What does it take to become the world’s best female chef? And where did it all begin? Antrim-born Clare Smyth won that coveted title in Bilbao last June. And she was the first woman to hold and retain three Michelin stars when she worked as Gordon Ramsay’s Chef Patron in his flagship restaurant Chelsea in London. Her own restaurant, Core, in Notting Hill, was this year awarded two Michelin stars.
So it might surprise you to learn that Smyth left school at the age of 15. Her first part-time job, as a 14-year-old, in a local hotel was what started her dream of becoming a chef. Here, she watched Michelin star chefs who’d travelled over from London in action, and she listened, rapt, to their tales of working in top restaurants across the water. That was when the headstrong teenager decided she wanted a piece of the pudding too.
A year later, she left school and went to train in Grayshott Hall in Surrey, an exclusive health farm. By the time she was 17, she was working in Bibendum in London’s south Kensington which didn’t have the two Michelin stars it has today, but was nevertheless one of the best restaurants in the city at the time. In spite of all her culinary training and experience though, Smyth says it was her upbringing on a farm in Northern Ireland that primed her for long working days in kitchens.
“It gave me a good work ethic, being a farmer. You work all the time, you don’t stop. When you were lambing sheep, you worked all night, and you worked 365 days of the year. That work ethic, I grew up with. Hospitality is difficult for some people but for me, it wasn’t – I was already used to it.”
For Smyth, there is no work-life balance because her work is her life and she loves what she does.
“I’ve always worked all the time, I never really don’t work to be honest… I really love what I do, and it’s something that’s just very much a part of who I am.”
From an early age, Smyth saw how animals were butchered for the freezer, and different cuts of meat lent themselves to different cooking styles. Every part of the animal was used – offal and braising cuts included, and thus Smyth’s culinary education had already begun.
“Mum would slow-cook overnight, she was cooking for a family and the people working on the farm. So there had to be a good quantity of it, and it needed to be hearty.”
Smyth, who lives in London with her husband and west highland terrier, was in Galway recently to discuss “Fair Trade In The Food Trade” at the Food On The Edge symposium, but for the moment, she says she has no plans to open a restaurant closer to home.
Her own restaurant in Notting Hill, Core, where 18 chefs send out 120 meals a day, consumes all of her time.
“Core was about being a modern British fine-dining restaurant. British food isn’t necessarily fine dining, it’s more rustic, and it’s not necessarily an art form… I really wanted to make British food fine dining. Core is all about the story of the producers and the growers and what we do.”
Last May, the 40-year-old did the private catering for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s evening wedding reception, a feat she described as an honour.
“It was really fantastic being able to work with them. The fairytale story was my lasting memory from the wedding… they were so happy,” she said.
Smyth seems to take everything in her stride and admits that though a pressure-cooker stereotype exists around professional kitchens, she doesn’t hold any truck with bullies. Bullies ultimately don’t survive in the best kitchens, she says.
“I detest bullying, I hate it. I’ve been cooking for over 20 years and I’ve never seen people like that succeed. It never took long before they were gone and you had beaten them. All those people just fall by the wayside.”
She added: “Now I just feel like everyone is a bit more focused on the love of food and what we do. But it wasn’t just the hospitality industries, it was all industries at the top level [that experienced bullying].”
Ramsay himself adapted a military-style persona for his TV series Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares where he was seen lashing failing restaurant owners with scathing criticism and whipping them back into shape.
But Smyth insists he is a consummate professional and even offered her solid advice on how to deal with tough personalities. (Though he did, Smyth has said, also tell her when he promoted her to chef patron of his flagship Chelsea restaurant: “If you screw up, it’s your fault”.)
“One of the things Gordon told me,” she says, “was ‘don’t worry about me, don’t worry about other people, focus on yourself’. Why would I lose my opportunities for them?”
Ramsay is “very easy to work with”, Smyth says, and is a brilliant businessman who has 35 restaurants globally and seven Michelin stars, and whose approach to food is constantly evolving all the time.
“There is a TV thing. There’s always going to be shouting in kitchens, but it’s never bullying, it’s always about the food, it’s always for a reason. It was never picking on someone for no reason. I always found Gordon very easy to work with – you know where you stand with Gordon.”
The pair were so close by the time Smyth left Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2016 to open Core, that he read her business plan and taste-tested her dishes before she opened its doors. Within a year, it had won two Michelin stars.
“It was difficult [telling him that I was leaving his restaurant]. He was obviously disappointed but happy at the same time. He always thought I was going to stay, he’d given me partnership. At all stages, he gave me good feedback.”
The 40-year-old chef is resolute on the idea that success is not easily won; she was cooking for two and a half decades before she opened her own restaurant.
“You’ve got to learn it from the best chefs in the world. It’s 10 years’ worth of work and training before you can head up your first kitchen.”
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