Kitchen sorcery: lunch with Britain’s best chef | Food

When Clare Smyth first looked round the premises of her restaurant, Core, she had a strong feeling that “the place was full of good times”. Though she did not know the history of the building, that instinct was spot on. Back in 1969 another pioneering woman, Prue Leith, had made her name at 92 Kensington Park Road, in the same knocked-through ground floor of a pair of grand stucco-fronted Victorian terraced houses. When Leith’s had opened, Humphrey Lyttelton, then restaurant critic of Tatler, urged diners to make their way to an unfamiliar part of the capital by any means possible: “If you can rob a bank, or beg or borrow a fortune, go to the seamy end of Notting Hill…” For 25 years, many followed his advice, including several Beatles and Princess Margaret.

Half a century on, this end of Notting Hill is very far from “seamy”. What was 1960s Portobello bohemia for Leith has become grown-up and gentrified – but you still would be advised to consider grand larceny in order to get a table at Core. When I visited the restaurant earlier in the summer, it was the opening week after lockdown – which meant it was also the first week that Smyth, 42, had been able to celebrate with her diners the fact that she had become the only British woman ever to be awarded three Michelin stars for her cooking. Good times, indeed.

Smyth opened Core three years ago and has added a star to its billing every 12 months. The latest was the most surreal. She had been saying to her long-term head chef, the wonderfully named Jonny Bone, that as soon as they got back into the kitchen, post-Covid, they would have to “throw the kitchen sink at it” to achieve the ultimate accolade. As it was, the Michelin announcement was made in January, when the restaurant was still closed to customers. Smyth and her husband celebrated with a bottle of champagne given to her by a customer to celebrate two stars (and predictably never opened), and then she went back to her home delivery orders.

It’s a cliche to describe the workings of a tight kitchen as a ballet but standing in a corner of Smyth’s kitchen there is a strong sense that you have wandered onstage into one of those modern interpretations of Swan Lake; white-jacketed sous chefs move with serene purpose and refined muscle memory, and you quickly realise that any space you try to occupy with your notebook is required for their choreography. Smyth stands with Bone at the pass, eyeing every plate before it goes out. She has done away with the requirement to answer “chef” every time an order is called (“The fewer words the better,” she suggests, characteristically) so as service proceeds, there is a slightly breathless chorus of, “yes, yes, yes” from all corners of the kitchen, as if for lunchtime, at least, everything in the world is coming together in the affirmative.

That impression is only enhanced when you take a seat in the dining room, as I did towards the end of lunch, and a procession of plates from the kitchen starts to arrive at your table. Core represents a mixing of Smyth’s classical French training and British soul; its tasting menu features dishes such as “Isle of Mull scallop tartare with a sea vegetable consommé”; and “morel and wild garlic tartlet with Fluffetts Farm egg yolk and vin jaune”.

As these natural wonders come and go, each heralded with a short and effusive sermon about provenance from a masked waiter, I fill the short gaps by rereading a profile of Smyth that appeared in this magazine 13 years ago, when she had just taken over as head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship establishment (inheriting its three Michelin stars) in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. She was then a precocious 29. Ramsay called her “a once in 10 years” chef, with “a tunnel vision for perfection” and “a level of composure, a posture, that is intimidating, almost like a boxer entering the ring – and who dresses food like Picasso”.

Clare Smyth on the cover of OFM in December 2007. Photograph: The Observer

Smyth, at the time, told our writer Elizabeth Day that, “I think the reason I push myself fast is because I figure that I have another, maybe, five years at the top. Then I can have a family. As a woman, you have to achieve it younger. Men have all the time in the world…” She “used to want to have my own restaurant,” she confided, “but it’s such a fickle industry that there’s no guarantee and some of the best chefs fail.” Day was left in little doubt that there was no danger that the latter fate awaited Smyth, writing, presciently, that “given her monumental drive and focus, it seems unlikely that Smyth will ever feel she has achieved all that she aspires to. She seems genetically programmed never to be entirely satisfied, always wanting to strive for more…”

When I sit down to talk with the chef after lunch, and in subsequent conversation, it’s clear those qualities haven’t changed at all. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which Smyth might not appear in unflustered control, or in which she is not eyeing up possible improvement. I wonder at one point whether she found cooking for Harry and Meghan’s 2018 wedding party at Windsor Castle more nerve-shredding than a usual afternoon, but she just smiled at the memory of the logistical nightmare and the attendant adrenaline rush, like an athlete remembering an Olympic final.

“It’s a privilege to be able to do things like that in life,” she said. “It’s what we train for. So, yeah, I loved that.”

When we talk, she is overcome with relief that lockdown appears to be coming to an end. The past year is the first break from daily service she’s had since she was 16 and she has found it extremely tough. “I realised how much I identify myself as a chef. And there were mornings where I felt I had almost lost that identity…”

She also had her team of 42 staff to worry about. To keep them engaged, she pivoted the business to Core at Home. This was no ordinary Deliveroo. The packages of food were taken to customers’ front doors by waiters in Core uniforms, along with tutorial videos and vital equipment like temperature probes and tweezers, that might allow home cooks to recreate dishes. Videos of how they got on often came back in return.

If that gave diners an appreciation of how much effort goes into each of Smyth’s plates, it gave her and her staff a new hunger to get back to what they do best: “Practise our art form on a plate and serve our guests.”

