Meet the chef: Clare Smyth

Driven, determined and damn talented, this woman is our kind of chef. She tells Zoë Perrett about Core, culinary evolution and only ever accepting the best

Throughout her career, Clare Smyth has worked in some of the world’s toughest three-star kitchens. Naming her biggest mentors as Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse, it stood to reason that her first independent venture would be a corker – and, indeed, Core opened last year to a rapturous reception. But that doesn’t mean the perfectionist chef is resting on her laurels; in fact, it’s quite the contrary…

Was food a big part of your childhood in Northern Ireland? Yes and no. We were a farming family so we produced food and ate good, home-cooked dishes. Cooking was a chore that all the children were involved with, and I grew up with a real understanding of where ingredients came from and how to use them. But there was definitely no haute cuisine.

Is that where your passion for food began? I was always quite creative and artistic, so it kind of  went that way  – when I started cooking, I had a flair for it straight away.

How did your career shape up post-catering college? I couldn’t wait to finish college. I graduated at 17  – I was always in a hurry with my life! I knew I wanted to cook at the very top level and moved to London which, at first, was quite a daunting place. The first kitchen I really liked and felt comfortable in was Bibendum. It was probably the best place I could have started; classical cooking with fantastic ingredients.

You’ve worked with a lot of big names along the way… By the age of 21 I knew I wanted to work at a three-star restaurant. I ended up at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, because it was the toughest place I could find. I knew if I could make it in that kitchen, I could make it pretty much with the best of them.

And you spread your wings in kitchens overseas, too? I did a few weeks in the kitchens at both The French Laundry in the USA and Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Paris, but as soon as I set foot in his kitchen in Monaco, I knew that was the place for me. I spent a few years there, then took over the kitchen at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay when I was 28.

What were the important lessons you learned during this time? From working with Gordon, management style and discipline – never ever accepting something is not the best it could be; there’s never an excuse and you go to the ends of the earth to achieve the highest level. With Alain, very much a philosophy that’s driven by produce and respect for peers in the industry.

Did taking on a three-star kitchen change the way you worked? It was an incredible pressure. I took over an existing three-starred kitchen so it was different to winning them. I was incredibly driven to retain those stars, and it was difficult. I’d say to Gordon ‘I don’t know if this dish is good enough’, and he’d say ‘but you’ve been training at this level your whole life, so you do know’. And, after a few years, I really started to grow into those shoes, spread my wings and have the confidence to evolve my own style of cooking.

What’s it like working in Clare Smyth’s kitchen? We’re pretty relaxed…well actually, it’s really tough! I keep thinking we’re really nice, and we are, but the standards are so high. We treat each other with respect and create a good working environment, but at the same time it’s at the top level, so people need to perform.

Women in the professional kitchen is very much a current issue – where do you stand? It’s good to have a gender balance in every workplace, but the unfortunate thing is there just aren’t many female chefs. When I opened Core, I thought I’d have lots of females applying for jobs, but I only have one in my kitchen – and only four out of our team of 34. It’s just the reality of it and the nature of hospitality at the high end. It’s important we put the right role models out there so women are more visible and want to enter the industry.

What single dish are you most proud of creating? I don’t have one, because I continuously evolve what I do. I would never say now that something I made five years ago was the best thing I ever cooked. I do have some signatures, but even they evolve because it’s important. You shouldn’t stand still, ever.

Your first Solo venue, Core, opened this year. Are you happy with the reception it’s received? We’ve been overwhelmed by demand and popularity – we’ve been so busy since opening. It’s touching that we have such a following and that people were so excited for us. We have repeat guests every day. Some have been back up to eight times. That’s phenomenal and the most important thing is, it’s not just about opening popularity, but people wanting to come back time and time again.

The restaurant is in very foodie Notting Hill – what are your favourite local haunts? The Ledbury around the corner is an amazing restaurant, but we’ve got lots of little places too: noodle bars, chocolate shops, boutique butchers. I absolutely adore the area and keep encouraging staff to take a break to go and walk around the neighbourhood. I also send them to Books For Cooks, where I go a lot, too!

Given that Core is such a success, any plans to expand? I’m not really focusing on anything else yet; I just want to make Core the best it can be. I’m not looking to have five or 20 restaurants – my goal is to achieve something with Core. I’m committed to being there every day. It’s important for me to build really strong foundations with the restaurant and to invest in training our team, because ultimately that’s what stands you in good stead in the future.

These are a few of my favourite things

  • UK restaurants Am I allowed to say Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester? There’s a reason why they have three stars.
  • Worldwide restaurants I adore Fäviken, Saison in San Francisco and Frantzén in Stockholm.
  • Chefs Again, I go back to Gordon and Alain. Two of the greatest chefs in history.
  • Ingredient Vinegar – lots of different types.
  • Cooking soundtrack Nothing at Core, but personally, I like lighthearted pop.