The chef-restaurateur of Core on ten years of three Michelin stars and facing new challenges.
Clare Smyth is the chef-owner of Core in London, which opened in August 2017. For ten years before that, she retained three Michelin stars as head chef of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, also in London – the first British female chef to hold and retain the world’s highest culinary rating.
Where do you go to think?
Clapham Common or Battersea Park, pretty much every morning, to walk my dog. Getting Storm, a West Highland Terrier, a couple of years ago and going for a walk in a nice park before work has totally changed my whole attitude to the rest of the day. Get up, get a bit of head space, relax and then go into work.
What are the everyday pleasures that you can’t live without?
A good cup of English breakfast tea with milk. And at the end of the day, a nice foamy bath. Perhaps combined with a cup of tea.
To whom do you look for advice most often?
My senior team and the people around me, every day. Drawing on other people’s experience is invaluable, because you often get a better answer with a better outcome. In fact, it might even be someone junior who sees something you don’t.
Making something positive happen every day, no matter how random or small, just makes you feel better when you go home at the end of the day
What’s the best thing you’ve done for someone else?
I always try to do the best that I can for other people. You do only live once and you should try and do right by people, and by yourself, and never regret not having done the right thing. If you can help someone, you should. Life experience teaches you that kindness to others often comes back.
What’s the best thing anyone’s done for you?
Gordon Ramsay supporting me all the way into the opening of my own restaurant. He didn’t have to do that, given the fact that I left a high-profile job with him, but every single step of the way he has helped me. He was the first person to look at the business plan. He introduced me to his personal relationship manager at his bank. The financials were something very new for me, but I wanted to learn as much as I could. And I have learned lots, from Gordon and various advisors. Having Gordon’s endorsement almost guaranteed I got the funding, but there was still a lot of work involved.
Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
Maasai Mara, Kenya. I love nature and animals, and going there absolutely put the world in perspective for me, in terms of how insignificant we are as human beings and how much better off the world would be without us. I grew up on a farm, so I notice the condition of animals, and over there they are incredible. I just kept thinking, ‘This is how they are without us.’
What’s the best thing you can cook?
Anything, honestly. There is no single thing we couldn’t cook well. At Core we’re really trying to elevate humble ingredients to a very fine level. To change people’s idea of what’s good and make them realise that with skill you can create something great from something very simple.
How do you make yourself happy?
By trying to achieve something every day, no matter how small it is. I want that for the whole team. Sometimes you have bad days, for sure, but if you focus on making something positive happen, on making something better, no matter how random or small, it just makes you feel better when you go home at the end of the day. It could be something as tiny as finding the right metal container to fit in a certain place, when you didn’t quite have the correct one before. A little thing, but little margins like that add up to something greater. So I’m always looking for ways to improve.
Name the art and/or culture that most inspires you.
Music. I listen to a lot of it and it’s important to me. It’s an easy way to encourage emotion, to feel something, and I think everyone should feel something in that way. We’re playing pop music in the restaurant at Core because it’s fun and most people of my generation tap into it. I want to play stuff that people don’t hear every day, but when they do hear it, they think, ‘This is a great tune, I haven’t heard it for ages.’
Can you name something you’ve bought that you would never give away?
That would have to be my dog, Storm. She is my little buddy. She has got a chef’s jacket. It says ‘executive sous chef’ on it.
When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?
I was genuinely surprised by the number of cards, flowers and messages of support I got when Core launched. All the reservations, too, from people who had dined at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and others who’d never been there. It kind of bowled me over, actually.
When was the last time you made or created something?
We are creating things all the time, that’s the nature of what we do. The last thing we actually finished was a new dish that hasn’t gone on the menu yet: chicken, clams and caviar. Quite an unusual one, but I am very happy with it.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Holding Michelin stars for 10 years while I was running Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Real achievements are things that you do for a long time. A lot of people can be really good for a short while, but being really good for a long time is something else. And I’m very proud to have been at the very top level for those ten years.
What do you consider humankind’s greatest achievement?
Fire and cooking. Together they evolved the human species. Without them, we wouldn’t be what we are today.
Who best demonstrates, or has demonstrated, the courage of their convictions?
In the culinary world, I’d say another of my mentors, Alain Ducasse. I recently dined in Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, his iconic restaurant that set a mark for fine dining 10-15 years ago, and he has changed it completely. He is someone who doesn’t fear change or losing his three Michelin stars, because he has the confidence to win them back. He’s done that several times over. It’s so impressive to be able to back yourself like that.
What song could you sing most completely right now?
I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. One of the fun songs we’ve uploaded to the restaurant playlist which I’ve also listened to a lot in the car on the way to work.
What’s the best journey you’ve ever been on?
The best way to travel is flying first class, which is a treat. But the best journeys I’ve had are to restaurants. Of course I would say that, but it’s something I genuinely love to do. The excitement that builds up when you’re going somewhere, and you get there and it was worth that special trip. That’s what the Michelin Guide was brought into being for. Stars reflected to what extent the restaurant was worth making a special journey for. So when I’ve been to, say, Alinea in Chicago, or Faviken in the north of Sweden, it was absolutely worth the journey.
If you could do one thing to change the status quo, what would it be?
I’m part of The Female Lead project, run by Edwina Dunn. It’s about changing perceptions of gender and making new role models for girls and young women. Kids of four and five still think that certain jobs are only for men, others only for women, and that needs to change. I never experienced any barriers in my career because of being female, but that’s not the case for a lot of people and I’d like that to change.
You’ve one trip in a time machine: where and when would you go?
To be at a great moment in history, where the world changed for the better, then it would have to be Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech [Washington D.C., August 23, 1963].
If money were no object, what would you buy?
I have my eye on a brand-new Porsche 911 Turbo. I do like my cars. But it will have to wait: everything I have now is going into making the restaurant a success.