The chef behind our 2018 Restaurant of the Year, Core by Clare Smyth, tells us about making Gordon Ramsay proud, her love of salt and vinegar crisps and why she hates pretentious fine dining.
Featured image credit: Laurie Fletcher
Some years it takes months of discussion to decide where deserves to win SquareMeal’s Restaurant of the Year title. But from the beginning of 2018, it was clear that unless there was a major mishap, Core by Clare Smyth, which was our Best New Restaurant of 2017, would be our Restaurant of the Year. And so it proved.
Last year was a phenomenal 12 months for Smyth and her restaurant, which opened in August 2017. Core went straight into the Michelin guide with two stars while Smyth was named the World’s Best Female Chef and catered for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
If Smyth had been something of an insider secret during her years working for Gordon Ramsay as chef-patron of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, the spotlight was now focused absolutely on her. But while other chefs might have let success go to their heads, it is hard to imagine Smyth, who radiates calm and composure, being phased by anything.
Core's well-run team are committed to the restaurant's success . Photo credit: Laurie Fletcher
“I feel that we have so much more in us now that the team have settled in,” she says. “And we know what works, what people like and what they don’t. Now that we have served nearly 30,000 people, the relationship with our guests is key to us – we understand what they want and what they love.”
Feeding 30,000 people is quite an achievement for a 54-cover restaurant that is only open for eight services a week, but Smyth is determined that the huge demand for tables should not affect the work-life balance of her staff. “Gordon [Ramsay] thinks I’m crazy to do it. But the team works very hard and I feel that if we were to open more it might tip the balance. It also means that we have enough time to do research, development and training, which are key parts to keeping Core evolving.”
Gordon thinks I'm crazy to do it
Every morning, a member of staff will make a presentation on a subject they have researched to combat what Smyth sees as a lack of skills in the UK restaurant trade. She also believes the knowledge makes staff more confident and allows them to hold their own when talking to guests – all of which makes for a better customer experience.
As for Smyth, she does the accounts when the restaurant is closed, and walks her Highland terrier, Storm. “But working and thinking about food is pretty much all-consuming for me,” she admits.
All of Smyth’s adult life has been spent thinking about food. She grew up on a farm in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and left home at 16 to train in England. She worked at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and Michel Roux’s The Waterside Inn before joining Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2002. In 2007, she was announced as the restaurant’s new head chef, becoming the first woman in the UK to run a restaurant with three Michelin stars.
Clare Smyth adding the finishing touches in the kitchen
Had Smyth not become a chef, she says she would have been a showjumper, and it is easy to see how a perfectionist’s commitment to rigorous training combined with a desire to shine in the public eye made her stand out in Ramsay’s kitchen. “I wanted to be at the top of the industry and if I wanted to be the best I had to work in the best restaurant. I loved it and I thrived in it.” Working for Ramsay and her position as a high-profile female chef in a male-dominated industry also meant that she was prepared for the spotlight when she opened Core.
But Ramsay’s most helpful piece of advice was telling Smyth what to call her restaurant. “Gordon said, ‘make sure you put your name on it’. I’d already built the reputation of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. The restaurant is called Core by Clare Smyth because it’s a signature of my personality, and it is my home.”
Core by Clare Smyth's interior
This being Notting Hill, it’s a home that includes Bridget Riley artworks, handbag stools and Zalto glassware. Smyth chose everything for the restaurant herself, from the fabric to the furniture; now that she has a bigger budget, she is replacing the tables with the ones that she originally wanted – “all natural materials, leather, wood and brass.”
Clare's quick bites
Favourite cooking gadget?
A traditional skewer, to check the temperature of meat and fish.
Favourite thing to cook at home?
An old-fashioned Sunday roast. I really look forward to eating roast chicken.
Favourite London restaurant?
Oysters and a glass of Champagne at the counter at Bentley’s, with port and Stilton at the end.
Favourite foodie travel destination?
The Basque Country. Ibérico ham is one of my favourite things to eat in the world.
Guilty food pleasure?
McCoy’s salt and vinegar crisps. I love vinegar. I put it on almost everything.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
A professional showjumper. I was really into horses when I was a kid.
Nonetheless, while many fine-dining chefs talk about the importance of casual luxury for today’s well heeled diner but deliver an experience that is the opposite of relaxed, Smyth manages to pull off the balancing act.
“Hospitality is very important to me,” Smyth says. “We’ve really thought about how you make people feel comfortable. One of the first things you can do is give a big smile and say hello. There are no crazy words on the menu and a sommelier who can’t speak English. Our guests have their own professional life outside our restaurant, they don’t need to come here and feel intimidated. I eat out in fine-dining restaurants a lot and there are many things I don’t like. Core is at the top level of food and service, but we get rid of all the pretentiousness.”
But it’s on the menu where you’ll find the biggest display of Smyth’s personality. When she went solo, Smyth left her signature dishes and repertoire at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. “That was 10 years of my life and work,” she explains. “Starting something brand new, I had to ask questions of myself. Who am I, what’s my identity, why am I cooking French food? I looked at my habits. Coming from Northern Ireland, I would eat potatoes every day, so we did the potato dish with the seaweed, because in Northern Ireland you’re always eating dulse.”
Core's braised carrot
Potatoes weren’t the only vegetable Smyth was keen to elevate to star status. “Environmentally, we need to eat less meat and fish, so we put vegetables centre stage, and make them as delicious as eating meat and fish.” While Smyth’s signature dish at Royal Hospital Road was lemon parfait, at Core it’s braised carrot. Was Smyth not worried that a high-end clientele (Core’s dinner menu clocks in at £85) would turn their noses up at anything as humble as a carrot?
“It was brave just to strip things back. But because I knew it was delicious, I knew that other people would like it. And in some ways, it’s comfort food – there’s a lamb bun served on the side of the carrot to mop the sauce up, which isn’t something that people might normally feel comfortable doing in a fine-dining environment but you would love to do at home. It’s a warm and embracing dish that invites people to feel comfortable.”
Environmentally, we need to eat less meat and fish
Smyth’s faith in her own palate has won her high-profile fans, most notably the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – “I was surprised to be asked” is as far as Smyth will be drawn on catering for the royal wedding – as well as Notting Hill locals David and Victoria Beckham, who dined with their pal Gordon Ramsay.
And it was Ramsay who presented Smyth with her two Michelin stars. “It was a really lovely moment. Gordon didn’t tell me that he was presenting the awards until a couple of days before. I’m glad that I made him proud after all those years we were working together and he supported me. And it’s nice to show people that you can leave and start your own business and do everything correctly.”
But while other émigrés from the Ramsay empire such as Jason Atherton and Angela Hartnett have been busy building their own restaurant empires, Smyth has no plans for a Core spin off. “It’s great that we’ve had an amazing year but there has to be a longevity to that. We’ve got to keep building on what we’ve achieved and keep our customers coming back. Great restaurants are around for a long time.”
SquareMeal’s Restaurant of the Year for 2028? Don’t bet against it being Core by Clare Smyth.