“All the nonsense about fine dining restaurants is gone from Core. And it is all nonsense.”
hen did chefs became glamorous? Perhaps it would be more pertinent to ask why chefs seemed to have studiously avoided any aesthetic relation to the recherché or the chic for so long? Quite an achievement, really, when you consider the benefits that freshly-ironed chef whites and a toque blanche can bring to a figure.
Auguste Escoffier may have been a culinary genius but he looked like a Dickensian rent collector. Keith Floyd may have had roguish charisma but he always gave you the feeling he could have been (and, indeed, probably was) dragged out from underneath a bench at Turnpike Lane bus shelter in order to present his TV cooking shows. Joseph Favre may have created the four-volume Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique but he resembled a chubby gargoyle with measles.
So how did we evolve from these spatula-wielding scruffs of yore to Clare Smyth, the chef-patron of Core, who exudes the kind of raffish, make-up-free, tomboyish, slightly sun-tinted cool that might pair well with a cotton Stella McCartney suit and a Hublot watch? The latter I know for sure to be true; she’s wearing one today as part of her new role as an ambassador for the uber-luxury watch brand beloved by Jay-Z and Kylie Jenner.
Smyth’s career trajectory spans the time between the end of that long, long era when chefs were considered to be talented but gauche, or unruly adjuncts to creative culture, and the beginning of our current time, where chefs have become the fulcrum around which so much pop culture revolves.
Born in County Antrim in 1978, Smyth’s mother was a waitress and her father was a farmer. Food in her home was, as she recalls, more important to her than for most of her school mates. “Living on a farm meant I wasn’t eating baked beans on toast or pasta like my friends,” she says.
“We had sheep and cows and grew crops on our farm. Eating out was all about quantity over quality in Ireland back then; it was all mixed grills and high teas. There weren’t any fine dining restaurants. Being on a farm, we would butcher animals, freeze them and eat the whole thing. I think, through that, I had more exposure to cooking than most people – especially back then. Though we did have potatoes with everything, which was just like everybody else!”
Moving to England as a teen, Smyth studied catering in Portsmouth before beginning her career in restaurants with stints at Terence Conran’s restaurant and at the St. Endoc Hotel in Cornwall, before a near two-decade stint working under Gordon Ramsay at his eponymous Chelsea restaurant.
“Working with Gordon really helped me start to think differently. With him I cooked in the style of that restaurant but it definitely gave me the confidence and ability to create something exceptional from what would be considered humble and everyday ingredients in some people’s eyes,” she explains. "I spent 15 years with Gordon, cooking predominantly French food, so I was really ready for the change and to start thinking about things differently; prioritising the emotion and memory of food rather than technique.”
Interviews with Smyth (she doesn’t do many) tend to revolve around little more than the obvious facts that she is a) a woman and b) not the shout-y type. I ask her if there was a moment when she realised that her gender was no longer going to be the dominating element of her profile.
“I don’t know if there was an exact moment when I realised it but I do think I’m pretty much there now. Everyone wanted to talk to me about being a women with three Michelin stars when it was awarded, which was fine, but I was always thinking, ‘never mind the ‘woman’ bit. What about the fact that having three Michelin stars is something only myself, Gordon, Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal have ever achieved as British chefs?’ I feel that’s the most important thing, rather than my gender. There’s a different generation coming through now which is great and I hope that conversation about my gender is now over for good.”
Smyth opened Core, on Kensington Park Road, when she finally left the Ramsay empire to start out on her own in 2017. The building has a strong culinary legacy; it was here that Prue Leith opened her eponymous restaurant way back in 1969. The interior, unassuming and filled with potted plants and bookshelves and daubed in hues of white and cream, looks like the reception area of a Dutch bespoke publishing house.
But perhaps the blandness of the space is purposeful, as there is so little to distract your attention from the food, which is one of the most gastronomically astute in London. A tight, ambitious yet economical statement of intent on how far native ingredients can fly.
Take Smyth's Charlotte potato dish. It’s a spud. A brown one. A regular one, about the size of a pack of playing cards. It sits proudly in a beurre blanc sauce, is daintily dashed with herring roe and stuck with salt and vinegar crisps. It’s a signature dish at Core and is still perhaps Smyth’s greatest attempt so far to turn the mundane into the monumental. The pop of roe, the softness of spud and the lick of salt and crunch; these flavours are at once robust modernity and dewy-eyed nostalgia. A Philippe Starck chair resting on an orange Axminster carpet.
“I love the challenge that comes with making something spectacular with a carrot or a potato,” Smyth tells me. “Fine dining can be so pretentious and intimidating sometimes. I wanted to base what I do on nothing more complicated than the things I reach for first in the kitchen and the things I like to eat. A lot of it is about nostalgia and memory for me. Emotions are how you connect with people when it comes to food; it’s more powerful than any luxury ingredient.”
Now a fully paid-up member of the most rarefied of chef circles (she even beat out the rest of the country’s top foodie contenders to cook at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018); Smyth’s views on the fine dining scene are as refreshing and direct as her food.
“Michelin-starred cooking still is fixated on French cuisine,” she insists. “I want to bring the same level of technical brilliance but with ingredients from our own culture. Being British is important to me and I don’t want to play second fiddle to France. Food tells the story of what’s around us. When people travel to the UK and come to Core I want them to eat things that are British: jellied eels, beef and mince; these are the ingredients with stories behind them. That’s the story of our land and where we’re from.”
Rushing off to begin yet another lengthy evening service, Smyth leaves me with another piece of her no-nonsense philosophy on food, one that seems to chime perfectly with a close-to-post-Covid London where, after a lengthy break from the joys of eating out, we are more grateful than ever for the survival of places that get right the basics of what a restaurant, bar or greasy spoon should be.
“We’re the experts,” Smyth states firmly. “You’re coming here to eat and to be entertained. All the nonsense about fine dining restaurants is gone from Core. And it is all nonsense. I don’t care if customers pronounce the name of the wine or a dish wrong. It absolutely doesn’t matter. Just sit back and enjoy it. Nobody who is paying for their dinner should ever have to do anything more than that.”
92 Kensington Park Rd, Notting Hill, W11, corebyclaresmyth.com