From lambing in Antrim to cooking for Meghan
A farming background gave top chef Clare Smyth a taste for hard work. Geraldine Gittens hears how she rose to the top
What does it take to become the world's best female chef? And where did it all begin? Antrim-born Clare Smyth won that coveted title in Bilbao last June. And she was the first woman to hold and retain three Michelin stars when she worked as Gordon Ramsay's Chef Patron in his flagship restaurant Chelsea in London. Her own restaurant, Core, in Notting Hill, was this year awarded two Michelin stars.
So it might surprise you to learn that Smyth left school at the age of 15. Her first part-time job, as a 14-year-old, in a local hotel was what started her dream of becoming a chef. Here, she watched Michelin star chefs who'd travelled over from London in action, and she listened, rapt, to their tales of working in top restaurants across the water. That was when the headstrong teenager decided she wanted a piece of the pudding too.
A year later, she left school and went to train in Grayshott Hall in Surrey, an exclusive health farm. By the time she was 17, she was working in Bibendum in London's south Kensington which didn't have the two Michelin stars it has today, but was nevertheless one of the best restaurants in the city at the time. In spite of all her culinary training and experience though, Smyth says it was her upbringing on a farm in Northern Ireland that primed her for long working days in kitchens.
"It gave me a good work ethic, being a farmer. You work all the time, you don't stop. When you were lambing sheep, you worked all night, and you worked 365 days of the year. That work ethic, I grew up with. Hospitality is difficult for some people but for me, it wasn't - I was already used to it."
For Smyth, there is no work-life balance because her work is her life and she loves what she does.
"I've always worked all the time, I never really don't work to be honest… I really love what I do, and it's something that's just very much a part of who I am."
From an early age, Smyth saw how animals were butchered for the freezer, and different cuts of meat lent themselves to different cooking styles. Every part of the animal was used - offal and braising cuts included, and thus Smyth's culinary education had already begun.
"Mum would slow-cook overnight, she was cooking for a family and the people working on the farm. So there had to be a good quantity of it, and it needed to be hearty."