Haute, and Humble

·8 min read

Every scallop has a story and chef Clare Smyth and her food-obsessed team at Core are ready to recount it. Her team talks to the divers daily and for every scallop that’s served, they know its sex, age (they count the rings, like a tree), its diet over the years and whether it lived on a sandy or a rocky bed.

Asparagus, too, is a source of fascination for Smyth, the first and only British female chef to hold three Michelin stars in the U.K. and the owner of Core in London’s Notting Hill and Oncore in Sydney. She’s commissioned local silversmiths to help her recreate the Victorian way of eating asparagus, with a serving vessel and little tweezers that fit onto the fingers.

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“It’s about trying to celebrate the purity of amazing asparagus,” says Smyth, who wants her guests to slip on their silver tweezers and dip those perfectly cooked little stalks into a sauce she’s still in the process of developing. It won’t be a complicated one, though, because Smyth believes in letting her raw ingredients sing.

“If you’ve got a great grower, then you can do more with a vegetable by just letting it be and cooking it perfectly,” she says.

Smyth, whose two restaurants are oversubscribed and whose takeaway meals during COVID-19 were a hit with the high-net-worth set, is to cooking what Coco Chanel was to fashion. She’s a maverick, stripping away the extraneous details and celebrating pure design, the basics — and the great outdoors.

The morel tart at Core. - Credit: Courtesy Image
The morel tart at Core. - Credit: Courtesy Image

Courtesy Image

Take her approach to brown crab, which she sources from Portland in Dorset. She and the head chef at Core used to “process” it — cook, pick and refrigerate it and later use it for various dishes.

But then they finally came to their senses.

One day they cooked the crab, cracked the claws and decided they wanted to eat “the sweet, beautiful flesh. We thought to ourselves, ‘Why aren’t we just serving that?’ It doesn’t get any better than that moment,” says Smyth, who put it straight on the menu and serves it with a light eggy sauce, consommé and caviar to add salty zing.

At Core, nearly everything is sourced from the U.K., right down to the cutlery and furniture. The only exceptions are wine, lemons, sugar and olive oil, although Smyth says she doesn’t use much of the latter “because it’s not British and not on in our style of cooking.”

She takes the same approach at Oncore, where her team is serving Australian wagyu beef, Sydney rock oysters and Malfroy’s Gold wild honey from the Blue Mountains. She gushes about the producers in Australia and their sustainable, regenerative farming techniques. “I love working with those sorts of people who are so passionate and who are farming in the right way.”

One of Smyth’s signature dishes, potato and roe. - Credit: Courtesy image
One of Smyth’s signature dishes, potato and roe. - Credit: Courtesy image

Courtesy image

Smyth develops each of her menus with the same thought in mind: She may have three Michelin stars, but she’s not the star of the show. She’s also part of a wider group of creatives in luxury businesses who are championing local sourcing, production and artisanal techniques and seeking more ethical ways of doing business.

Among her most famous dishes is Potato and roe, a baked potato with dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe. Then there is Lobster and spelt, with the grain sourced from Mulberry founder Roger Saul’s farm in Somerset, and Crispy veal sweetbread with honey, mustard and Norfolk kohlrabi. Desserts include a Yorkshire rhubarb pain perdu, with hay, vanilla and pink peppercorn.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry tapped Smyth to cater their wedding reception in 2018 and they’re among her many high-profile admirers. In addition to the Michelin stars, which she gained last year, she’s won myriad industry awards and caught the eye of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, becoming a “friend” of the watch brand Hublot.

Hublot says it likes the idea of Smyth’s baked potato because it takes a “humble staple of British produce to the pinnacle” of haute cuisine.

“As chefs, we create great things but you’re only ever as good as your product and, to be honest, we’re just doing the last bit. These guys are farming with incredible passion and generations of experience of how to care for the land and the animals. As chefs we’ve got to respect that. We need to look after them so they can continue doing their job,” Smyth says.

Beef and oyster at Core. - Credit: Courtesy image
Beef and oyster at Core. - Credit: Courtesy image

Courtesy image

And to think she trained under Gordon Ramsay, who built a career on delicious food but also on his macho swagger, expletives and big mouth.

She loved working with Ramsay, saying it was an “incredible” experience. “He’s a great character, full of energy and ideas and always upbeat. And obviously very, very demanding. But I found that quite easy because you always knew where you stood with Gordon. There was a standard to meet, and we wanted to be the best. He was very supportive of me during my whole career and he still is,” she says.

Smyth says being a woman in a predominantly male world did not weigh on her during all those years of training.

“Kitchens just really weren’t pleasant places — it really didn’t have to do with gender. A kitchen just doesn’t make for a balanced workplace, but gender never had a part in it. It was tough, but I rose to that and wanted to work for the best people and learn the most that I could. Now it is different, and there are a lot more women. It’s a much more pleasant working environment and more balanced. People are treated as humans, which is nice.”

She makes sure her own staff eats balanced, “highly nutritious” meals, and there is fruit on offer all day.

“I don’t believe we can perform at a very top level if we don’t fuel ourselves in the right way,” says Smyth, who earlier in the day had a lunch of salmon, boiled eggs and quinoa to keep her motor running. On the weekends, she and her husband eat out and some of her favorite restaurants include A.Wong, the Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in Pimlico; Scott’s in Mayfair, and Bentley’s (also in Mayfair) for oysters and Champagne.

Smyth grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland, peeling potatoes and pitching in with chores, one reason why she’s so in tune with her suppliers, the land and the origin of the food she serves. Her father was a farmer and her mother was a waitress at a local restaurant. A temporary holiday job working in a restaurant kitchen as a teenager ignited her love for cooking and she would go on to study catering and work at restaurants in the U.K. and Australia.

She joined Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant in 2002 and by 2007 had risen to become head chef there. She would later work at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monaco (and with Ramsay once again) before opening Core in 2017.

The interior of Core in London.
The interior of Core in London.

Smyth is not stopping at two restaurants. She plans to open a third in the next six months, although the location isn’t confirmed. She’d also like to expand the business and give her staff opportunities, too. “I need to grow with the team. They’ve stayed with me for so long and unless we expand, they’ll go elsewhere. Organic growth needs to happen to keep a healthy business,” she says.

Smyth also has a cookbook coming out this summer, although it’s more for sophisticated home chefs than amateurs. The recipes, she admits, are “very complicated” and she describes the book as a record of her first years at Core.

She’s certainly not short of acolytes on the slopes of Notting Hill and other high net worth pockets of London.

During lockdown, in a bid to keep her own business afloat and people on staff, Smyth and the Core team cooked meals for local charities and schools and started a delivery service called Core at Home.

Cornish sea bass at Core in London.
Cornish sea bass at Core in London.

For a minimum spend of 350 pounds for two, guests could scan a QR code and listen to “virtual waiters” describing the various dishes, which would then be delivered by Core staff in uniform, complete with a playlist, flowers and videos showing guests how to put it all together.

“I wanted to create something as close to what we did in the restaurant,” says Smyth, who added tweezers, temperature probes, truffle shavers and other kitchen gadgets to the order. Core offered wine pairing, too, and Smyth says “it was just insane” how popular the service was.

She was happy to keep customers and staff connected during those dark, stressful days. “People enjoyed it, and it was really special for us to turn up at their front door with the package and say ‘hello.’”

Core booked hundreds of orders during those lockdown weekends, and Smyth says her at-home guests even started sending her videos of themselves arranging the meal in their kitchens. And when lockdown lifted, they returned in force to hear tales of scallops — and of rags-to-riches baked potatoes.

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