Summer Reads: Here’s why Gordon Ramsay thinks this British chef is among the best in the world
Ramsay says Clare Smyth has style, finesse and a drive that cannot be bought or taught. So, why did he think she couldn’t last a week in his kitchen?
When Gordon Ramsay first employed Clare Smyth, he wasn’t sure she had what it takes. In Smyth’s debut chef monograph, Core, co-author Kieran Morris writes that, after appointing the UK chef to his brigade at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road, in London back in 2002, “Ramsay didn’t think she’d last a week – and to be fair, most of the staff didn’t, with the kitchen being known the world over for its rancorous, febrile atmosphere.
“She survived the week, and the year, and the year after that, but it was hard,” Morris goes on, before quoting from Smyth herself: “The entire brigade lived off nothing more than four hours’ sleep a night and adrenaline. We were like the SAS of kitchens – an elite squadron able to handle any task that came our way.”
“It was the hardest, hottest, fastest and most turbulent kitchen on the planet,” Smyth recalls in Core. “Shifts were merciless. We stood for military discipline and surgical precision in everything that we did, and if you slipped from those standards, you were gone – and somebody else would be waiting to take your job. Kitchen life was testosterone-fuelled, with dozens of chefs jostling for Gordon’s attention. It wasn’t for everyone, but I knew it was for me, because I wanted to be the best, and I refused to let anything distract me from that aim. Gordon was, and still is, a brilliant mentor. He was always fair, even if he was very blunt about it – he just wanted perfection.”
Her indefatigability paid off. “One night, at the start of service, Gordon told the kitchen that he wouldn’t be looking after the pass tonight because he was taking the head chef out for a meeting,” she recalls. “He nominated me to take his place, and I was stunned. ‘Really?’ I asked, in disbelief. ‘Yes, really,’ he replied. ‘If you can’t do it now, you’ll never be able to.’ And he was right: after all that training, I did know how, and I needed to step up when it was asked of me.”
Smyth can’t have been entirely sure of what Ramsay saw in her work. However, in her new book (named after the three Michelin-star restaurant she now runs) Gordon himself reveals what he admired then, and still admires now. “In so many ways, Clare Smyth is one of the most talented chefs I have ever worked alongside,” Ramsay writes in the book’s foreword. “This woman is relentless, and in that pursuit of perfection, the exciting thing about Clare’s demeanour is that she carries no passengers – she has a drive that cannot be bought or taught. But more than this, she has an understanding of finesse and style like few others; she cooks with attitude and personality, and that’s rarer than you’d think.
Smyth with her team at Core
“When I was behind the pass at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay twenty years ago, we were the Manchester United of kitchens – we went to hell and back five days a week to keep our world-class standard. I loved raising the bar every single day, pushing my team to get better and better with each challenge. Clare was one of the very few chefs who not only met that bar but soared right past it and came back asking for more. It was her hunger that set her apart: from joining us in 2002, to taking over the reins as head chef in 2007, to becoming chef-patron in 2012, right up to Core and beyond. As a lieutenant, I couldn’t have asked for more: she was invaluable.
“I’ll never forget the first time I ate at Core,” he goes on. “It was an emotional night. We’d brought some good friends with us, but I couldn’t focus on entertaining them – all I had in my mind was the journey Clare had been on, which I could follow through her food. The flavours were rounded, the seasoning was on point and her dishes were so distinct and original. She has a near-unique ability to turn an idea into a plate of food without distorting her original vision, which is where I think her genius lies. To elevate a potato or a carrot in the way she does, with the critics circling you like sharks, takes serious skill and courage. Restaurants spend ten, fifteen, twenty years chasing three Michelin stars. For Core to achieve that in under four years is remarkable, and totally deserved.
“I know she has our record at Royal Hospital Road – twenty-one years and counting – in her sights. But if there’s one thing I want Clare to take from me, it’s the value of passing on your knowledge and expertise. I want to see the next generation of young, homegrown chefs coming out of Core, trained and mentored by Clare, so that her restaurant becomes an epicentre of culinary talent. Core winning its third star brought my own career full-circle, like the seeds I’d sown had finally reached fruition; I’d love for Clare to experience the same with one of the chefs she has helped to succeed.
“There are very few cooks in the world who’d be prepared to sacrifice themselves in order to achieve what Clare has, even though plenty will dream of her successes. She’s the real deal,” he concludes. “But let me assure you: behind the scenes, she sleeps with one eye open, and never, ever takes her foot off the gas.”
To find out more about the chef, her finesse, drive, style and recipes, order a copy of Core here.