The Luxury Channel interviews Clare Smyth MBE, chef and proprietor of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay….
Where did your love for cooking come from, and what inspired you to become a chef?
I grew up in Northern Ireland in the countryside on a farm. As I got a little bit older, I got into working in restaurants on my weekends and during the school holidays, just helping out, serving tables. Then after that, I wanted to get into the kitchen to see how all the cool stuff was happening. I got into the kitchen from the age of 15 and just really loved cooking and the environment, and really got sucked into it. From that age, I knew I wanted to be a chef – I think people were telling me that I had a natural ability to cook before that and I was thinking: “No, I’m going to be a doctor or a lawyer; I’m going to get a different profession.” But I kind of looked at it and I thought, I really like this. So, in terms of cooking, I was very, very popular at home, but it was just normal for me. We would get whole salmon coming straight to us and it would still be alive – a 12lb salmon. I was filleting them when I was 15 years old. I thought that was normal and it was only much later on in life – and actually, when I was working here already – that I thought that it wasn’t normal and maybe that’s why I am where I am today. Because actually, all of that was kind of a good foundation to be a chef.
You’re the chef and proprietor of Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant – tell us how you came to work for him?
I was always inspired by the great chefs. I always wanted to work with the best. When I was young, Gordon had won three Michelin stars and everyone was talking about him. I went and did some trials at what were the top restaurants in the country. When I arrived in this one, it had recently just won its third Michelin star and the energy in the kitchen was just phenomenal. It was 2002 when I came here and I just loved it – I loved the environment, it was different to everywhere else and it was harder than everywhere else. That’s what made me want to do it – I wanted to challenge myself at the very toughest level and the most difficult kitchen I could work in. The food was just incredible. I had never seen or tasted anything like that and I just knew that I had to be here.
What is it like working for Gordon? How collaborative is your relationship?
Gordon is tremendously supportive and a really great manager of people. There are many people who have worked with Gordon for many, many years. We talk pretty much all of time, so Gordon is aware of everything that I do. It’s a difficult thing to answer. He isn’t necessarily involved with everything. I’m part of a creative process here, and he kind of lets me get on with it, but shares everything we are doing at the same time. So it’s up to me to be the creative one, it’s up to me to bring ideas to the table – but he brings ideas also. Wherever I am, he’s always in contact with me about what I’m doing and he’s there to bring the advice.
You became the first female British chef to hold and maintain three Michelin stars. How much of an honour was that?
I think, “I didn’t!” It’s difficult! [Laughs]. At 15, I looked at all of the great chefs and I thought, “I want to be like that.” I put my head down and I worked really hard. I put myself in all the best positions that I could, to become the best chef that I could be. I never knew that I was actually going to get there. All I could do was work as hard as I could. I knew that’s what I loved, I knew that that’s the work that inspired me and again, I knew how much I needed to do. So I think that when I got to that level, I kind of lifted my head up and thought: “Wow!” I’ve got more than I thought I would. But I didn’t really think about it along the way, I was just working and trying to be the best I could, in each individual situation and each kitchen I was working in. It was always my goal to try to be the best person who ever worked in that kitchen. So I was always in it for the long haul. I think that a lot of people think that when they’re there, they only have to be good for five minutes and then after that, they don’t put the effort in any more. I’m much more gradual; I keep working, working, working and then I keep getting better and I never want to go back.
Do you think more needs to be done to inspire women to become chefs?
I think it would be nice if there were more female chefs; I think it brings a better balance into the kitchen. Too many females or males in a working environment is not good either way. So I think it’s nice to have a bit of a balance.
But the big question is, why aren’t there?
I don’t know why. There’s not enough going into the industry to start with, or staying in it, but as time goes on, we’re getting more and more females coming in. We’ve got three young ladies in the kitchen with me at the moment, who are between the ages of 20 and 23, and they are doing phenomenally well and there’s no reason why there can’t or shouldn’t be more.
What is the key to a good restaurant? Do you eat out a lot yourself?
I think, obviously, people go to restaurants for good food, good service, the ambience and the friendliness of the staff – everything that makes a good restaurant. Good memories too, but it depends what the occasion is. People go to very casual restaurants with friends so that they can be a bit louder; people come to more special dining, to something like this, for special occasions. But it takes many, many things to make a good restaurant. I eat out all of the time, from local Italians to other three-star restaurants. I eat out all over the world. I’m madly passionate about the industry – yesterday, I was eating in a two Michelin star restaurant and I think it’s a fabulous industry to work in, there are so many creative chefs all over the UK now. It’s a great industry.
What would you say is your signature dish?
Signature dishes are voted for by the guests. We have a few seasonal favourites which we do, for example a coeur de boeuf tomato tartare at the moment, with buffalo milk curds. We do a dish with lemonade parfait as a dessert which gets absolute love. Some of our regular guests tell me and we’ll do something that’s the new thing, that’s the dish. So I don’t think the chef could say what their signatures are, as it’s the people who vote for them.
To what extent is social media a new tool in the chef’s kitchen?
I don’t do Twitter myself – it’s just a choice, a personal thing for me. I think obviously it’s becoming more and more – everyone’s doing it. But it’s not in my make-up; I just don’t have the head space for it. I think many, many chefs use it for different reasons but I’m very much in the moment.
What is your favourite luxury?
I used to say that a luxury thing was fine wine. I have a taste for having fine wine. If guys get me a birthday present or something, they always get me a nice bottle of wine.
Finally, any plans to step out of Gordon’s shadow and open your own restaurant under your own name?
No, I don’t have any plans to do that at the moment.
I say set up your own place, but this is like your own place even though it has Gordon’s name on it, isn’t it?
Yeah, I’ve invested so much of myself in this and the team, and none of this happens in five minutes. It has taken many, many years and this restaurant itself has been on a huge journey over 15 years to get to the level where it is to have regular guests. The way we are and the set-up that we’ve got, it’s very easy to say about walking away or opening another place, but it would take a similar length of time to get there again. So I’m very happy with what we’ve got and we certainly have more and more plans for the future here as it continues to progress.