CELEBRITY chef Gary Rhodes, who set out on the path to stardom during his time at Taunton's Castle Hotel, has died aged 59.

Castle director Kit Chapman, who employed Gary as his head chef during the mid to late 1980s, has paid tribute to an "absolutely terrific cook" and a "wonderful guy".

The two remained friends and Gary returned to The Castle to make his famous bread and butter pudding as part of the 60th anniversary in 2010 of the Chapman family's ownership of the hotel.

"He's one of the great British chefs," said Mr Chapman. "We had a very close partnership.

"When I first met him for an interview, I was just so into him.

"Gary was very much a nouvelle cuisine merchant in those days and I had to persuade him to think differently about The Castle Hotel, a traditional British hotel in the middle of Somerset, a great place for all the finest English products.

"He absolutely celebrated an English repertoire with the most fantastic dishes - I can still taste his British ox tails, the most delicious things you can eat, his bread and butter pudding and sticky toffee pudding. They were just wonderful."

Gary was poached by The Greenhouse, in Mayfair, and went on to carve out a career in television, with appearances on programmes such as Masterchef and Hell's Kitchen, as well as This is Your Life and Strictly Come Dancing and a number of commercials.

Mr Chapman was not surprised to lose such a talent, but said: "I became a victim of our own success. In a way I created Gary Rhodes.

"He was a great leader, a strong personality, a brilliant guy.

"When he left he took most of his chefs with him - they absolutely worshipped him. He was an absolutely terrific cook and a wonderful guy. I only averted a crisis with a quick call to all my mates in the industry.

"Despite that, we remained good friends."

Gary's pride and joy during his time in Taunton was his Ford Capri and he went on to own a number of flashy cars.

Mr Chapman described Gary, who was an OBE, as "a pretty grounded guy" - his wife, Jennie, who was restaurant manager at The Castle for a time, "made sure of that".

"He was very firm in his beliefs in how to run a kitchen," added Mr Chapman. "I have lots of happy memories and his death has left me shellshocked.

Deepest condolences to Jennie and the family."

In recent years, Gary, who had two sons with Jennie, had been living in Dubai, where he ran Rhodes W1 and Rhodes Twenty10.

His family has issued a statement saying: "The Rhodes family are deeply saddened to announce the passing of beloved husband, father and brother, Gary Rhodes OBE.

"Gary passed away last evening, Tuesday 26th November 2019, at the age of 59, with his beloved wife Jennie by his side."

Among those paying tribute to Gary on social media was Gordon Ramsay, who said: "We've lost a fantastic chef."

Ainsley Harriott described him as "a true culinary icon and a lovely man".

Jamie Oliver said: "Gary was a fantastic chef and incredible ambassador for British cooking."