Gary Rhodes is back - and he has gone up in the world. His new restaurant venture is on the 24th floor of Tower 42 - formerly the NatWest Tower, and the City of London's tallest building. It's called Rhodes Twenty Four and Rhodes has opened it in tandem with Restaurant Associates, thefine-dining arm of contract catering giant Compass.
This isn't, of course, the first time he has climbed into bed with a contract caterer. Until May of this year, he'd had a successful seven-year alliance with Compass's rival, Sodexho, but the two decided to part company by mutual consent. "Regardless of what the media wanted to print - 'Gary Rhodes loses his businesses' and that sort of nonsense - it was a joint decision," he says, lounging with well-rehearsed ease in his new domain at Rhodes Twenty Four.
"I'd had a fantastic spell at City Rhodes and Rhodes in the Square, but I felt I'd taken it as far as I possibly could. I just felt that the cooking had become a little stale. We'd lost the British fare over a period of time, and I wanted to get back to my real British cuisine. We all like fresh ingredients and this, here, is my fresh ingredient."
OK, let's cut to the chase: how did Rhodes get his hands on that "fresh ingredient"? Well, about the time that his impending divorce from Sodexho became general knowledge back in January, he was chatting to Albert Roux ("as you know, he's the Godfather") and mentioned that he would soon be on the market for a new challenge. Roux had for many years been involved with Tower 42 through Roux Fine Dining (also owned by Compass) and he put Rhodes in touch with the company which, coincidentally, was looking to revamp its Restaurant Twentyfour under its Restaurant Associates wing.
The result: a deal was struck between the two parties. Rhodes would take over the 85-seat restaurant, plus responsibility for the building's eight private dining rooms and Vertigo bar for an initial five years. But the deal is not exclusive. If he wishes, Rhodes can at any time put his name to another venture. "I'm basically an independent company that Restaurant Associates is getting involved with," he insists. "I'm not 'employed' in any way, shape or form. We are just striking up a partnership deal on this particular project at the moment."
Cleverly, Rhodes has avoided putting any money of his own into the new venture. "I'm not that stupid," he says with a knowing look. "At the end of the day, it's a Restaurant Associates deal and they are asking me to front that deal. And that's what I'm doing. They make lots of money, I name my fee, and they pay it." Ah, the fee - what is it? "A quarterly fee. I'm not telling you how much. It's enough."
What Restaurant Associates is getting from joining forces with Rhodes, then, is the pull of his celebrity name above the door and, of course, a restaurant serving his trademark British cuisine. The exclusively à la carte menu carries his signature dishes, of course. The bread-and-butter pudding (which, he says, will never go off his menus), the Jaffa cake pudding, braised oxtail. He has put time and effort, though, into tweaking them so they arrive at the table in a different way.
The bread-and-butter pud, for instance, is more of a variations-on-a-theme plate. You still get a mini bread-and-butter pudding, but alongside that is a bread-and-butter pudding ice-cream (a vanilla ice-cream base mixed with nutmeg, soaked raisins and sultanas and crisped white breadcrumbs) sandwiched between two paper-thin slices of Melba toast, and a little crème caramel - or, as it is listed in English, "a baked sultana and raisin custard". Rhodes explains: "They're all born from the same thing - the egg base and the fruit - but with their own identity."
Other dishes which, given half a chance, Rhodes will go into overdrive about are turkey consommé accompanied by warm cranberry and chestnut pâté toasts (it's an allusion to Christmas dinner, which he insists, despite its obvious debt to American Thanksgiving, is a British classic); and a steamed mutton and onion suet pudding served with buttered carrots and a choice of three sauces - mutton jus, caper sauce and sauce soubise - brought to the table in three individual jugs (the caper, by the way, is a particularly good match).
These dishes have that quintessential British comfort food air about them that you expect from Rhodes (actually, they're not over-hearty when you eat them) and it's something of which he remains vocally proud. "I believe in those dishes. I really do believe that food can be simple as long as it's executed well. I want everybody to recognise this."
The evangelical button is well and truly pressed, and it's difficult to shut him up without being rude. He waxes long and lyrical, not only about his belief in Rhodes Twenty Four's British cuisine ("Where else do you get braised oxtail cottage pie as a starter? Where else in London can you eat jam roly-poly with custard?") but also about his hopes for restaurants in the future.
