Gary Rhodes is looking tired, which isn't surprising, really. It's the morning after the launch of his new restaurant, Rhodes South, in Christchurch, Dorset, and he spent the previous evening with his brigade in the restaurant's kitchen preparing canapé versions of menu dishes, barely popping out to schmooze with the assembled multitudes.
But one launch does not a knackered chef make and, for Rhodes, it's more a case of accumulated weariness, after 14 non-stop months of projects in both hospitality and broadcasting. He has overseen the launch of three new restaurants (two in Dorset this year, one in Dubai in 2007), while continuing to film for the UKTV Food channel and judge its annual Local Food Heroes competition. Then there's the small matter of appearing on the BBC's phenomenally successful Strictly Come Dancing show.
Let's deal with Strictly first - as everyone seems to be doing, at the moment. Those of you who saw Rhodes's brief tenure on the show (he was the third celebrity to exit the series) will have seen that he was, to put it politely, way out of his comfort zone.
So why did he go in for competitive dancing? "I have to admit," he says, ruefully, "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 thought." Rhodes also blames his wife for encouraging him. "She's an avid fan of the programme," he says.
"They tell you before you start that you need to do 12 hours' training a week and no more - but that's rubbish!" he adds with feeling. "You go through the rota and suddenly 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. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I wouldn't do it."
We're chatting over a morning cup of tea in the airy Rhodes South dining room - a sinuous, bay-hugging 72-seat space with huge window frontage and views over Mudeford Quay and Christchurch harbour. It's an eco-minded new-build site (sedum roof, compressed sawdust walls) in the grounds of the older Christchurch Harbour hotel, the vision of local businessman and hotelier Nicolas Roach (see page 22). Originally, the restaurant was scheduled to open at the same time as its sister dining room, the brasserie Kings Rhodes (in Roach's other Christchurch hotel, Kings), but, because of some last-minute delays with the construction, the launch was put back.
As it turned out, the delay was probably a good thing, given those Strictly commitments. It would have been challenging to have been opening a restaurant at the same time as doing all-hours dancing, particularly for Rhodes. He can't always delegate where possible - that's one reason he's happy to have left the Strictly competition so early.
Balancing TV with actually being in a restaurant that he fronts is nothing new for Rhodes, nor for any celebrity chef. But with this being his 10th venture, and with venues now in the Middle East, the Caribbean and Ireland, it has become a lot harder. His way of maintaining control is to promote restaurant managers and head chefs from within. Then, when Rhodes can't free some of his own time to check that all is well at his restaurants, he sends in Wayne Tapsfield, his group executive chef. Tapsfield been with him for 18 years.
Both men were there demonstrating and photographing all the dishes for the brigade in the weeks prior to opening - these have gone in files for future reference.
Then there's catering giant Compass. Its Restaurant Services arm operates London restaurants, Rhodes Twenty-Four, and Cumberland hotel eateries Rhodes W1, plus the sister brasserie.
However, although Rhodes has reached the point where he has developed operating systems for his venues all over the world, he doesn't have a stamp that he can roll out in exactly the same way everywhere. In Dubai, for instance, he launched Rhodes Mezzanine last September, at the city's Grosvenor House hotel. But all produce is flown in, so food has to be ordered well ahead of time.
"The suppliers can get absolutely anything you want, so long as you pay for it," Rhodes explains. "Sometimes, the quality can be inconsistent - you're dependent on what the suppliers receive on any given day. But you often have sensational trays of rocket - better sometimes than we receive in London."
Indeed, Dubai hasn't been very different from Christchurch in that respect. Sourcing local suppliers has been difficult. One of the best fishing harbours in the area is close by, so good fish hasn't been a problem, and trays of mallard sit in the kitchen, from a local shoot in nearby Lymington. However, good fruit and vegetable suppliers have yet to reveal themselves.
Andy Snoddy, the restaurant's head chef, "is doing an awful lot of homework", Rhodes says, "but it takes time. Once this place is up and running, I intend to hunt down some good, local suppliers."
Opening two restaurants in the UK is more of a gamble than one in Dubai. Rhodes has readjusted pricing in the two Christchurch restaurants as a response to the economic downturn. Lunch costs £25 for three courses, and there's a three-course plat du jour menu for £19.50. "The pricing at Kings was a mistake, but we've been strict at Rhodes South because of that," Rhodes says. "We might not get the profit margin we're after, but it'll draw lunchtime customers. Greed is where you'll fail."
