Interview with an Innovator

Clare Smyth: ‘I’m all about making vegetables speak for themselves’

Britain’s first female chef to gain three Michelin stars talks sustainability, building relationships with producers and killing the concept of ‘meat and two veg.’

12 January 2018

Smyth on Paper - CV

  • Honed her skills under Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay
  • Career accolades include 10/10 in the Good Food Guide, five AA rosettes and an MBE for services to the hospitality industry – and let’s not forget those three Michelin stars
  • Opened her debut restaurant, Core, in Notting Hill in August 2017

For some chefs it’s all about razzle-dazzle and exclusive imported ingredients. Not so with Clare Smyth, who has consciously put a focus on going green and sourcing local at her debut restaurant, Core.

As chef patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Smyth became the first British female to gain three Michelin stars. After five years at the helm of that luxurious fine-dining spot, she left to go it alone, opening her own place in Notting Hill.

The Northern Irish chef is completely devoted to her eatery – or, as she puts it: “Core is the only word on my mind right now.” Driven by a thoroughly modern approach to fine dining, Smyth describes her solo venture as a place that questions the true value of luxury products.

She replaces traditionally high-end ingredients with humbler ones (potato and carrot play key roles in her most prized dishes), working more closely than ever with UK producers to reduce her food’s carbon footprint while still giving customers a good old-fashioned, slap-up time.

Smyth speaks to Food Spark about the humble spud and how she combats food waste without compromising quality.

Sustainability is my kitchen philosophy. As a chef I feel a responsibility to support sustainable, independent producers and do my bit for the environment by using local, good-quality produce rather than mass corporations as much as possible.

Our scallops come from the Ethical Shellfish Company in the Isle of Mull, which is a husband-wife team who hand dive for the scallops rather than trawling and ruining the seabed, and our Highland Wagyu beef comes from the Scottish Highlands.

We respect our producers and I hope they enjoy working with us, and there’s a real sense of respect within the kitchen as well.

We try to source everything from the UK, from the scallops and game birds, to the artwork and small-batch spirits and wines from British growers.

Even our crockery is from the UK. I think the future of sustainability is to look locally, and to cut out large cost-cutting corporations by going directly to the producers, working with them to provide a fair price for top-quality products, which allows artisan producers and small-scale farmers and fishermen to continue with traditional methods.

I spend time in the heartlands of my producers. I consider myself to be in partnership with all my producers. When I went to meet our potato farmer from Sussex, for example, he took me to the field and asked exactly what I was planning to do with the potato. I told him it’d be served with dulse beurre blanc and topped with herring and trout roe, and he walked me to one corner of the field to choose the potatoes that’d be perfect for the dish. We have collaboration and respect for what each other does at heart.

The worst thing about my job is how little time I have to relax. I love Core and wouldn’t change anything, but if anything I guess it would have to be the lack of time I have to relax. I love going for long walks with my dog Storm, or having a lazy day at home with time to catch up with family or friends, but it means that I really appreciate it when I do.

I’m all for home-delivery services. But I don’t think they suit every restaurant. However, there’s clearly a demand for it, and there are many delivery companies out there who are doing a great job.

It’s a huge challenge trying to make high-quality food good value. Especially if you want to have a lovely space somewhere central. But I think there’s a growing understanding that if you want to have a top-quality experience – and for chefs, front of house and producers to receive fair wages – then you can’t cut corners.

Predicting future trends is nearly impossible! But it’ll be interesting to see how Brexit affects the restaurant industry here in London. In general, I think (and hope) there’s a real trend towards eating more conscientiously when it comes to meat.

The variety of food in London restaurants is better than ever. So much has changed over the past 20 years, but provenance, tied with assurance of knowing where your ingredients are from, is the key. Then you know exactly which dish you’re being served.

I’m all about making vegetables the focal point of a dish, letting them speak for themselves. There’s a real movement happening at the moment with how chefs and restaurants are using vegetables, and noticeably less meat. The world of fine dining is changing, and the conception of ‘meat and two veg’ isn’t so important any more.

It’s definitely not about saying everyone has to be vegetarian, it’s just about celebrating vegetables and making them the focal point of a dish, letting them speak for themselves. Globally, chefs doing great things with vegetable cookery include Alain Passard and Thomas Keller.

The world of fine dining is certainly changing. But the quality and precision remains the same. Fine dining is just as important as it has always been, but it has evolved like everything else in life does. We are creating a modern, relaxed environment to eat in, that is less formal – however, the quality and precision of food and service remain.

Finding good staff is my biggest challenge. It’s increasingly difficult to find people with the training and dedication within the hospitality industry.

Core is the only word on my mind right now. My plan is to continue devoting my energy to Core over the next five years, to continue doing what we’re doing and keep on making it better and better. The team here is fantastic, their dedication is so admirable, so I think we’re heading in the right direction.

My Northern Irish roots heavily inspire my London cooking. My cookery stems from my childhood, and from the food I ate growing up in Northern Ireland.

I moved to London aged 16 to pursue my cookery dream. My mother worked as a waitress, so I guess I’ve always been surrounded by the hospitality industry. I moved to London at the age of 16, and met chefs that worked in Michelin-starred restaurants. I started reading cookbooks and never looked back.

No two days at work are ever the same. But at the moment I’m at the restaurant pretty much every day, whether it’s for meetings and tastings and recipe development or for service – I have a fantastic team at Core.

Our most loyal customers often order the same dish twice in one sitting. People have been getting very excited about the Charlotte Potato dish. It always surprises our guests how something as simple as a potato can have so much flavour.

I hope in five years’ time we’ll still be here and an integral part of London’s restaurant scene, somewhere people like to return to.

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