"I want people to come along and say, 'he's back'," he admits. "And I want to make this a very profitable operation. If we never get a Michelin star here, I will be very disappointed, but what I really want is customers. I want Restaurant Associates to say, 'fantastic, Gary, already our takings are up. It's brilliant.'"
Being such a high-profile name, Rhodes and his restaurant will undoubtedly be under an intense media spotlight, but that doesn't bother him. In fact, he rather likes the attention. "Everybody's going to be looking and wondering and judging," he says. "The second day after opening, who do we get? We get Fay Maschler coming in - and who's she eating with? Rick Stein. Everybody wants to come and take a look, but, yeah, I do like that pressure. When you're under pressure, you perform an awful lot better. You're far more switched on."
THE CHEF, THE CONTRACT CATERER AND THE RESTAURANT
Rhodes's new business partner, Restaurant Associates, the fine-dining arm of Compass, has run a successful restaurant in Tower 42 since 1998. Named simply Twentyfour, the restaurant was under the consultancy of Albert Roux and its food nearly always matched its stunning views, according to Square Meal magazine, which gave the venue its highest rating.
Clearly, Restaurant Associates hopes that by hitching up with Rhodes, the restaurant's profile will rocket even higher and extend beyond the City of London. Bookings for Monday and Friday nights, usually dead in the City, are already filling up rapidly.
The link-up between Rhodes and Restaurant Associates came after Roux introduced Rhodes to Don Davenport, chief executive officer of Compass UK & Ireland. Talks started in April as Rhodes began looking for opportunities after the closure of City Rhodes and Rhodes in the Square. At the same time, Restaurant Associates had bagged a new 10-year contract extension to manage all hospitality and catering services throughout Tower 42. This comprised Vertigo, a Champagne bar on the top floor, eight private dining rooms, a ground-floor café, bar, and Restaurant Twenty Four - a contract worth an estimated £3.5m in annual sales.
Having renewed the contract, Restaurant Associates was spurred on to develop the business. Its managing director of business and industry, David Bailey, explains: "There are very few individuals who could do that, and we're delighted Gary has given us that opportunity. Our competition is Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. That's where our fine-dining client base goes to eat and that's their expectation."
Sodexho reportedly "poured millions" into Rhodes's previous restaurants, but Bailey claims he has nothing to learn from that arrangement. Of the financial details, the most he will say is: "I'm very happy with how this deal is structured." The partnership is for five years. Most of the kitchen brigade (there are 11 in total) are on Compass's payroll, but Rhodes himself is paid as a consultant, although he dislikes the term.
Rhodes's insistence that the deal was not exclusive doesn't bother Bailey. "It's good for us because he brings other things to the table, but equally his priority, for his own sake really, is to have Rhodes Twenty Four as a real statement of what he wants to do."
Putting Rhodes slap-bang in the middle of its financial audience is a PR coup for Compass. Sitting in Rhodes Twenty Four on a sunny October day, Bailey waves a hand towards the window, pointing out the offices of some of Restaurant Associates' clients in the City below - Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse First Boston, to name but two.
"Gary has a brilliant reputation in the City," he says. "They know his food. It's very nice for our current and potential client base to see a very visible part of Compass. We feel it's a great endorsement for what we're trying to do in our contract business and that's how we've set our stall out."
Committed Restaurant Associates chefs will also get the chance to spend one to three weeks training with Rhodes, and Rhodes's kitchen will be used to service private dining rooms on the same floor. There is also speculation that Rhodes will play a consultancy role in Restaurant Associates' other public restaurants, such as the Admiralty at London's Somerset House.
Gary Rhodes made his name as head chef at the Castle hotel in Taunton in the late 1980s when, with the encouragement of its renowned proprietor, Kit Chapman, he launched himself into battle as the standard-bearer of modern British cuisine. In 1990, he moved to London's Greenhouse restaurant in Mayfair and while there gained wider celebrity after his first TV series for the BBC was screened in 1994.
