I recently attended the Skills for Chefs conference in Sheffield. It was a fascinating, if rather overwhelming and intimidating experience being surrounded by some of the UK’s most incredible chefs. One of the highlights for me was meeting chef Clare Smyth at the end when she was being interviewed by Joe Hurd. I took copious notes and asked her if I could publish her interview afterwards for others to read. Clare is an inspirational chef. With a Michelin star studded career and now her own restaurant, Core, she well deserves the award she picked up last year as the World’s Best Female Chef. What follows is a summary of the interview I heard.
CS: I grew up on a farm in Ireland and got into cooking through working in the local restaurant. The people around me knew before I did, but I already knew by the age of 15 that I wanted to be a chef. I started at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant when I was 22. At that time there was nothing else like it. It was already a three Michelin star restaurant and the energy was unparalleled! Now I can’t cook at a worse standard than three Michelin stars because that’s all I’ve done for the last 15 years. I was working for Alain Ducasse in Monaco when I decided that I wanted to return to London. Alain offered me the Executive Sous Chef job at The Dorchester which he was just reopening, but at the same time Gordon offered me the Head Chef job at his Royal Hospital Road restaurant so I ended up joining him again before starting Core.
SD: What do you want to achieve with CORE?
CS: Everyone expected me to open a restaurant using expensive ingredients – caviar, truffles, foie gras – but I wanted to show how enjoyable a simple potato can be. Core is all about making standard ingredients exceptional.
People have become disconnected with fine dining because they see it as pretentious, so at Core I knocked down the barriers. I want to show them that it can feel just like home. I took the words people would struggle to understand and pronounce off the menu and wrote it instead in plain English. People dress more casually at Core too. I don’t see why people shouldn’t wear what they like. In a sense it is the ultimate luxury to be able to wear jeans if you want to.
It wasn’t about getting Michelin stars. I wanted to make sure that guests had a great time and weren’t just presented with excellent food. It was about getting them hooked on fine dining in a format they felt comfortable with. To start with, some of them were scared to see the Sommelier because they thought it would be so expensive, but once you’ve shown them how much they can learn in choosing a good value bottle of wine, they become connoisseurs themselves and keep coming back.
It takes a long time to build up a great restaurant and I am looking for longevity. We only started two years ago, so there is a lot more still to achieve.
SD: What advice would you give to someone starting their own restaurant now?
CS: Don’t expect everything to work perfectly from the beginning. If you are coming from an established restaurant, it has taken them years to get everything working that smoothly. I found it pretty tough, because I was starting from rock bottom and expecting it to work like clockwork as all the Michelin star restaurants I’d worked in previously had done. But everyone lets you down, the builders, everyone. Two years on, we’re finally getting into our stride as a team. It takes a while to get the right systems in place to make a restaurant work like clockwork.
You also have to be very thick-skinned. It’s important to take the emotion out of it especially when it comes to the critics. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter so much what one critic has to say. It’s more about the hundreds of people that come through the door. We’ve had journalists from the very first night write about us without even dining at Core first!
SD: How important are your suppliers to the success of your business?
CS: Suppliers are very important because as chefs we only make a percentage of the food. The rest is down to the suppliers so you have to pick the right people, the people who are passionate about what they do. I’ve built good relationships with our suppliers. They were the first people we had for lunch before it opened. It gave them the opportunity to meet each other too. Some of the smaller suppliers have seen more attention as a result of working with us, which is fantastic.
We need to support and tell the stories of these passionate producers, because we need more of them in the UK. I want my guests to respect the food on their plate and to know if someone risked their life to get the scallop on their plate. So often people don’t fully appreciate the effort that has gone into making their food.
“We need to support and tell the stories of these passionate producers, because we need more of them in the UK. I want my guests to respect the food on their plate and to know if someone risked their life to get the scallop on their plate. So often people don’t fully appreciate the effort that has gone into making their food.”
Beyond just the food I am keen to encourage British-made. I had all my plates and silverware made in Britain as opposed to using the fashionable brands that many chefs aim to afford. They might be unfashionable, but my supplier has been making plates for 300 years and still cares passionately. For me sustainability is not just about the environment, but also about culture. I like people who make things with their hands like I do and I want to keep this culture alive.
SD: How do you think we can encourage more young people to become chefs?
CS: People often talk about the sacrifices chefs make for their career and the environment in which they work. Personally, I didn’t think I was sacrificing anything. This was a choice for me – one I absolutely don’t regret. There are areas we can improve on, however. The way staff are managed is one of them.
Being the first woman to take the role of Head Chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Chelsea restaurant, I felt I couldn’t show any signs of weakness, so I emulated the behaviour of previous Head Chefs. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but it took me a good couple of years to get more comfortable in myself and develop my own style of management, which I have now taken with me to Core.
What’s a shame is that you can do very well financially as a chef, but no-one ever talks about it. I had an 8-year-old in my restaurant recently and he loved cooking, so I asked if he wanted to become a chef. He wanted to become a banker instead! Cooking is a great career and it’s not likely to be replaced by computers any time soon.
The other thing I like to do at Core is ensure my staff are continually learning. I’ve always been passionate about food in its broadest sense, not just cooking it. I’ve read Auguste Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire twice over from cover to cover and I still read everything I can about food and the science behind it. It’s like training your brain as an athlete – the tiniest margins make a big difference to the finished dish and it’s amazing what you can find out about potatoes and carrots! At Core I get the staff to do research projects on specific subjects and present them back to the team. That way they are constantly learning something new.