FT Foodies: Clare Smyth

Originally from County Antrim, in Northern Ireland, Smyth became the first woman in the UK to run a three-Michelin-starred restaurant when she became head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, in 2007. She has previously worked with other world-class chefs, including Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse.

What is your earliest memory of food?

I grew up in a farm, so everything I ate was based on my family’s produce. We used to take fresh milk, unpasteurised, from a tank and put it in a big jug with the cream on top. And we would drink that every lunch and dinner. And the animals … we’d have the whole carcass butchered. I remember my mother cooking up all kinds of joints and organs.

Do you remember the first thing you cooked?

My aunt was a potato farmer, and her main dish was a plain, boiled potato with the skin on. When you cook a potato like that, the skin cracks and they say the potato is smiling at you. It sounds very uninteresting, but in Ireland everyone makes a big deal about it. That’s what I cooked first.

What was your big break?

I left home when I was 16, because I wanted to be a chef in England. That was quite crazy, looking back, but I was so headstrong. I got an apprenticeship and started working at a place called Grayshott Hall in Surrey, and I went to college one day a week. My family was a bit scared about it all – they tried to get me to come home.

Are female chefs better managers than men in the kitchen?

Not necessarily. But I do think that when you put a couple of girls in the kitchen, it’s a really good thing: it breaks up the ego and makes things less competitive. That said, the guys who work under me are already quite feminine – we always have a good laugh about it. A little while ago, we held a Saturday masterclass, and afterwards a couple of my big, male sous chefs and I sat around in the kitchen looking at shoes on my iPad. Well, they were Gucci …

What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?

I remember eating at The French Laundry, in California. I was working for the chef there, Thomas Keller, and he sat me down in his office and personally cooked me some of his classics like oysters and pearls, truffled egg, foie gras. I was very young, maybe 24, and had come all the way from England. I’ll never forget that hospitality. And I ate something like 20 courses!

What do you do when you’re not cooking?

I eat out. Everything in my life revolves around the restaurant industry and food. Often, I go to two restaurants in one night, and somewhere else for cocktails. London is great for just bopping around. I’m very spoiled.

Is the customer always right?

Yes. If they’ve got what makes them happy, then I’ve done my job.


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