Dorset is a long way from the glamour of Dubai, where Gordon Ramsay, Pierre Gagnaire and Nobu Matsuhisa have gone to serve the reserves of oil-based wealth. So what's the appeal of this land dotted with bungalows?
"The image of genteel retirement is deceptive," Rhodes says. "Christchurch is next to Poole and Lymington, two of the most expensive places to live on the South Coast."
His partner Roach chips in: "Just in this stretch of harbour, there are four people worth in excess of £100m."
Above all, however, there's potential for Rhodes to expand throughout this part of the South-west. Roach owns hotels in Sidmouth, Devon, and St Ives, Cornwall, and is looking to acquire more as opportunities present themselves over the next 18 months. Where the local market will sustain such a restaurant in a hotel, the Rhodes South brand will open.
So is he chasing Gordon Ramsay? Rhodes smiles and says: "He told a journalist once that, ‘I have a superliner with 18 restaurants, Gary only has 10 - he's still in a rowing boat.' So I thought, ‘Right, you bastard, I'm going to get you back for that'!"
At the time of our interview, Ramsay's personal life had yet to hit the headlines, but chatting about the Scottish chef leads Rhodes to ponder on the timespan of a TV cook.
"I was probably number one in the mid-1990s, then Jamie [Oliver] took over, and now Gordon has taken the limelight. But the difference between when I first hit the TV screens and today is that it's more lucrative now. Then, you'd be offered a television series with a book deal worth £10,000 now, that figure is more like £1m."
For the moment, Rhodes is working away on UKTV Food, his Rhodes Around India and Rhodes Around China series being the most recent. Next stop is the Caribbean, which will allow him to keep an eye on his restaurant at Grenada's Calabash hotel.
There's no doubt that having a high television profile helps to bring diners into a restaurant, and business backers to his door. Now, Rhodes is eyeing further projects abroad, with approaches from New Delhi, the Maldives, Beijing and New York. There's even the possibility of another London venture.
With undisguised glee, he says: "There's all kinds of things going on."
The Rhodes empire
Rhodes Twenty-Four City of London
Rhodes W1 and the Brasserie Cumberland hotel, London (pictured above)
Rhodes Restaurant Calabash hotel, Grenada
Rhodes D7 Dublin
Arcadian Rhodes and Oriana Rhodes on P&O ocean cruise liners
Mezzanine Rhodes Grosvenor House hotel, Dubai
Kings Rhodes Kings hotel, Christchurch, Dorset
Rhodes South Christchurch Harbour hotel, Dorset
Background Gary Rhodes's latest restaurant is a partnership between the chef-restaurateur and Dorset-based businessman and hotelier Nicolas Roach. They were introduced through a mutual friend, Duncan Revie (son of the late Don Revie, former Leeds and England football manager).
Roach owns the Christchurch Harbour hotel and had planning permission to build an eco-friendly restaurant in its grounds on the harbour front, and was looking for a celebrity chef. "We talked to two other people, but Gary was the one," Roach says. "His approach was very different."
Investment Roach has spent £8m on refurbishing the hotel - including putting in a spa, which he hopes will bolster winter trade at both restaurant and hotel in winter months.
The deal Roach owns the building, but he and Rhodes share the profits. Roach says: "We'll share the rewards, there's no arms-length fee - we're in a joint venture. Paying a fee to someone never works."
The building Designed by eco-build specialist architects Baufritz, the one-storey building is constructed of compressed sawdust, and has air-ducting vents which dispense with the need for air-conditioning.
Facts Seats, 72 kitchen brigade, six (soon to increase to eight) key personnel: head chef Andy Snoddy, restaurant manager: Jodie McGregor.
Menu Modern European but includes Rhodes's British trademarks - such as steak-and-kidney pie and bread-and-butter pudding. Plus: duck liver terrine, roast pigeon, beetroot and cranberry salad roast sea bass, lobster champ potatoes and lobster sauce. Price range from £5 to £10 for starters, £14.50 to £16.50 for mains, £6 for puddings.
By Joanna Wood