At the age of 29, Clare Smyth (now 32) became the first woman in Britain to run a three Michelin stars kitchen, when she was chosen by Gordon Ramsay to take over the reins of his Chelsea flagship restaurant in 2008. Born in Northern Ireland and raised in a farm, Clare discovered her vocation early on, moving to England at the age of 16 to train as a chef. After a first stint at Gordon Ramsay’s between 2002 and 2005, she went to work at the Louis XV, Alain Ducasse’s famous three-starred restaurant in Monaco, before returning to London as head chef for Gordon. Here, Clare shares with Chic-Londres her passion for food and her favourite addresses.
When did you decide you wanted to become a chef? I had a summer job in a restaurant when I was 15 where the chefs there introduced me to the world of cuisine- I absolutely loved it and that is when I realised that I wanted to be a chef at the highest level. I became obsessed with food in the same way as other kids were obsessed with pop bands, and read every book I could find about food: when I got my first job as an apprentice at the age of 16, the chef told me he had never met someone with so much knowledge!
How would you describe the British approach to food? I think the great thing about Britain is that we are very open to other cuisines, with a record number of talented chefs from different countries settling in London. Because our culinary tradition is not as strong as in France or Italy, we welcome multicultural influences more and as a result are more used to different flavours. Many British chefs have learnt their trade abroad or have trained in London under people like the Roux brothers, and as a result, the standard of cooking has risen massively.
How would you describe your restaurant’s style? I love simplicity and have a huge respect for products, so I am quite restrained, as I think that too many flavours destroy the beauty of a product. My cooking is much lighter than Gordon’s, and less stylised: his main influence is Robuchon, while mine is Ducasse, but after three years in the kitchen, I think the two styles have now mixed.
Do you have a signature dish? I really work with the seasons and the products, as I believe that nature gives us a gift and that we should eat products at their best- as a consequence, the menu is always changing. That said, Gordon’s signature dish -his ravioli of lobster- is always on the menu and so is mine, which is the pressed foie gras with peppered Madeira jelly, smoked duck, peach and almond crumble.
What defines a good chef in your opinion? The respect for the products, the way you handle the ingredients and the love of cooking.
How was it to work with Gordon Ramsay? When I first worked under Gordon, at age 23, I was absolutely terrified, but even though he might not be known as such, he is actually a really nice guy- very bright, always incredibly fair and extremely generous with his staff. As a chef, he is phenomenal: no matter how much time he spends working in television, his talent remains absolutely intact.
How do you conduct your kitchen in comparison with him? I believe in silence and concentration: I really don’t like noise, which I find stressful. For me, the team in the kitchen is like my family: I am sometimes very hard on them, but only because I am a perfectionist and refuse to ever compromise on standards, which I think they understand.
Where do you buy the following in London?
- Cheese: La Fromagerie and Neal’s Yard Dairy
- Wine: Jeroboams
- Bread: Poilâne
- Cakes: I love the cupcakes at Selfridges
- Deli products: La Cave A Fromage and Luigi’s Delicatessen
- Fruits and vegetables: Le Pascalou, which also sells some good fish.
What are your favourite London restaurants, apart from yours? I love Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and Philip Howard at The Square. For something more brasserie than gastronomy, I really enjoy going to Bar Boulud, Scott’s and Bentley’s.
What is your favourite dish and is there anything that you really dislike? I have three favourite dishes in the world: the “Légumes des Jardins de Provence à la Truffe Noire” (Provence vegetables cooked in truffle oil) from Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant in Monaco; the “Os à Moelle” from Robuchon’s Le Pré Catelan in Paris; and the “Oysters and Pearls” from Thomas Keller’s Californian restaurant The French Laundry. There is no food I dislike: there is no bad product, only food cooked badly.
Is there any advice you can give us? Go to your local butcher or fishmonger: their products are usually better and in that way, you support them. Keep it simple, by combining two or three ingredients at the most. There is nothing better than good products cooked simply…
Clare’s Address Book
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay: 68 Royal Hospital Road SW3 (Sloane Square)
La Fromagerie: 2-6 Moxon Street, W1 (Marylebone)
Neal’s Yard Dairy: 17 Shorts Gardens WC2 (Covent Garden); 6 Park Street EC1 (Borough Market)
Jeroboams: 50-52 Elizabeth Street, SW1 (Victoria)
Poilâne: 46 Elizabeth Street, SW1 (Victoria)
Jack O’Shea: Selfridges 400 Oxford Street W1 (Bond Street)
La Cave A Fromage: 23-24 Cromwell Place, SW7 (South Kensington)
Luigi’s Delicatessen: 349 Fulham Road, SW10 (Gloucester Road)
Le Pascalou: 355 Fulham Road SW10 (Fulham Broadway)
Hélène Darroze at The Connaught: Carlos Place W1 (Green Park)
Alain Ducasse: The Dorchester Lane W1 (Hyde Park Corner)
The Square restaurant: 6-10 Bruton Street W1 (Bond Street)
Bar Boulud: Mandarin Oriental 66 Knightsbridge SW1 (Knighstbridge)
Scott’s: 20 Mount Street W1 (Bond Street)
Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill: 11-15 Swallow Street W1 (Piccadilly Circus)