A s the first and only female chef in Britain to be awarded three Michelin stars, Clare Smyth is undoubtedly one of the country's brightest of gastronomic talents. Her Notting Hill restaurant, Core, is renowned for its championing of British produce and refined but inclusive atmosphere. As a former protégé of Gordon Ramsey and having trained under Alain Ducasse in Monaco, Smyth has impeccable credentials and three years after opening Core, it was awarded Michelin's highest honour.
Now the story of Core has been captured in her debut book published by Phaidon as part of its seminal chef monograph series. Weaving together essays and stories exploring Clare's journey and the philosphy of Core with stunning imagery and recipes for the restaurant's signature dishes, it is a celebration of culinary artistry and creativity.
In between busy services at Core, Sotheby’s caught up with Clare to hear about the book, British fine dining in 2022 and her "informal luxury" ethos.
What is the concept of the book and how did it all come together?
It’s a book which captures the first three years at Core, all of the dishes we created which really founded the restaurant and the ethos of the restaurant. So they are dishes that are very complex but it’s a true representation of the restaurant: they’re the real recipes. Although people at home may or may not try to attempt all the dishes, there are lots of recipes at the back of the book which are very useful, be it a sauce, a dressing, a puree – lots of very useful techniques. I always think it’s not a case of looking at a book and thinking ‘I’m going to recreate that dish’ but rather picking elements of it that are really useful. And there are some simple things in there like chocolate tarts.
How did you select which dishes to include?
We included pretty much our most popular dishes – the classics. Some of the dishes aren’t on the menu anymore and we’ve already moved on but we wanted to document the period of time on our journey. I’d love to do another book in a few years to see where we are then.
How would you describe your ethos when it comes to cooking and dining?
We pretty much stick with British produce, British influences and culture. That’s important to me as a British chef. I wanted something that was real and authentic to me. Although I have worked in France and classical French restaurants, I’m British and I feel I should be using my own producers and pushing forward British gastronomy rather than jumping on the back of trends of Mexican food or Japanese food.
How would you describe what British fine dining means in 2022?
It’s a little bit tongue in cheek, some of it – little nods to our own culture. But it is a great food scene that we have now. We have so many people producing really high quality produce. So previously, we would have been buying from France; now we have growers and producers in Britain and that’s getting better all the time. British fine dining is evolving with some really great British chefs. Simon Rogan is another chef that is very dedicated to British produce and gastronomy and using what’s around us rather than someone else’s food or importing things.
Core’s style is defined as “informal luxury”. What do you mean by that?
In Britain, we kind of had a movement away from fine dining a while ago. It was almost a dirty word – ‘there’s no future in fine dining’. We would see a lot of that from journalists. But I am incredibly passionate about the artform and what we do, and I trained to do that my whole life. So for me, it’s definitely not over. But there was maybe a hanging around of pretentiousness, or the view that fine dining restaurants were pretentious. We just wanted to take all that away. What is the future of British gastronomy? It really is luxury, absolutely, but the guests shouldn’t have to feel they have to be formal. We have to be formal – that’s our job. But the guests don’t have to worry about what they wear, how to pronounce things. It’s approachable for everyone.
How did you go about designing the dining room environment for Core?
First of all, I wanted it to feel like home, like a home of gastronomy. Something that was mine, from my heart. So that when people came in, it wasn’t glitz and gold that had no personality because there are restaurants like that all over the world. It just depends how much money you have and it doesn’t necessarily have any authenticity or character. I really wanted Core to feel like the home of a chef. It’s got a lot of my own things that I’ve collected over the years – a lot of the historical books on the shelves that make it feel like a dining room in someone’s contemporary house.
Pretty much everything is made in Britain. I went on the search for companies that would make my own designs for plates – Royal Crown Derby that has been making fine bone china in Britain for 300 years. And these arts are almost extinct, almost gone. The potteries district now has got huge unemployment and it’s such a shame because we were so strong in that. The silverware comes from Carr’s, a family business based in Sheffield. People that work with their hands the same way that we do – I really love that. It’s kind of endless what you can create. And then with the furniture makers, we designed our own tables which were covered in a marine grade leather so it won’t get destroyed. I wanted to remove the heaviness of tablecloths and also be a bit more sustainable than just laundering all the time.
How did you choose the art displayed at Core?
Again, it was about working with British artists. I wanted that natural feel. We’ve got Marc Quinn’s thumbprints in there and Bridget Riley because she’s a neighbour – she lives in Holland Park. And Ewan David Eason has made us a few pieces as well. Those fractural patterns and the things that you find on the streets of London or in nature and the beauty of that – I just love that natural feel to his work. It gives us a sense of place of where we are, so that people can travel from all over the world and they know that when they come to Core, it is a truly British restaurant.
What is your own relationship with art? Is it something that has given you pleasure through your life?
Very much so. I do buy art and collect it. I am a big Bridget Riley fan. British artists that I have at home are Damien Hirst, and things like that. But I do love pop art. It’s a sense of the time that we live in – an expression of the time that we live in – and we only live here once. Particularly with Marc Quinn and the thumbprints that we have in the restaurant – that sense of identity. Those are things that we should really treasure: that every human being is unique. Those are just incredible works that I really admire.
The book isn’t just the story of the restaurant; it’s also your story of working your way up the ladder. How did it feel when you learned that you had been granted three Michelin stars?
It was brilliant to get there, for sure. Of course it still feels great but there is the maintaining, the moving on. It’s got to continuously evolve. It can’t ever stand still. It’s a question of always digging deep and always moving forward. So having three Michelin stars is never the end goal. It’s never ending. That focus has got to be there all the time to maintain them. And it’s not good enough to just maintain; you’ve got to evolve.
You’re the first and only woman in Britain to have three Michelin stars. How does that feel?
It’s a strange one. I’ve been working at the level for so long but there’s very few British chefs that have ever won three stars. You can count them on one hand. So I think just being British, doing it for Britain and as a woman – of course it’s nice. There are only seven women in the world that have three Michelin stars.
I also wanted to do it for people in hospitality. To own your business and to win three Michelin stars, to me, was the ultimate. It’s people being in control of their own destiny which is something that I think is really powerful. I’d love to see more and more people in hospitality running their own businesses and achieving great success.
What does it take to run a three-star Michelin kitchen? What are the values that you look for most in your team?
It takes an incredible work ethic, dedication, focus. You have to be obsessive about detail and you’re always going to be extremely dedicated to what you’re doing. People talk about passion and yes, it’s ok but as Thomas Keller, one of my idols, said ‘passion comes and goes’. You’ve got to always maintain that standard. Passion is one thing but that might not be enough to make you successful at it. Because you’re passionate with the first asparagus of the season but by the end of it, you’re sick of the sight of it.
If you had to pick one dish from the book that epitomises your cooking, what would it be?
It has to be Potato and Roe. We’re very vegetable forward. A potato is probably one of the most humble ingredients and it’s the most popular dish. I think that it is actually achievable at home. If you get the ingredients, it is doable. Even if you aren’t able to execute it as well, it will still taste delicious.
Main image: Core. The Three-Star Kitchen. Photography: Nathan Snoddon