Q&A: Clare Smyth on her first solo restaurant Core and celebrating British producers
After heading up the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, hopes for Clare Smyth's first solo venture are high. We get the lowdown
Clare Smyth has been, without doubt, one of the most influential chefs in London over the past decade. She has worked in international kitchens under Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, and she also happens to be the first and only woman ever to run a restaurant with three Michelin stars.
The opening of her first solo restaurant, Core by Clare Smyth, has been a long journey, but having opened its doors in August, Smyth is now up and running, ready to do things her way; from supporting and working with the best British suppliers to creating her own playlist. For one of the country's most acclaimed chefs, it's time to go it alone, and she's setting her sights extremely high.
Tell us about Core and the new menu
It's actually a very simple menu. It's 12 courses and everything is produced or grown locally. As a chef I have a responsibility towards sustainability and working with the seasons, but it's more than that. I want to use the best British suppliers, not just ingredients, but support British craftsmanship too.
The furniture, plates, silverware, art, candles, and even the products that we use to clean the floor with, are all British. This is something that's very important to me. I want Core to be proudly British, but it's about having fun as well. It's fine dining but without any of the pretentiousness.
And what about the bar?
The bar is great. It's very much an open-door policy. We have a small snack menu with the likes of jellied eel and smoked duck wing. We also serve an all-British ingredient negroni which we call Blake's Negroni after Charles Henry Blake (1794-1872) who was a trader and property developer and donated the site for 92 Kensington Park Road (formerly Edwardian town houses) as well as St Peter's Church, which is next door.
Working with the best of British sounds like good preparation for Brexit…
No one knows what's going to happen with Brexit, although I'm sure it'll greatly affect the hospitality industry. For me, it's about using the best produce and knowing where it comes from. Our chickens are from a free-range poultry farm (St Bride's) and we use Colchester crabs. Scallops are from The Ethical Shellfish Company on the Isle of Mull and the grouse is also Scottish. Our potatoes come from Sussex (Hayselden Potatoes). The flour is from Wessex Mill. All of the flowers and floristry is by Lizzie Powell at Early Hours. And the lamb, skate, oysters, squid, eels, pears, cabbage, carrots are all from within the UK. Jonny (Jonny Bone, Core's head chef) and I visited the producers and we know them all personally; they're part of the Core family. I'm a big believer in looking after your own community and supporting one another. It's not about being smart or gimmicky. I want to use the best ingredients and know exactly where they come from.
You're known for Michelin-starred cooking, but the Core website describes the restaurant as "informal dining". What can guests expect?
Core is a relaxed environment. Visiting a restaurant should be a fun experience. A lot of our guests visit for a night out, they want to eat and drink and laugh. There's no dress code and we don't have white tablecloths, but there is a small footstool for people to rest their bags on. We're in Notting Hill after all, and if someone has spent £1,000 on a handbag then they don't want to put it on the floor. And the music is all my choosing. So it's Dolly Parton, Dusty Springfield, Michael Jackson, U2 and The Rolling Stones. I guess it's not to everyone's taste, but a lot of guests have said how much they like the music.
Core – in pictures
Are you trying for another three stars?
I'd be lying if I said no. I know what it is to have and keep three stars and it's a lot of work and a huge amount of pressure. What I really want is a clean and celebratory menu, a menu with a message. I want to source and celebrate Britishness. It's not a trend thing, there's no fusion cooking or throwing something on the menu because it's what's expected. Chicken skin with clams and caviar is probably the most cheffy-thing on the menu, but it remains all locally sourced. I was influenced by French cooking – everyone working in fine dining is but that doesn't mean I'm going to import ingredients. The French created fine dining and for them it's a cultural thing. Food is thought of differently in the UK, but we're starting to recognise how important it is and celebrate our heritage.
Give us an example of something celebratory and British on the menu
My family are potato farmers in Northern Ireland. I grew up eating potatoes and would scavenge for dulse along the coast. I always eat a potato before service, plain with a little salt and pepper. It's sort of a ritual. The Charlotte potato on the menu is served with dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe. It's a beautiful dish. The humble potato has centre stage. It's more than a side dish or accompaniment. I don't think you need to use posh ingredients for the sake of it. I think it's about perspective. A single potato or carrot is just as valuable as a scallop. The lamb-braised carrot is another example.
Why so serious?
When she's not in the kitchen at Core by Clare Smyth, the chef is also an ambassador for appliance brand KitchenAid's Serious About Food campaign, alongside such luminaries as Grant Pierrus, Edd Kimber, and Denmark's Henrik Jyrk. The collective is made up of chefs, experts and innovators who sum up KitchenAid's attitude to food and lifestyle.
Find out more and see recipes, trends and articles at kitchenaid.co.uk/serious-about-food
What lessons have you learnt from running your own restaurant?
I put my own money into this restaurant. It's not backed by an oligarch or Richard Caring. Everything's on the line. I employ 35 people. That's a great feeling, but it's also constant pressure. My reputation has helped me get to where I am, but that doesn't mean much now. The planning, the layout, the business plan was all designed by me. I actually didn't have anyone else working on the project until three months before opening. I have to make it work; for me, for them, for the producers and suppliers I now employ. Core is about the people, all of the people. It stands for new beginnings, with strong ties to nature.
Core by Clare Smyth, 92 Kensington Park Road, W11 2PN; corebyclaresmyth.com