Smyth found her vocation very early in life. She grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland, on the Antrim coast. The youngest of three, she remembers being competitive in everything – from helping out with lambing, to show-jumping trials, to bread-making. Her father ran the farm and was a horse-trainer, driving his kids in the same spirit. Smyth took those lessons to heart. Having helped her mother in the kitchen and worked in local restaurants, she came across a cookery book by Anton Mosimann and knew exactly who she wanted to be. To pursue that ambition, she left school and home at 16, largely against her parents’ wishes, after having organised for herself a live-in apprenticeship at Grayshott Hall hotel in Surrey. She was a commis chef at Bibendum at 18, then persuaded her culinary heroes, Michael Caines, Heston Blumenthal and the Roux brothers, to take her on for stints, before finding her way to the kitchen at Gordon Ramsay.

Though most aspiring chefs might have thought that they had then arrived, Smyth didn’t stop there. Despite knowing no French she talked her way into a placement at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo for a year, before becoming embroiled in a cross-channel tug of war. Ducasse asked her to open a London outpost for him, but Ramsay offered her the opportunity to take over at Chelsea. She was in tears, she recalls, when she made the decision. When people asked why, she said: “Well, I’ve just massively pissed off the most important chef in the whole world.” Ducasse railed at her at the time, but he was magnanimous in defeat. When he came to eat at Core after it opened, she was, for once, a bag of nerves. He loved all of it but noted that she had not provided sauce spoons. “I knew that we needed sauce spoons, but I hadn’t bought them. I could have kicked myself…”

If Smyth has travelled a long way since she was 16, she holds on to the earthy values of her early life. She has a natural respect for her suppliers, knowing first-hand the life of a farm. Her cooking is a mix of Monte Carlo dazzle and County Antrim authenticity. The signature dishes on her menu combine the two. Her aunt and uncle in Northern Ireland run a potato business; one of the noted quirks of Smyth as a young chef was that she would always eat a single boiled potato with lots of good butter before service. That habit has evolved into her most famous dish, which consists of a single, exquisitely flavoursome Charlotte potato slightly softened with beurre blanc and topped with herring and trout roe. You will never think of spuds in the same way again.

She lives, she says, for that challenge of making “something quite humble be spectacular”. She performs similar sorcery with carrots and onions. The conjuring is about sustainability as much as artistry. Any good chef, she suggests, can spend 20 minutes making a great piece of steak taste great, or make a show of truffles and caviar; but extracting all the possible flavour from a single onion might take her kitchen six days. In that painstaking effort, she believes she has found a way to close the gap between fine dining and comfort food.

If the honest flavours and ingredients of her childhood inspired this aspect of her cooking, her parents never came over to taste it, either here or during her decade at Gordon Ramsay. “They were country people,” she says, by way of explanation. “And they literally never took a day off.” Her mother, Doreen, died last year. She has been sending food packages to her dad during lockdown. “He doesn’t know what it is, necessarily,” she says, “but he seems to love it.”

One of the customers she did enjoy welcoming to the restaurant was Leith, for whom the experience proved quite emotional. Leith tells me later that she was moved not only by the memories her return stirred, but by the sheer beauty of Smyth’s cooking. “In a sense, it’s not my kind of food,” she suggests. “The idea of concepts and philosophy in food always slightly baffled me. I always thought I don’t want to look at it, I just want to eat it. But Clare’s food was a revelation to me; it was simultaneously gorgeous and unbelievably delicious.”

Smyth, far left, with Gordon Ramsey, Angela Hartnett and Gemma Tuley in 2008.
Smyth, far left, with Gordon Ramsey, Angela Hartnett and Gemma Tuley in 2008. Photograph: Peter Payne/Peter Payne /eyevine

Leith is gratified, too, that for all her Michelin starriness, Smyth had created a dining room where people still seemed to be having a good time. “There was always such a joy in that place. If I went out to dinner somewhere else, I would always make sure the taxi went past that restaurant on the way home because I liked to look through the windows and see those little kind of Toulouse-Lautrec pictures of people enjoying themselves.”

That spirit, she suggests, persists.

Fifty years ago, Leith was very much a rarity as a woman in what remained largely a man’s world, and not all that much has changed. There are still only seven kitchens run by women in the current list of 135 that have been awarded Michelin’s highest accolade. Smyth, in this sense, represents a change that has been a long time coming and still has a long way to go. Having worked in some of the most testosterone-fuelled kitchens, she is far from convinced that hormone is a necessary ingredient. “A lot of careers probably ended prematurely,” she says, of the macho culture now in retreat. “No doubt it put some people off, or attracted the wrong types.”

She admits to no vices beyond a sometime addiction to watching 24-hour news in bed after hours (a habit she is trying to kick by reading Robert Galbraith thrillers). She had done her usual 5k run on the morning we meet, followed by some weight training. There is, she says, never a morning that she does not want to get up and at it.

When I ask if she feels that she has missed out on anything, mentioning that article in which she thought she might have slowed down at some point to have a family, she suggests she doesn’t feel she has made sacrifices. “If you are really good at something, you want to keep doing it.”

She talks about her new restaurant that is due to open in Sydney, overlooking the Opera House, just as soon as restrictions allow, and about how she has fulfilled the dream of her 16-year-old self. “I’ve got a busy restaurant that is full every day. We’ve got three Michelin stars in three years…” she pauses. “But I also know you’re only as good as your last meal.” Service starts again at 6.30pm.

Core by Clare Smyth, 92 Kensington Park Rd, London W11 2PN

Theresa D. Begay

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