When Gary Rhodes was six, his father Gordon, a caretaker, ran off with the woman next door, sold the family home in Gillingham, Kent, and left Gary, his younger siblings and their shell-shocked mother, Jean, to fend for themselves.
Suddenly, they were living in a council flat and Jean was back working all hours as a secretary to pay the bills.
But instead of wailing about the unfairness of life, little Gary stepped up. He helped look after his little brother and baby sister Cheryl.
He put aside his dreams of becoming a racing driver or policeman and, aged 13, 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,’ he said.
He started with cottage pie and soon progressed to Sunday roasts, with lemon sponge pudding for afters.
Gary Rhodes’s self-control and work ethic were legendary – propelling his stratospheric rise to become one of Cool Britannia’s most successful chefs, winning a record five Michelin stars and presenting endless TV shows
Gary Rhodes with his wife Jennie at the Fabulous at Fifty The Jumeirah Carlton Tower 50th Anniversary in Knightsbridge, London, in 2011
‘With my father [gone], it made me so much stronger,’ he once said. ‘When I look back, I realise I had quite a responsible head on young shoulders.’
So while his mates were off playing football in the park or bunking off school, the budding chef was busy ‘keeping house’ and embracing any extra jobs his mum asked him to do – cleaning, washing – but keeping it secret for fear his mates would find out.
‘If she left me the washing and asked me to switch the machine on, I’d make sure that when she came home it was all sorted and folded, too,’ he once said. ‘I wanted to impress and do more than expected.’
It became his life philosophy.
Rhodes’s self-control and work ethic were legendary – propelling his stratospheric rise to become one of Cool Britannia’s most successful chefs, winning a record five Michelin stars, presenting endless TV shows, writing 18 (often rather challenging for the novice) cookery books – some of which featured his signature faggots – and working 18-hour days to service his empire of restaurants and ever-expanding business interests.
It was this focus that led to him becoming both student and chef of the year at catering college in Thanet, Kent, when he was 15. ‘I realised I could chop a carrot quicker than anyone else and I began to have a feeling of confidence,’ he once said.
This self-discipline helped him overcome a horrific accident in Amsterdam on his first day off from his first job as commis chef at the Amsterdam Hilton.
Dancer Karen Hardy with Gary Rhodes during their appearance on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2008
In what is believed to be the last picture taken of him, Gary Rhodes is seen (above) with Vineet Bhatia in Dubai four days ago
He was running for a tram, looked the wrong way and was hit by a transit van. His head smashed into a brick wall causing a blood clot on the brain, which led to the removal of part of his skull.
Doctors warned he might never speak again and be brain-damaged for life. They advised a year off work. But despite losing his sense of smell – catastrophic for a fledgling chef – he was back in the Hilton’s kitchen in six months.
While his smell returned, albeit playing a few olfactory tricks over the years, according to close friend and food writer Thane Prince, the vivid scar from his surgery changed his hairstyle for ever.
‘That was why he wore his hair spiky for so long,’ she says of the trademark hairdo that divided fans and took him up to an hour to perfect each morning with gallons of hairspray and mousse gel.
It was Rhodes’s remarkable drive that, for decades, shoehorned him out of bed at 4.30am every day to complete a brutal 30-minute gym regime – before he even tackled the hair.
And all that before a long day in the kitchen. (At the weekends and on holidays, he’d up the work-out to two and a half hours.) He also ate next to nothing.
‘He was hugely self-disciplined,’ says Prince. ‘He used to eat like a flea – lots of muesli and healthy food, but he was incredibly kind and supportive.
‘He would always go that extra mile and was probably one of the most hands-on restrained, encouraging chefs I have ever met. There was no violence or shouting in his kitchen.’ (Unlike those of his culinary peers, Marco Pierre White and } Gordon Ramsay.)
For while Rhodes was hard on himself – he considered four hours’ sleep a night perfectly adequate – he was wonderfully kind to friends, family, staff, customers and fans.
Rhodes pictured with his two sons Samuel and George in an image posted on George’s Instagram on Father’s Day
Gary Rhodes and his brother Chris. Chris uploaded this image on social media, and wrote: ‘Not only have I lost a brother, but a best friend too’
Yesterday, along with endless glowing tributes from every famous chef you can think of, Twitter was awash with tales of his quiet kindnesses.
Actor Kadiff Kirwan tweeted: ‘In 2008 on my gap year, I worked at his restaurant in Marble Arch to save for drama school. Gary was always so lovely. When I left to go to drama school he gave me one of his signed cookbooks, I opened it and there was £200 inside.’
A chap called Gareth Dimelow recalls how, back in the 90s, Gary helped a brother of Gareth’s friend perfect one of his recipes after he’d got into an angry tangle and written to Gary crossly.
He invited him and his family to one of his restaurants and had kept in touch ever since. Friends also insist that, however many restaurants he opened and expensive cars he bought, in private, behind the bouncy public face, spiky head and vast fortune, he remained surprisingly shy and serious.
‘He knew life could be really tough,’ says one friend. ‘He knew you had to work for things, he knew the importance of kindness and he didn’t let the celebrity – or the associated temptations – affect him.’