In 1996, at the age of 36, he garnered a Michelin star for the Greenhouse and later that same year launched his first alliance with a contract caterer when he became one of the first big-name chefs in the UK to cross what was then the great divide between restaurants and the contract sector by going into business with Compass's rival, Sodexho. Over the next seven years, the duo's partnership embraced the launch of two fine-dining restaurant in the capital (City Rhodes and Rhodes in the Square, both of which gained Michelin stars) and three brasseries.
US caterer Restaurant Associates was founded in the 1950s. By the 1990s it had become a New York-based restaurant and contract catering group with high-profile food service accounts at the Rockefeller Center, Seagram Building, United Nations Building and Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. Compass bought the company in 1998 for $87.5m (£53.6m) and set up a London office too. As the fine-dining arm of Compass, Restaurant Associates now forms an umbrella over Compass's top UK catering divisions of Milburns, Roux Fine Dining, Leith's and Charters.
166 High Holborn, London WC1V 6TT
Tel: 020 7301 2000
Fax: 020 7301 2011
US president and founder: Nick Valenti
UK chief executive officer: Peter Aldrich
UK managing directors: David Bailey and Keith Hudspith
Contracts: 92 contracts at 114 sites
Public restaurants: Rhodes Twenty Four, the Admiralty at Somerset House, Sunborn Yacht hotel
Key contracts: Deutsche Bank, Freshfields, Sea Containers, the Sanctuary, J Walter Thompson, Bank of America, Clifford Chance, Credit Suisse First Boston
With a vast window frontage and stunning views across London, there was no need to make an in-your-face design statement with Rhodes Twenty-Four.
What was needed was an understated elegance - achieved by designers Real Studios by using dark wood detailing and colour theming of soft green and mauve inspired by the globe artichoke.
"I liked that concept," Rhodes says. "If you think about it, a young globe artichoke has got that mauvey, sort of almost auberginey colour coming up to green." He was involved with the restaurant's design concept from "day one".
Dominating the bar area is a bronze sculpture of a sitting woman by Helen Sinclair. Set on a plinth, its elongated lines reflect the linear outline of Tower 42 itself. There are plans to have table sculptures by Sinclair, too. "I've got this real love for art, so I mentioned Helen Sinclair to Real Studios," says Rhodes, who has two pieces by Sinclair in his home. He estimates that Restaurant Associates has spent "at least" £250,000 on the refurb.
Rhodes Twenty Four Menu
- Duck terrine with chicory and shallot béarnaise relish (for two), £12
- Glazed Cheddar cheese and lobster omelette, £16
- Seared scallops, shallot mustard sauce and mashed potatoes, £15.50
- Turkey consommé, warm cranberry and chestnut pâté toasts, £7.50 n Braised oxtail cottage pie, £9.80
- Fried pork and gammon crubeens, piccalilli sauce, £9.80
- Partridge sausage, sweet thyme roast parsnips, sharp Bramley apple sauce, £11.50
- Potted mackerel and gooseberry jelly, warm mackerel fillet, potato salad, £10
- Artichoke bottom, chopped wild mushrooms, poached egg, hollandaise sauce, £13
- Pan-fried fresh haddock, steamed potato, cockle and leek casserole, £13
- Red mullet fillets, caramelised onion, anchovy and black olive tart, rosemary cream sauce, £18.90
- Fillets of Dover sole, sautéd snails and shrimps, Jerusalem artichoke purée, £31.50
- Celeriac and butternut squash pastry, spinach, cèpe mushroom cream sauce, £12.80
- Roast bitter duck and gravy, parsnip and date pur‚e, roast potato, £19.50
- Steamed mutton and onion suet pudding and buttered carrots, £17.50
- Layered potatoes, onions and cheese with cauliflower casserole, £11.60
- Roast beef fillet and bone marrow, red wine sauce, pork chasseur, £22.50
- Braised veal olive with tomato and parsley gravy and mashed potatoes, £18.50
- Bramley apple mousse, warm apples, lady's finger biscuits, £7.50
- Rhubarb and custard cheesecake, warm rhubarb compôte, rhubarb sorbet, £7.50
- Bread and butter pudding, baked sultana and raisin custard, bread-and-butter pudding ice-cream, £7.50
- Black grape jelly, grape and vanilla salad, honey and orange madeleines, £7.50
- Jaffa cake pudding, £7.50
- Steamed jam roly-poly with custard and hot jam sauce (for two), £12.50
Published by: The Caterer