World's top female chef is cool as a cucumber

British chef Clare Smyth receiving the Best Female Chef honour at the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards gala in Bilbao in June.
British chef Clare Smyth receiving the Best Female Chef honour at the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards gala in Bilbao in June.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • In 2007, when Clare Smyth first joined celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's team, she felt the heat in the kitchen straight away.

"I was told I wouldn't last a week - Gordon even said that. There were people saying, 'It's not for girls. You shouldn't be here.'

"It took me a long time to earn respect. I had to work twice as hard. I could never say I was tired or I was sick or I had cut my finger because the response would have been, 'It's because you're a girl.'"

But she did make the cut. Smyth, 39, now chef patron of Core in west London, was named best female chef at the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards gala in Bilbao in June.

Is the kitchen still a pressure cooker for new talent?

"When I started out, yes. Generally, kitchens at that time were testosterone-driven places. Traditional kitchens at the top level were always tough: long hours with poor staff meals. But thankfully, we approach human resources in a different way now."

The cliche of the hot-tempered chef is, she noted, laughably out of date. "The approach we take more now is trying to inspire rather than rule by fear."

Smyth left home - a farm in Northern Ireland - at 16 to train in England, working under celebrity chefs Heston Blumenthal and the Roux brothers. She became the first woman to work in Ramsay's kitchen and rose to be head chef at his Chelsea outlet, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, picking up three Michelin stars along the way.

Asked how she handles the heat at work now, she says: "I'm always calm and chilled. Rather than screaming and shouting at someone who is not capable of doing something, I will just gently coach them into another role.

"I may even help them find a job somewhere else. But I'm not going to stand and shout and abuse someone because that's not what I'm there for.

"I try to look at problems in a much more, let's say, professional light, with a more adult way of dealing with things."

Her restaurant, which opened last year, has a weekly training day, when kitchen staff are given projects to do research - which they present to the whole team - and a daily training session before each service, when a staff member prepares notes and briefs the team on a particular wine or dish.

She is equally happy to devolve power to her customers. Core does not operate a dress code, unlike Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.

"People who were quite formal there will come to Core and they'll have trainers on. I love to see people as who they are and what they choose to be."

There is no salt and pepper on Core's tables, but if guests make a request, she is happy to provide some.

Asked if she winces if someone orders a "wrong" wine, she shakes her head firmly. "No, not at all. As long as people have what they want, that's our job.

"My mum might want her beef well done. It's not up to me to dictate how people wish to eat. I just want them to have what they feel comfortable with - because the worst thing is coming to a restaurant and not feeling comfortable."

A policy of taking care of people also explains Core's limited opening hours.

The restaurant operates just eight services a week - five dinners and three lunches - so the full staff are on duty for every shift, meaning there is no danger they will be called in when off duty to cover an absent colleague.

It is her industry's punishing working hours, Smyth says, that accounts for just four of the world's 50 best restaurants being run by women.

"Lots and lots are coming into the industry, but what we need to do with this generation is make sure we support them so they get to the top. I hope that when we do that, they'll break a mould and that will be finished."

Smyth looked bashful when she was asked about her own work-life balance, admitting to working an 80-hour week.

"But I wouldn't rather be in the pub, for example. I'd rather be here. For me, this isn't work."

Given her devotion to the job, does a cooking show on television not appeal? She looked aghast.

"Not at all. Not at all. That isn't something that inspires me, certainly not at this point in my career.

"Working with food, produce, nature - that's what gets me excited. I'm not a television-studio kind of person."

She catered for the royal-wedding reception earlier this year, but grew coy when that was brought up.

Beyond the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex had dined at Core, she gave nothing away and affected a surprising insouciance about being the royal couple's choice.

The trouble with outside catering jobs, she explained, was that she had to close the restaurant for the day. "And we're, um, quite busy," she says.

What an understatement this was became clear when she was asked how long a person would have to wait for a table for four on a Friday.


But what if someone wanted to make a booking for the Beckhams and Oprah Winfrey? Would a table magically become available?

"But we couldn't do it. We don't have the table. We're full and we're not going to just phone up the people who booked table five and tell them, 'You're not coming.'

"It just wouldn't be fair."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2018, with the headline 'World's top female chef is cool as a cucumber'. Print Edition | Subscribe