He was no saint. He could be tricky and bad-tempered and had his fair share of spats – with Delia Smith, the late restaurant critic AA Gill and on-off pal Gordon Ramsay, particularly after the latter criticised him for serving frozen chips. But rows never festered.
Perhaps that was thanks to Jennie – his rock ever since he spotted her on a bus in Thanet, aged 15, and fell in love.
This summer they celebrated 30 years of marriage, but had been together for more than 40 (he proposed from his hospital bed in Amsterdam when he was 19 and Jennie had rushed to his side) and were one of the rare success stories of the industry.
Because being married to an ambitious, successful chef is a total nightmare.
Gary Rhodes pictured in Dubai in an image posted on his Instagram on November 19
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
They work all hours, never want to eat nicely at home and are generally knackered, sleep-deprived and bad tempered.
For the first 18 years of their relationship, they didn’t have a single holiday.
They bought their first home in 1986 for £36,000 – when, aged 26 and after stints at the Reform Club in London’s Pall Mall and the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge, Gary had secured his first big break at the renowned Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset.
‘The only furniture they could afford was a sofa bed – which sat in the lounge – a portable television, kettle and sauce pan,’ he once said. ‘For years, we slept on the sofa bed in the front room, but we didn’t care – we were so proud to just have our own house.’
It was at the Castle that Gary developed his mastery for reviving British classics: Lancashire hotpots, Welsh rarebit and delicious steamed puddings.
It was also during his time in Somerset that Glynn Christian, then TV-AM’s resident chef, asked him to do a few private cookery school demonstrations, videoed him in action and launched his broadcasting career.
Rhodes appeared on a series called Hot Chefs alongside other members of the first wave of celebrity chefs – Antony Worrall Thompson and Ken Hom. Next came a move to the Greenhouse restaurant in Mayfair, where he won his second star. The first series of Rhodes Around Britain was broadcast in 1994, followed by a second a year later.
He was a total natural – visually striking, laddish, bouncy, but also rigorous and professional.
Of course, not everyone loved his style – AA Gill famously loathed him – but enough people did to turn him into a household name. He was on This is Your Life in 1996, in his mid-thirties, for goodness sake. It wasn’t until Gary was in his forties that his ridiculous hair finally got the chop – just in time to start filming MasterChef – reportedly following pressure from the programme’s producer.
Rhodes was presented with an OBE for services to the hospitality industry in November 2006
Rhodes pictured with chef Reif Othman in Dubai during filming for the ITV show. It was posted six days before his death
It must have been a relief to be freed of the morning tyranny of all that gel and hairspray.
As he put it: ‘I’d just turned 41 and I thought, ‘No, sorry. I’m not Rod Stewart, I’ve got to get rid. It was very high-maintenance anyway. A nightmare. You’re talking 15-20 minutes every morning, minimum, to get your hair done.
And if it ever poured down with rain I’d think, ‘Oh my God, my hair will be ruined!’ I don’t have to worry about that any more.’ Credit to Gary – not everyone would have been able to joke about it.
Though the hairstyle went, the work ethic never faded.
Jennie once described her husband as a workaholic, a perfectionist and a frustrated pop star who has forgotten the art of relaxing and said: ‘When he does unwind, he’s unwell.’
In order to see him, she would often get up at 4.30am too, to join him for a quiet coffee and a nice chat before he embarked on his exercise routine.
(The mornings she snoozed through, he’d leave a cup of tea by the bed and a little love note on the pillow beside her.)
He had his fair share of tics. He became obsessive about having clean hands, travelled everywhere with a nail brush and several pairs of rubber gloves and refused to prepare food without gloves on – at home or on set.
‘My wife and children think I’m a nutcase,’ he once said. ‘But I can’t get it out of my head. I’ve got to have clean hands.’
Rhodes made a brief appearance in a Keith Floyd show in 1988 before appearing in Hot Chefs in 1992, his big break into TV cooking shows
Rhodes with his wife Jennie and two sons Samuel and George in 2003. He had been married to Jennie for 30 years
He always said the only reason he took part in Strictly Come Dancing in 2008 was to show Jennie he could be spontaneous and fun.
‘After 30 years of being together and 30 years of me never dancing to any song at a party, I really wanted to learn enough to take my own wife in my arms and be her partner.’
Sadly, he could hardly have been worse. He was desperately nervous and astonishingly bad – Craig Revel Horwood gave him one out of ten and he was booted from the competition in week three.
But he immediately booked lessons with his dance partner Karen for him and Jennie to enjoy together. His latest move – to Dubai in 2011 where he has two restaurants, Rhodes 2010 at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa, and Rhodes W1 in central London – was not a sign of him slowing down.
He was midway through making a new cookery series for ITV when he died suddenly, during a break in filming.
Which, while far, far too soon, may ironically have been how he’d have wanted it. When asked in a recent interview why he kept pushing so hard, why he wasn’t playing golf or lolling about in the sun, he struggled to answer.
‘I don’t ever see me retiring. Maybe I’ll work less. When I’ve gone I would like to be remembered as somebody who dedicated himself 100 per cent to the industry. If anyone can take inspiration from that, then it’s more than I could hope for.’
There can be no doubt of that, Gary.