“There’s a big difference between the personality you see on sensationalized American television and the way he is in person, when you’re working with him.” Clare Smyth has nothing bad to say about her now ex-boss and still-mentor, Gordon Ramsay. And for good reason: “If he were really the way he is on TV, nobody would work with him for very long,” she points out.
Makes sense, when you put it that way, although it may just mean Clare Smyth is thick-skinned. Which you probably have to be in order to become Great Britain’s first (and so far, only) female chef to earn three Michelin stars and keep them for years. And Ramsay, the ranting, raving Cooking Channel perma-fixture, showed his loyal, down-to-earth, camera-shy “Chef Patron” plenty of love in an official statement in the Fall of 2015, when she announced she would be leaving the Chelsea restaurant bearing his name and striking out on her own. “She is undoubtedly one of the greatest chefs to have graced my kitchen,” he said, “and has now become the most prominent female chef of our generation.”
Galloping to the front
The culinary world can thank its lucky stars that Smyth ended up in the restaurant business rather than pursuing her other calling as a show jumper. The Northern Ireland native grew up on a farm, and her family still keeps horses to this day. But no matter how many trophies she took home in the saddle, they never quite outshone her love for cooking. As a teenager, the now-39-year-old Smyth helped out at local restaurants; in the course of meeting other chefs and learning on her own through cookbooks, she says, she just naturally grew into the career path. “People around me always thought I would make it as a chef one day,” she adds. “I never believed them, but then one day I realized I might actually be able to do it.” At age 16, Smyth decided that, if she was going to work in restaurants, it was going to be in the big leagues. Not being one to shy away from taking major leaps (on horseback or otherwise), Smyth bade Northern Ireland goodbye and set off for England, where she finished school, and then moved to London at 18.
After spending time at The Waterside Inn, Bibendum, and The Fat Duck, and also traveling to Australia and Cornwall (where she eventually rose to the position of head chef at the St. Enodoc Hotel restaurant), the talented young chef caught Gordon Ramsay’s eye in 2001, and he brought her on board.
Jellied eel, toasted seaweed, malt vinegar… one bite and you can almost feel the Northern Irish wind. Three years later, Ramsay’s disciplined protege added to her resume by staging at Thomas Keller’s restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se, as well as in Monaco, where she worked under Alain Ducasse (her number-two culinary idol behind Ramsay) for eighteen months at Le Louis XV. Finally, in 2007, she returned to London, where Ramsay promptly appointed the 29-year-old Smyth head chef at his Chelsea restaurant. It turned out to be a great decision, too. Besides earning three Michelin stars (which she kept every year she remained at his restaurant), she received countless other awards, such as Michelin’s Female Chef 2017, an honor she received during the guide’s ceremony for Great Britain and Ireland. But her crowning achievement was undoubtedly being appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2013, in recognition of her service to the hospitality industry. Having collected an armful of prestigious awards and worked alongside star chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Claude Bosi, the Roux brothers, Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, and Gordon Ramsay, the only step Smyth still had left to take was to step out of everyone else’s shadow, to make a name for herself as she had more than rightfully earned.
“Now or never”
At long last, in the summer of 2017, Smyth opened her own restaurant, Core, in the Notting Hill area of London. “It was just something I’d been thinking about for a long time,” she says. “It was a now-or-never decision, and it was also a natural step in my development. I didn’t want to keep doing the same job forever.” The formerly three-starred chef’s new place is a wonderfully elegant, yet relaxed, casual-dining hot spot offering world-class service and cuisine. The restaurant seats 54, and has no dress code; U2 and Van Morrison are on the stereo. Smyth and her 35-member team seem to be enjoying every minute of it. All of this is deliberate—Smyth says she felt the need to take the intimidation factor out of fine dining, to open up a place that ordinary people could afford and feel comfortable in. Part of that, of course, is because she knows full well how influential customer feedback is. “Awards are a nice form of recognition, obviously, but the most important thing is having returning customers. Nowadays, everyone can make themselves heard through social media. You can’t ignore that.”
So how does Smyth describe herself as a chef? “Creative, dedicated, and compulsively obsessed with details,” she laughs. Those attributes are reflected in her culinary style, along with her affinity with nature. “The older I get,” she remarks, “the simpler my dishes get, and the stricter my standards get about preparing each individual product perfectly.” Most of the time, that one perfect product is something plain and modest. Take, for example, her signature dish of charlotte potato dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe, which is currently garnering a great deal of attention as part of her five- and seven-course tasting menus. The potato dish, she says, is an homage to her homeland: “It’s symbolic of my childhood in Ireland, where we had potatoes just about every day.”
Besides remaining true to her roots, she’s remained loyal to her mentor, Gordon Ramsay. She recently realized just how much she’d learned from the culinary big-shot: “It’s funny how many things Gordon said to me over the years that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, but now I think, Wow, he was so right! Now that I have my own restaurant, those things are important. He just always gave me great advice, and he still does.” Did he help steer her toward fulfilling her dream of opening Core and taking the next step in her career? We don’t know, but we know it was definitely the right decision.