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“I’m a perfectionist, I want to be as good as I can be,” acknowledges Clare Smyth smiling broadly. Even for a woman as focused as Clare, it’s been quite a stupendous week. First Core by Clare Smyth was judged Restaurant of the Year at The UK’s GQ Restaurant of the Year awards, then to crown it, Clare is the first British chef to win the Elit Vodka World’s 50 Best Female Chef.
“What gives me the ultimate pleasure is the dining room buzzing, full of laughter and happy customers. The biggest compliment and what makes me so happy is that I have so many regulars who say the restaurant atmosphere feels like a home, which is exactly how I want it to be."
Gordon Ramsay's Legacy
Many customers of Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road where Clare rose through the ranks to become Chef Patron and the first British female chef to earn the ultimate accolade of three Michelin stars, now frequent Core too.
Gordon Ramsay was among the first to congratulate Clare. They remain close, speaking every week and she is warm in her gratitude for his pivotal role in her career. “Gordon has been the most incredible mentor to me and provides massive support, always. He has taught me so much: not only culinary skills at the highest level, but in business and management. It is only now I have my own restaurant that I realize quite how influential he has truly been on my development. The admiration is mutual."
The best advice Ramsay ever gave Clare was “focus on my journey and not worry about what other chefs are doing. He would emphasize, as I do now, that it is all about putting in the hard work and experience, remaining flexible, and caring above all about the guest experience.”
Championing British Produce
Though produce is of paramount importance too, Smyth’s approach to sourcing is characteristically uncompromisingly and thorough. She’s particularly keen to champion heritage British produce such as the nutty spelt grown at Sharpham Park. It is a crop that has been cultivated for more than 5000 years. A relative newcomer on Core’s menu, the spelt is cooked in a broth with peas, morels, asparagus and wild garlic.
The seaweed cooked potato, herring and trout roe which has become Core’s signature dish (in the picture above) references Smyth’s childhood spent on a farm in Northern Ireland and her passion for delicately transforming even the most humble ingredients. “I think it has struck such a chord as it resonates with nostalgia and comfort which customers don’t really expect to find here. The lamb carrot dish, also has fond associations." Recalls Smyth: “when I was slow-braising lamb shanks for a navarin sauce, rather than discard all the vegetables, I would swipe the sweet, succulent carrots, full of flavour to eat, as I thought they were the best part. I like to challenge perceptions and to make the vegetables rather than the meat the star of the dish.”
On Being a Female Chef
“It has genuinely never made any difference on my journey that I am a women,” insists Clare. “Yet knowing I’ve always been encouraged and never suffered any kind of abuse makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been. I recognise too that not all women working in kitchens will want to work at the fine dining level, where there are still very few women."
The World’s 50 Best Female Chef award 2018 always attracts a good number of detractors. Clare happily dismisses them by saying that she sees the award as a boost for every woman working in hospitality. “I want to do all I can as a mentor to encourage other women to pursue their dreams whether at this exalted level or a different kind of restaurant." She points out that she knows a good number of women who are excellent and senior in haute dining restaurants from Le Gavroche to Murano whom she hopes will break through soon. “With enough self-belief, hard work and determination, anything is possible.”
Future Plans ...
Though Clare is clearly putting her all into the restaurant, she believes it is important to see what other chefs are doing. Her favourite dining out in London is at her close neighbour Brett Graham of The Ledbury, besides Ducasse at The Dorchester (Clare spent several years at Louis XV in Monaco). Though Smyth is coy about discussing stars, I suspect her choice of dining gives a good indication of her Michelin aspirations.
In the shorter term, Smyth is clear she wants to focus totally on the kitchen at Core. Yet reveals she is planning some chef collaborations, naming Anne-Sophic Pic and alluding to discussions with several Copenhagen chefs too. It is unspoken, yet clear that Clare is likely to become a significant figure on the international culinary scene.