Clare Smyth MBE, the chef who was trained by Gordon Ramsay OBE and Alain Ducasse, unveils her first standalone restaurant, Core, in Notting Hill
It’s T-minus one day until Clare Smyth’s solo restaurant Core soft-launches and the space is, in a word, chaotic. In the bathroom, workmen furiously apply filler to the drains before refitting the toilets – the initial job was not up to standard, apparently – while the kitchen staff hastily clean countertops in preparation for this afternoon’s tasting session. In the 18-cover bar, cabinets are being filled with drinks, lights are being fitted and brass beer taps polished to perfection. In the middle of it all stands Smyth, cool as a cucumber and all smiles despite the mess around her. Any lesser being would be tearing their hair out – I nearly am as a mere onlooker – but Smyth is not one to be phased.
A protégée of Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay, Smyth swapped her Northern Ireland home for England aged 16 to pursue a career in the kitchen (“I didn’t even bother getting my exam results”), booking herself onto a catering course at Highbury College in Portsmouth before landing a job at Sir Terence Conran’s Michelin House aged 19. By the time she was 28, she was heading up the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road.
“I knew from the age of 15 that cooking was all I wanted to do,” Smyth tells me as the power saw in the next room reaches its crescendo. “I bought Anton Mosimann’s cookbook Cuisine à la Carte and I haven’t looked back since.”
Her years spent at the stove mean she’s well versed on the ins and outs of fine dining, but she’s keen to flip the concept on its head – starting with Core. “I’ve always wanted to break down the barriers to fine dining,” she admits. “There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about casual dining becoming more prominent, as more people feel that fine dining is something they don’t understand or that it’s unattainable.
“We really wanted to get rid of the things that intimidate people, so there’s no dress code, and you can walk into the bar without a reservation – all of the things that you wouldn’t associate with fine dining.”
The restaurant’s design is a reflection of this, a welcoming space with homely mint green walls and wooden furniture that are a nod to nature (one of her biggest influences) and copper pans in the kitchen to satisfy her love of “food history and philosophy – copper pans are always traditionally used in cooking”.
Her menu follows a similarly relaxed beat, featuring a central tasting menu (which you can opt to have as a three-, five- or 12-course meal) comprising traditional dishes with a contemporary – and healthy – twist: lamb-braised carrot and Isle of Mull scallop are two of the dishes diners should expect.
“It’s modern fine dining, but with a strong British ethos”
“It’s modern fine dining, but with a strong British ethos,” the chef explains. “I’ve been very spoiled in my career; having cooked at three-Michelin star level for 15 years, I’ve been able to use every ingredient on the planet. Now I’m using more humble ingredients and elevating them to that level.”
She cringes when I ask what her style of cooking is (“that’s a question that other people can probably answer better”) but admits that it has been called light and balanced: “Certainly, Gordon says he could eat the food all day long because it is so light.” As they have worked together for more than a decade, one can safely assume that Ramsay’s opinion is worth trusting – but is he as tough a critic as his TV shows would have us believe?
“Not at all. Gordon’s got this thing – whatever he does, he does it to such a level that he wants it to be the best. When he’s on television, he wants his show to be the biggest and to get the best ratings,” she says. “Whatever he chooses to do, he doesn’t do it by half, so his television persona is completely separate. That’s not how he is at all.”
Ramsay is, naturally, one of the chefs Smyth has admired throughout her career, the other two being Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller. “All three are very different people, but they’re people I’ve had the pleasure of working with and who have been very inspiring. They’re the giants of the industry and there’s a reason for that.”
She tells me she’s enjoying the revival that the more established chefs are having at the moment, citing Claude Bosi at Bibendum and Phil Howard at Elystan Street as the ones to watch – “I mean, they always were,” she laughs.
Having worked in a kitchen from the age of 19, Smyth has seen the industry change, in her words, phenomenally – but “for the better”. Before, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to find thugs and bullies in the kitchen, she explains, and people’s attitude to the industry was a lot less professional than it is now. However, one thing she won’t agree with is the assumption that female chefs get a hard time; for Smyth, being a woman has had little to no impact on her career.
"In a team environment, you should never make excuses"
“It has never affected me and, in a team environment, you should never make excuses,” she says. “‘Oh, it’s because I’m a woman’ – that’s bulls***t. Everyone gets a bit of stick now and then; you’ve just got to be stronger than that. If you’re good at what you do and have proved yourself within two weeks, then any team will want you.”
It’s this attitude that has got Smyth to where she is today, and will no doubt spearhead her trajectory to London’s restaurant elite – her determination alone seems enough for her to succeed. “The goal is to make this place the best it can be. There’s no easy route to anywhere worth going and anyone who’s ever worked at the top level knows how hard that is to achieve – but that’s what we’ll be doing for the next few years: focusing on making this great.”