'I would never let anyone ruin my opportunities' - Best chef in the world on dealing with kitchen bullies
Clare Smyth, voted the best female chef in the world, has dealt with her fair share of kitchen bullies.
The 40-year-old, who was awarded two Michelin stars this year for her restaurant Core, tells Independent.ie that kitchens were places of "fear" when she trained to be a chef.
Smyth was the first female chef from the island of Ireland to hold and retain three Michelin stars when she worked as Gordon Ramsay’s Chef Patron.
Smyth, who describes Ramsay as a mentor, says the TV chef is very different to how he’s portrayed on TV.
“It’s really important that there’s a good environment [in professional kitchens now]. I like it to be calm and peaceful so there’s good concentration. I like people to be happy, it’s very important that everyone comes in to work happy. The chefs don’t have to be creative, we’re the creative people, but they need to come in to work happy and not fearing it.”
“There was a lot of fear in kitchens those days, and it wasn’t pleasant in those days.”
“It was very much a part of when we grew up in kitchens, it was the normal culture. It wasn’t necessarily the head chef, it could have been the sous chef, it could have been the chef de partie, and that was happening everywhere - in France, in Britain.”
But she added: “I would never have left, I would never have let anyone else ruin what I wanted or ruin my opportunities.”
“One of the things Gordon told me,” she adds, “was ‘don’t worry about me, don’t worry about other people, focus on yourself’. Why would I lose my opportunities for them?”
“But it never took long before they were gone and you had beaten them. All those people just fall by the wayside.”
“I detest bullying, I hate it. I’ve been cooking for over 20 years and I’ve never seen people like that succeed.”
She added: “[Now] I just feel like everyone is a bit more focused now on the love of food and what we do. But it wasn’t just the hospitality industries, it was all industries at the top level.”
Ramsay, Smyth insists, is “very easy to work with” and is a brilliant businessman.
“There is a TV thing. There’s always going to be shouting in kitchens, but it’s never bullying, it’s always about the food, it’s always for a reason. It was never picking on someone for no reason.”
“I always found Gordon very easy to work with, you know where you stand with Gordon.”
“He’s taught me a lot in my career at various stages. I’ve known Gordon for 16 years, he’s been a great mentor for me and all the way through.”
“There’s a TV persona and that’s for making TV. The businessman behind that is very different.”
“He keeps changing all the time. Last time I counted he had 34 restaurants globally. He’s done so much. He’s got so much knowledge.”
Smyth left Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2016 to open Core in London's Notting Hill in July of last year. Within a year, it had claimed two Michelin stars.
“Core was about being a modern British fine dining restaurant. British food isn’t necessarily fine dining, it’s more rustic, and it’s not necessarily an art form… I really wanted to make British food, fine dining. Core is all about the story of the producers and the growers and what we do.”
“I got Gordon to come and look at the site, I was sharing the business plan, various elements of the design with him. For the food, I had him come in and do tastings. At all stages, he gave me good feedback.”
“It was difficult [telling him that I was leaving his restaurant]. He was obviously disappointed but happy at the same time. He always thought I was going to stay, he’d given me partnership.”
Smyth, who was in Ireland recently to discuss "Fair Trade In The Food Trade" at Food On The Edge, says her upbringing on a farm in county Antrim meant she had the resilience and work ethic that was suited to hospitality.
“I grew up on a dairy farm, we also had sheep. My family were potato farmers as well. I grew up with something that was quite typical of Ireland.”
“We cooked three meals a day at home. For me it was just normal, I didn’t know any different. When I started to cook and move away from home, I realised how valuable growing up in that background was for me.”
“A chore every day was to wash and boil the potatoes, every day. We would cook stews and soups and potatoes and champ and chips; we’d have whole animals butchered and then use all the parts of the animal.”
“We’d use all the offal and different braising cuts. A lot of our food was things that were slow cooked. Mum would slow cook over night, 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.”
“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, for many people, is difficult for some people but for me it wasn’t; I was already used to it.”
“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.”
Smyth, who lives in London with her husband and west highland terrier, says she has no plans to open a restaurant on this side of the Irish Sea, but she loves to support events like Food On The Edge, which is a gathering of top international chefs for a two-day Food Symposium in Galway city every year in October.
still cooks the hearty stews and soups at home that her mother cooked.
“In my home life, definitely, I often cook big pots of soups and stews and slow cook. A) it’s delicious, and B) it’s good for you, and it’s practical.”
“I wish people would have a few basic cooking techniques at home. To be able to buy a load of root vegetable and put those together in a soup with pearl barley, is delicious, but it costs absolutely nothing.”
Smyth worked in her first kitchen at 14, left school at 15, and finished her professional culinary training by the time she was 17. She still remembers how she became inspired to be a chef.
“I was working on my school holidays in a local restaurant and they always had chefs come over from England, because they couldn’t find enough talent locally. Those chefs had worked in Michelin star restaurants and I started to read about chefs and restaurants which were normally based in London at that time. That’s what made me want to leave and also, I love food, I’m quite greedy.”
“I left as soon as I could. I absolutely hated school, and I went to catering college as soon as I could. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I was very head strong. I did apprenticeship for two years in Grayshott Hall in Surrey, a five-star exclusive health farm.”
“I just couldn’t wait to finish college either. I was in college but really wanted to get in full-time to a restaurant. As soon as I finished college, I was still only 17, I went to London to start working in Bibendum in south Kensington, which at the time wasn’t Michelin star but has two Michelin stars now. It was one of the best restaurants in London at the time as well.”
Michelin star cooking is something that is learned over the course of a decade, she insists.
“You can’t even compare what you learn at college to doing that or even working in Michelin star kitchen. It’s a good ten years work to training under the best chefs in the world. You’ve got to learn it from the best chefs in the world. It’s ten years’ worth of work before you can have training and head up your first kitchen.”
“I didn’t just take over any kitchen, I took over the only three Michelin star kitchen in London, so you’ve got to take all the time first to learn everything.”