There is one sure way to upset Gary Rhodes: ask him if he ever gets time to cook any more between television shows and book launches.
Rhodes claims that scarcely a day goes by when he doesn't cook, and says that today he is as passionate about, and committed to, the kitchen as he was when he began his career 20 years ago. "No one thinks I cook any more, and that really aggravates me," he says. "Cooking is my life, my love - it's what I'm about. The TV bit is great, but it's just a bonus. I'm a chef, end of story."
The greatest buzz of all for Rhodes is, he says, coming up with new dishes - or developing classics in a modern way. "And the only way to develop ideas and progress is by cooking - that's why it's so important I still spend most of my time in the kitchen."
Creating a range of new dishes for Rhodes in the Square - Rhodes's second restaurant venture in partnership with contract catering giant Gardner Merchant (the first being City Rhodes) - has kept him busy over the past few months. The 85-seat restaurant, which has cost about £1m to develop, opens next week in Pimlico, London.
Rhodes says it has been particularly important to come up with a "stunning" menu for the restaurant, because it is looking to thrive where others have failed in the past. "The site in Dolphin Square has housed restaurants before, but it's always proved to be a premises where a restaurant has never worked," he says. "We want to change that and make it a big success. It's possible to open a restaurant anywhere and do well, providing you're giving customers great food - look at Tante Claire, for example [Pierre Koffmann's London restaurant on Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea]."
He is confident that his food will indeed attract a good audience - from among both the local community of politicians and wealthy businessmen, and regular restaurant-goers looking for an alternative to the West End. "The food will draw people. The menu is really different - my bread and butter pudding is still there, but the majority of the dishes are new ideas. I've taken some great classics and really turned them around."
Among the dishes Rhodes is most excited about on the menu - which offers nine or 10 choices at each course - is the starter of beef fillet, bacon, chicken liver and red wine ragù with buttered pasta (£9.50). "It sounds like spaghetti bolognese, right?" he asks. "But I guarantee no one will ever have tasted anything like this depth of flavour before."
The sauce includes lots of tomatoes, onions and celery and a hint of garlic and carrots for freshness and taste. "The bacon, chicken livers and veal jus give it a great richness," says Rhodes, adding: "There's all kinds of flavours happening there behind the beef - people won't expect it, it even surprises me."
Another of the starters Rhodes expects to be popular is lobster omelette thermidor (£9). This may sound simple, but it also offers diners' palates great richness and depth of flavour. Warm lobster is spread over eggs just setting in a pan, and over this is poured a classic cheese and mustard thermidor sauce. "We take a lobster bisque and reduce it and reduce it until it's really heavy and rich, and then add a little to the thermidor sauce so it glazes to a lovely golden colour," explains Rhodes.
When it comes to the main courses, individual roast beef with bitter onions (£22.50) seems to give Rhodes most satisfaction. A large piece of sirloin - about 12-14lb - is sealed very slowly before being finished, again very slowly, in the oven and then set aside to rest. The slowness of the process ensures the meat offers all the tenderness and taste of a larger joint of roast beef.
The onions are, meanwhile, almost dry-fried and some are allowed to burn to produce a mix of bitter and sweet flavours. "With this we serve one huge, shaped potato - a pomme château. It's cooked in a roasting tin half-filled with chicken stock, so the top of the potato is crisp and the underneath is succulent," says Rhodes.
Rhodes also anticipates that a main dish of glazed duck with bitter orange (£19.80) will prove to be a favourite with the likes of visiting MPs - primarily because it sounds like the old favourite of duck à l'orange, "but it won't have that terrible sweetness," he promises. The dish is made by taking a duck breast, scoring and seasoning it with crushed white pepper and sea salt and then cooking it on top of the stove until all the excess fat has gone. "That means when it's finished in the oven it gets a delicious, almost crackling skin."
Oranges are, meanwhile, cut up and cooked slowly until the juice and flesh is absorbed by the peel and zest. A diced confit of this orange is served with the duck, producing a bitter-sweet flavour. "With the dish we'll serve mashed potato sauce in a bowl, made by adding single cream and butter to potato. The creaminess of it melts well with the duck," explains Rhodes.
Among the desserts, bread and butter pudding will, no doubt, be the best seller. But there are some new puddings that will also attract attention, hopes Rhodes. His favourite is grilled rhubarb trifle with extra-thick cream (£6.80). This is made by taking a basic sponge - cooked in an individual mould - and flavouring it with a sherry syrup. Rhubarb is sprinkled with sugar and baked in the oven to tenderise it; the juice is then separated and saved, while the rhubarb is placed on top of the sponge.
A rich vanilla bavarois is then placed on top of the rhubarb in the mould and allowed to set. This, in turn, is sprinkled with icing sugar and marked with a hot skewer to produce black criss-cross lines. "The black lines look stunning but are not just there for presentation - the burnt sugar also adds to the flavour," says Rhodes. The plate is finished with the rhubarb juice, reduced to a syrup, and thick cream is served separately as an accompaniment.
If all these dishes have Rhodes convinced he is about to score another restaurant triumph, so too does the style of service Rhodes in the Square is going to offer. "Rhodes in the Square will be a City Rhodes mark 2 in terms of quality, but it will be very different in other ways. The menu, cutlery, plates, atmosphere and service will all offer an entirely different experience," he explains.
To ensure all runs smoothly as Rhodes in the Square establishes itself, Rhodes anticipates basing himself there for several months. But he is quite open that, in the longer term, he will hand over the reins to Roger Gorman - the man he is appointing as head chef - supported by a 20-strong brigade.
"I will be involved with, and approve, everything that is served on the plate at Rhodes in the Square, but long-term I'll probably spend only about 10% of my time there," he explains. "I trust Roger absolutely - he was saucier with me at the Greenhouse and has been sous chef at City Rhodes."
Rhodes wants to ensure he still cooks at City Rhodes for at least six months a year. "City Rhodes is my home," he says. "I desperately want a [Michelin] star at Rhodes in the Square but I also want to keep my star at City Rhodes."
He also anticipates being busy over the next few years building up a chain of Rhodes-branded restaurants around the country. Backed by Gardner Merchant, the target is to open about five to six restaurants within the next two years, with likely locations including Oxford, Manchester, Edinburgh or Glasgow, and Ascot racecourse (see Caterer, 21 May, page 12).
"I want to make Rhodes as strong a brand name as Planet Hollywood is in its market for my style of Michelin-standard cooking," he confesses. "I'd love to have Rhodes restaurants everywhere."
"Cooking is my life… The TV bit is great, but it's just a bonus. I'm a chef, end of story"