makes me feel very proud that British cooking has been recognised.

‘Thirty years ago when I started training at college I remember serving the Duke of Edinburgh.

‘I was only ever allowed to serve vegetables. I remember looking around and seeing the Queen at the top table, and lo and behold there’s now some kind of connection.’

In 2007, Rhodes began his work in Dubai, opening Rhodes Mezzanine at The Grosvenor House Hotel, Dubai. It went on to win ‘Restaurant of the Year’.

Rhodes pictured with Vineet Bhatia in Dubai just four days ago. It is believed to be the last photograph of the chef

Rhodes’s brother Chris (far right) posted this image on Instagram one day ago, showing the chef alongside his wife (second right) and sons (far left, and centre) with the caption: Family #strongertogether

In 2008, he competed in the sixth series of Strictly Come Dancing, partnering with pro Karen Hardy, but was voted off just three weeks in. 

He said of his time on the show: ‘I’ve cooked live in front of thousands of people; I have spoken in public and appeared on television without so much as a butterfly in my stomach

‘And each Saturday, I would arrive early in preparation for the live Strictly show feeling really positive.

‘But as the day wore on, the nerves would set in and, at that moment when you know you are about to face a live audience, a panel of judges and ten million viewers, they would announce: ‘Gary and Karen’, and I would think, ‘Oh, my God’. 

‘The nerves just pulled me apart. I didn’t realise I could ever be as nervous as that.’

He moved over to the UAE to concentrate on Mezzanine and three other venues he later opened there.


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