Clare Smyth MBE is the consultant chef at restaurant Gordon Ramsay, having stepped down from her role as chef patron earlier this year to prepare for the launch of her own restaurant. She remains the first and only female chef in the UK to run a three Michelin star restaurant. Born in Northern Ireland, Clare grew up on a farm in County Antrim and moved to England at 16 to learn the skills, which would eventually make her a world-class chef.
Who or what inspired you to follow a career as a chef? I started cooking in restaurants at a really young age – about 14 or 15 – just helping out in the school holidays and I developed a real passion for cooking and chefs. I went out and bought lots of cookbooks but not the ones aimed at home cooks, in fact, the first book I bought was Anton Mosimann’s ‘Cuisine à la Carte’!
Have your Northern Irish roots influenced your style of cooking in any way? Probably not in terms of my style of cooking but I grew up on a farm which gave me a very good understanding of ingredients and how much work goes into farming. Agriculture was huge where I grew up and everyone was involved in the business in some way. It’s a tough job which is done every single day of the year and that gave me huge respect for the industry.
How important is working in kitchens in different countries to professional chefs? It is tremendously important, more so before than now. Previously without the internet, you had to actually go places to learn from the great chefs. If you stayed in the same area, you would end up using the same techniques. Travelling was a way you could really break out and train under different masters. It’s a global industry and it’s important to learn from different people.
You have worked for some of the biggest names in the business. What was the most important piece of advice you received (and from whom?) I’ve received a lot of good advice but one piece of advice that I have used time and time again was from Gordon (Ramsay) – Focus on Clare Smyth yourself and don’t worry what everyone else is doing around you. It’s a very good lesson for life in general. Quite often people let their own work suffer because they are preoccupied with other people.
In previous interviews you have talked about the “soul” and “spirit” of fellow chefs. How would you describe your own ‘soul’ and style of working? I’m someone who is very passionate and wears their heart on their sleeve. I’m calm and content in the kitchen, it’s the happiest place for me to be so I’m always in a good mood. No matter what goes wrong or how tired you are, you are working with nature and at one with the world.
Why did you ultimately plump to work with Gordon Ramsay over everyone else? At that time he was simply the best and there was nothing like it. He had just won his third Michelin star and it was the hardest kitchen I could have worked in. It felt like a different pressure and the energy coming out of the kitchen was spectacular. I wanted to be the best and I thought if I could survive at that level I had a good chance.
Gordon described you as “undoubtedly one of the greatest chefs to have graced my kitchen”. How did that make you feel? It was great. Gordon is very generous with me but, without being arrogant, I have known him for 15 years and run his three Michelin star restaurant for nine years so I think I have earned it!
Can you describe the pressure you feel being the first female chef in the UK to run a restaurant with three Michelin stars. When I first took over it was an amazing opportunity which I might never have had the chance to do again so I grasped it with both hands. It was a huge weight on my shoulders thinking ‘What if I lose it?’ and I was only 28 so I was very young. Gordon knew I could do it but the pressure never let up. I recently moved out of the kitchen but the pressure still remains because if Matt (Abé), the new chef de cuisine who I trained for seven years, doesn’t succeed, I will have still failed.
What advice can you offer to aspiring female chefs? Word hard. It’s got nothing to do with being male or female, playing the female card just doesn’t stack up any more. It’s an even playing field in the kitchen and you should never use being female as an excuse.
Tell us about your new restaurant venture. Why have you decided that now is the time to ‘go it alone’? It’s coming along and I’m hoping it will be open in spring next year. There have been a few hold-ups with planning permission, which I’ve found hard. I’m used to having things done in five minutes so it has been frustrating that things have been in other people’s hands but I’m really excited. I’d been thinking about it for some time. I will always cook the way I cook, so it will be a modern fine dining restaurant.
And now for three questions that we ask all of our Leading Lights…
1. What are your three kitchen secrets? i) Always buy the best quality ingredients you can afford. ii) Mis en place – Be prepared. If you don’t have everything coming together at the right time, your dish will be spoilt. iii) Seasoning – people are frightened of seasoning but it is vital for balancing your food and I’m not just talking about salt and pepper, but acid and sugar too.
2. What is your favourite ingredient and why? Vinegar – I love vinegar and I have various vinegars for different things.
3. Please could you share your favourite recipe, along with your reasons for choosing it? Seabass with minestrone of shellfish. I really love light food and broths and this elegant dish really sums up how I like to eat. Click here to try Clare’s favourite recipe0