How Clare Smyth's Restaurant Core Is Changing The British Cuisine Game
It must be odd winning a prize so many of your peers think shouldn’t exist. Clare Smyth, of the acclaimed London restaurant Core, was named top female chef at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards gala in Bilbao in June. While some chefs celebrated this new category, others objected to the idea that women should be separated from men, calling it variously ridiculous, outrageous, outdated and bizarre.
Smyth—tall, blonde and poised—seems like an uncombative type. When I interviewed her on the first real day of autumn in London, she merrily chatted away about how the new season would influence her menu, which is famously vegetable based and focuses on local ingredients.
“We’re pretty British at Core. It’s who we are—our identity and culture. There has been so much change in British cuisine in the last few decades. Fine dining used to be French but now it’s the British chefs who are at the top of their game and making the most of their own produce. It’s important, particularly when people are travelling, to go and eat somewhere and get a real sense of place.”
Smyth herself fits neatly into the national stereotype, managing that tricky British balancing act of being both self-deprecating and self-assured. She is clearly passionate about her subject but is entirely lacking in the kind of arrogance successful chefs are famed for.
And successful she is. Smyth left Northern Ireland, where she was raised on a farm, at 16 to train in England. She cooked under Heston Blumenthal and the Roux brothers, became the first woman to work in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen and later became head chef of his Chelsea establishment, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, losing her Northern Irish accent, maintaining its three Michelin stars and picking up an MBE along the way.
Asked if she encountered any misogyny during her rise to the top, she chooses her words carefully. “Yes, of course,” she replies eventually. “Bits of misogyny, bits and pieces, mostly in the early days—the odd comment thrown around. It didn’t bother me, as I was so driven; I had decided I wouldn’t let anyone else affect me. I look back and see how determined I was. Gordon [Ramsay] once said to me, ‘You can never like everyone you work with, so focus on you instead. Don’t let other people disrupt you, because in the end it’s all about you.’”
His advice clearly worked for Smyth. Core has been open for just over a year and represents a perfect blend of Smyth’s classical French training and British artisanal influence. Think jellied eel with toasted seaweed and malt vinegar; foie gras parfait with Madeira jelly and smoked duck; Isle of Mull scallop tartare; and her personal favourite, potatoes with roe.
“Oh, it’s the potato that’s the one people get excited about. It’s satisfying and comforting and nostalgic but also completely unexpected in a fine-dining restaurant, where you aren’t supposed to make a potato the star of the dish. I’m trying to cook less with fish and meat—it’s better for the environment and for us.”
The awards have flooded in. In October, Core was awarded two Michelin stars and scored a perfect 10 in the Good Food Guide 2019 edition. It was also named Top Gastronomic Experience in Harden’s London Restaurant Awards and the Automobile Association awarded it five of its prestigious AA Rosettes.
And even Hollywood is calling, ever since Netflix announced that Smyth would represent the UK as an icon in its new global culinary competition show, The Final Table, which will air later this year.
And then there is the minor fact that she oversaw the catering for royal couple Harry and Meghan’s wedding back in May, after the pair dined at Core and were delighted by what they ate.
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Much like the Duchess of Sussex, Smyth has strong views on women’s rights. And unlike those detractors who say a separate prize for female chefs does them down, she thinks it is essential.
“I don’t think doing nothing is a good solution. We have got to do something to address this issue of there being far too few women at all levels of hospitality. By having a female chef category, at least it opens the debate and gets people talking—would we be discussing this now if I hadn’t won that award? I think it is so important that we ask why there aren’t many women chefs when women cook just as well as men.”
More than misogynist kitchens and the kind of open aggression her former boss was famous for, Smyth believes the imbalance is due to the terrifyingly long hours chefs are expected to work and the lack of family time that engenders. To help correct this, she only has eight services a week—five dinners and three lunches—ensuring her staff, both male and female, have a life beyond the kitchen.
As important as that attitude is, it also means it is almost impossible to get a table at Core, which has famously turned down celebrities demanding to be seated at short notice.
“We really don’t want to be pretentious; we want to be ourselves and let people be themselves. We’ve got rid of tablecloths, there’s no dress code, I make the playlist and we serve food we really want to eat. I guess I want to create the ambience of being at home—relaxed, with delicious, nostalgic food.”
What could be more tempting than that?