Clare Smyth: Dining Innovation at its Core

She has progressed from washing dishes in a restaurant aged 15 in her native Northern Ireland to working under Gordon Ramsay to the recent opening of her new restaurant, Core, earning double Michelin-star status in the process. Clare Smyth reveals what has been a most tasteful evolution of dining excellence, and explains why simplicity is making a comeback.

She has progressed from washing dishes in a restaurant aged 15 in her native Northern Ireland to working under Gordon Ramsay to the recent opening of her new restaurant, Core, earning double Michelin-star status in the process. Clare Smyth reveals what has been a most tasteful evolution of dining excellence, and explains why simplicity is making a comeback.

When it’s suggested to Clare Smyth that being the most decorated female chef in the world is probably achievement enough, the comment is met with the sort of scornful look you’d expect of one of her rather more aggressive peers Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White. The 41-year-old, who worked under the fiery Scot as Chef Patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay for four years from 2012 – in the process becoming the first and only female chef to run a UK restaurant with three Michelin stars – takes a wider view of food. “It’s not that I feel the kitchen and the industry is genderless – it’s clearly not,” she begins. “But rather than dwell on my own achievements, I’d prefer to kickstart the potential in others. Surely that’s what cuisine is about – not just fulfilling people, but inspiring them too?”

Smyth, whose first experience of a working kitchen came at her local County Antrim restaurant, aged 15, says that while skill, craft and originality in the kitchen have proven vital, research in the early days was a key factor. “At 15, I looked at all of the great chefs and decided who I wanted to emulate. I put my head down and worked really hard; I put myself in all the best positions that I could, to become the best chef that I could be.

“By the time I had my first interview as a chef I’d been reading up on the likes of Auguste Escoffier, the legendary French figure amongst chefs and gourmets, Anton Mosimann and others – real leaders in their craft. I had researched classical sauces, and could make veal stocks, Glace de Viande; I had memorised every herb and could reel them off in the sort of way my school friends were reciting pop lyrics – I was just into food, I couldn’t help it.”

Smyth also credits her inability to recognise the prospect of failure as being a major part of how she moved her progressive, non-confrontational brand forward so quickly. “I never used to understand the idea that I might fall short or not achieve what I set out to,” she says. “I think I always felt that the world was there for the taking. And that level of ignorance is fantastic to have, but it does change over time!

„And I feel that is the industry’s best opportunity in ridding itself of a lot of the snobbery. People nowadays are more entertained by relevance than luxury.“

Clare Smyth

Smyth admits she has, like any good chef or restaurateur, evolved through criticism. “Gordon always taught me you need to stand behind everything you do and believe in it, otherwise you shouldn’t be there; and that’s very, very true. You shouldn’t serve anything in a restaurant that you declare, ‚No, it’s right’, and when people tell you there’s a problem, you must listen.”

It’s also interesting to note Smyth’s praise of the fiery Scot. Gordon Ramsay has cultivated a TV image that sees food discussed in the most brutal, hardline terms, often with an unforgiving business edge. Smyth believes that detracts somewhat from the elegance and the craft of what it is to enjoy a good meal with good people, and states she is lucky enough to have been around “the real Gordon”, as she puts it.

“Gordon has a certain styling for TV, but at the heart of it he is tremendously supportive and a really great manager of people. I can understand how there are many people that obviously don’t get to see that.

“The best quality Gordon has is his ability to inspire, and that positivity is where real culinary craft comes from… being brave! Even today he still gives me the direction I need – he’s a coach who gives you enough rein to let you grow, but he’s always there to support.

“We still talk a lot. Obviously I am my own creative force now, but having someone in the background to push and encourage is always going to be a positive thing.”.

As for the future, Smyth is hungry to keep moving forward, and much of that is thanks to the double Michelin-star achieved at the start of in 2018 for Core. Located in London’s swanky Notting Hill, her debut restaurant has charmed a mixed crowd in offering up an elegant and informal dining experience with an emphasis on sustainable food, sourced from the UK’s most dedicated farmers and food producers.

“Core has given me the chance to take the simple ideas from my past projects,” she says – something that, no doubt, also helped it become the first new restaurant to score a perfect 10 in the decade-long history of The Good Food Guide. “The menu follows that trend of flavour, precision and sustainability, where the elegance of the dining experience needs to reflect the food and where special attention is paid to the balance of guests – from connoisseurs to those casual diners we welcome in every week, to others who have saved up… from locals to people travelling halfway across the world. We try to have the same appeal to everyone and the same experience for everyone.

„At 15, I looked at all of the great chefs and decided who I wanted to emulate. I put my head down and worked really hard; I put myself in all the best positions that I could, to become the best chef that I could be.“

“And I feel that is the industry’s best opportunity in ridding itself of a lot of the snobbery. People nowadays are more entertained by relevance than luxury. The jellied eels on our menu, for example, are proper East End fodder, from just a few miles away. That is London food, in a London restaurant. Surely we should be able to relate to that better than dishing up nondescript plates of sushi?”

And does fulfilling a craft in food, not to mention a business ambition to run her own restaurant, mean Smyth can recline a little and begin to savour the fruits of her labour?

“Well, I can safely say there is no glory in it at all,” she laughs. “It is hard, and there isn’t a day where you feel it gets easier. You need to be 100% focussed and dedicated all of the time, you can’t lift your head up from it. Expectations are huge and you can’t let people down.

“Every time you get something else it is more and more pressure. Of course, you say well done for five minutes, but that’s it. Almost straight away it’s then back to pushing and moving forward. That’s what ambition is all about… it doesn’t matter what you’ve got, you always want the next thing.”

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