Creative, collaborative and funny, Michelin-starred Northern Irish chef Clare Smyth is a role model for young women in the industry, says KATY McGUINNESS …
We could have called it ‘Dave’ I suppose …” Clare Smyth is answering one of those dumb questions journalists sometimes blurt out when there’s an awkward silence in the room. I’m part of a small group invited for an interactive cooking demonstration followed by lunch at Core, Smyth’s three Michelin star restaurant in the heart of hedge-fund-manager-land, aka Notting Hill, occupying the building once home to Prue Leith’s restaurant and cookery school. I’m glad it’s not me who has asked, “Why Core?” because Smyth has a reputation, honed by years working for Gordon Ramsay, for not suffering fools gladly. She turns out to be funny and warmer than expected.
“Having fun is really important to me now,” she says. “I’ve done enough things over my career that weren’t. I did a ‘soufflé off’ with Ann-Sophie Pic [of the three-star Maison Pic] recently that was a real laugh.”
The first and only female chef in the UK to hold three stars, famously selected to cater Harry and Meghan’s wedding, Smyth grew up in a farming family in Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. “They were meat and veg people,” she says. “It was lovely, wholesome food. But they did not understand fine dining and were not happy when I left for England to train as a chef at the age of 16.”
As we prepare the first dish, a scallop tartare, Smyth explains, “You can tell the age from the number of rings on the shell.” She’s dressed in pristine chef’s whites with box-fresh white leather trainers. Her diamond-encrusted watch by Hublot, the maker of the kitchen clock on the wall, matches her earrings. “At Gordon Ramsay they season the scallops with salt mixed with 25 per cent mild Sharwood’s curry powder,” she says. “There’s no taste of curry, but nothing else works as well.” We make notes.
In the open kitchen, Smyth’s gender-balanced team – she is a role model for young women in the industry – work quietly and methodically. She’s generous in her acknowledgement of her head chef, Jonny Bone, and development chef, Antonio Acquaviva. “These days restaurants are like the music industry,” she explains. “Things are produced. It’s not just one chef working away on their own anymore. It’s about the team and collaboration.”
Later, the chefs, including Amy from Scotland, just 18, and Christina from Northern Ireland, a sous chef who’s been at Core for several years, will present each dish with the confidence that comes from good training.
“I want the kitchen to be part of the experience,” explains Smyth, “and for the chefs to be proud of their work so they are connected to the guests. It’s just as important for the chefs as it is for the front of house staff to be caring when serving the guests.”
We remove the scallops from their shells, dice them and combine with lime juice, salt, mascarpone, and chives, before decorating them with micro-herbs and wasabi flowers. At the table, a sea vegetable consommé and nasturtium oil are finishing touches. The dish is exquisite and, while there is no pretence that the recipes in Smyth’s new book emanate from anywhere other than a three-star kitchen, some elements are achievable in a domestic setting. I’ll be making the tartare again.
At Core, the dining may be fine, with the odd flourish of foie gras and caviar, but Smyth’s food is firmly rooted in the local. Her desert island ingredients are salt, vinegar, shallots, butter and potatoes. No surprise there: her signature dish is Potato and Roe, a key ingredient being the dulse seaweed she grew up snacking on during walks along the North Antrim Coast.
“The potato is a comforting dish; it’s our most well-received,” she says. “My challenge is to use humble ingredients and extract as much flavour as possible. It’s amazing what you can do with a carrot, a Jerusalem artichoke, an onion. Using something people recognise gives them a sense of connection, of nostalgia, an emotional attachment. So often people come to fine dining restaurants feeling unsure if they are going to like the food and worried they will feel uncomfortable. We bring the potato as the second course, and you can see guests relax straightaway.”
We eat pea and mint gougères, jellied eel with toasted seaweed, smoked chicken wings with beer, honey and thyme, and foie gras parfait with Madeira. There’s malted sourdough made with a 25-year-old starter and a 38-hour prove, then lamb, hogget and mutton followed by an Eton Mess with English cherries, a warm chocolate and lavender tart, and Sauternes and Banyuls’ “wine gums”.
“I am not looking to follow trends or to cook with ingredients from far-flung places because that’s trendy,” Smyth explains. “I would rather look inwards, at where I’m from and work with the producers here. My food feels quite familiar. I want to appeal to as many people as possible, not alienate them by presenting a plate of food that’s outside their comfort zone.
“If people are looking for that really ‘out there’ dining experience they are not going to find it at Core. I want a family to be able to sit around the table and enjoy it no matter what generation they are.”
Core, by Clare Smyth, Phaidon, €53, includes 60 key recipes served at Core as well 70 other recipes including stocks, sauces and breads.
Core, 92 Kensington Park Road, London W11; www.corebyclaresmyth.com.