For many years, an asparagus concept has sat at the back of Clare Smyth’s mind, unrealised. Why do we chop and slice the spear and mash it up into tarts and frittatas? Why sacrifice its noble shape? Why not make the tart come to the asparagus, and fit around the long shaft with a delicate pastry cylinder? How could you possibly make such a tart?
It is not clear why 2022 became the year Smyth should start bringing her imaginary dish into being: perhaps it was the sight of a pair of Victorian asparagus tongs (the Victorians knew how to do asparagus right) at the Portobello Road antiques market, not far from her west London restaurant, Core. It is at Core that Smyth has made her reputation as one of the world’s most illuminated chefs, becoming the first (and only) British woman to win three Michelin stars. But we will have to wait some time for her tart, because she has commissioned a master silversmith to make the mould for the pastry, and it won’t be ready till next season.
“We’re actually creating a whole silver service of asparagus,” she says, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Smyth, who specialises in British haute cuisine, creating dishes of dazzling complexity, won’t be importing her veg: she only uses British produce. But asparagus takes time, because you have to keep resting the soil.
Where does it come from, this impulse to do the most difficult possible thing with food? “It’s getting the purest expression of something,” she says. “To make the ingredient the best that it can possibly be. I don’t think anything ever really beats nature, you know?”
Smyth sits at one of her tables in the frosted windows of Core. It took some persuading to get her out of her chef’s whites for the photos. Her answers have a certain momentum, even when describing the strangest things: she is obliging, matter-of-fact, but seems to have a desire to be elsewhere, like an athlete interviewed at the edge of the track before a race. The spotless steel of the open-plan kitchen is her arena: as soon as she’s in it, she’s smiling, busy, irreverent.
For now, she must talk about her new book, which details the dishes she creates as the World’s Best Female Chef (a somewhat controversial accolade Smyth won in 2018). It is an art book, really, published by Phaidon, full of creations that look like living things: chicken wings sprouting thyme, housed under small glass domes like bonsai trees; dessert wine gelatined into “wine gums” and resting on a grape vine; carrot cake, an actual carrot with a smattering of cake sprinkled on top. It includes recipes no reasonable human being could make: “Roast the eel bones in the oven… store in a sous vide bag… strain through a chinois… store in a spray bottle.” Yet her ideas are informed by comfort food. There is a hot dog, albeit made from the “ultimate pig” in Wales. There are beans on toast, albeit with pearlescent cocoa beans and shaved black truffle. Her signature dish is a single potato.
She prepares it for me later, simmering beurre blanc in a miniature chrome pan. The small waxy Charlotte spud – delivered by an anonymous supplier, who drops the potatoes off at 1am – is loaded up with herring roe and sorrel flowers, and topped with tiny salt and vinegar crisps: it looks like a little boat. The beurre blanc is infused with dulse, a seaweed Smyth used to eat as a child in rural Northern Ireland. When you take a bite of the dish, several tastes from the ocean – four or five different degrees of saline pungency – burst in your mouth. This dish is her, Smyth explains: she is the potato.
Has she ever thought that a potato is lucky to have made its way into her kitchen, to be sold as part of a tasting menu that costs £185? She smiles. A commis chef slides in and cleans the floor where we are standing.
Gordon Ramsay took on Smyth at 24: she is now 43 and he still calls her. He recently told her to stop riding her scooter to the restaurant from her home in Wimbledon, where she lives with her husband. “He said, ‘You own your own restaurant – you know you can’t do that, because financially, you can’t have an accident. What’s going to happen?’” she says. “It’s normally a telling-off, on the phone, going, ‘Have you done this? You need to do that.’ Anything to do with the landlord, rent, you know…”
Ramsay recently called Smyth “the Margaret Thatcher of cooking”, a reference to her iron will. It’s true, she says, that her staff’s routine is military. There are 22 chefs in all, ranging from the most junior demi chef de partie to Smyth’s two sous chefs. When I arrived at Core, they were already outside, buzzing about, wearing tight black T-shirts and waiting for someone to unlock the door. I sat across the road and watched out for crafty cigarettes and last-minute phone scrolling. Instead, one chef jumped up like a slam-dunker and polished the restaurant’s sign with a single sweep, while another dead-headed flowers in a window box.
“You fall into the brigade of the cuisine,” Smyth explains. “It’s not a bad thing, I think – everyone’s shoes have to be polished, black socks, you have to be clean-shaven.” It was comforting for her, she points out, to have that structure at 16, in England, where she hardly knew anyone. Her employees have training sessions every day before the service: if, say, the theme is tomatoes, one of them will go away and research the varieties, the growers, and present their findings to the group using Microsoft PowerPoint. It teaches them to project, she says, preparing them for the nightly task of presenting dishes to the public.
The restaurant is temperate and dim, and the chairs are upholstered in soft, white leather. Core has fed Ed Sheeran and Adele, the Beckhams, and “Meghan and Harry, when they’re around” (Smyth did the food for their wedding). But there is no dress code, and you’re allowed to mop your plate with a piece of bread. Sometimes people even ask for tap water.
The whole place has been designed to her taste: lots of chrome, and all her favourite books on the shelves, including Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, the 1903 encyclopaedia of classic dishes created by a Frenchman working at the Savoy. (She read it at 15, twice: “I was a bit obsessed by it, like people are with football.”) There is hand sanitiser in what look like repurposed bottles of Chanel No 5. There are plates made by a 300-year-old British porcelain factory, just one part of Smyth’s empire that will appeal to any fans of Brexit. At the heart of her struggle – it was the same for the young Delia Smith – is an enormous admiration for French food combined with a distaste for our country’s historical worship of it, which all began, Smyth says, with the Industrial Revolution, when the Prince of Wales hired Marie- Antoine Carême to make his Béchamel sauce. Now, of course, it is far harder for young Europeans to work here.
“Why was I cooking French food?” she asks. “And why am I buying French plates? Why am I buying anything that’s not part of something I should really identify with? Shouldn’t I look at what’s around me? Britain produced the best fine-bone china in the world: it was the backbone of the British economy. And you go up to the Potteries district and there’s loads of unemployment. Why aren’t we keeping the skills, the jobs, within Britain? That was something I wanted to invest in heavily. And can I buy a more beautiful plate from France? Yeah, I can – but what’s it really about?”
[See also: How the Wolseley lost the battle for its soul]
After working with Ramsay, Smyth trained with the French chef Alain Ducasse at the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco. When Ducasse came to try out his protégée’s new restaurant in London in 2017, he pulled her up on the fact that she didn’t have any sauce spoons at the table. This seems like an unnecessary dig (she couldn’t afford them at the time), but she says it was good for her. If Smyth gets a bad review, “I won’t really sleep, and I’ll get very hung up on it, and sometimes it can take a weekend to work it out. But I have to be by myself. I don’t want to speak to anyone. I’ll be moody, but it’s the fuel that drives me to be better.”
As a child, she and her brother and sister competed at sports and horse riding; the message from her father was that everything they did had to be the best. Her parents never visited her restaurant – her mother died not long ago, and her father still hasn’t been. During the pandemic she sent him care packages, including Fortnum & Mason pies.
Did Ramsay feel like a father figure? “No. He was a boss – and bosses are bosses, you’re scared of them,” she says. But that kitchen culture is gone, she insists: “And while that was the norm then, it wasn’t me, anyway; it wasn’t my personality. I like really calm and quiet. It’s the way people expected top-end kitchens to be – but I don’t think there are any kitchens that behave like that any more.”
Smyth would appear to be trying to right the wrongs of the restaurant industry from within: the high turnover of staff, the lack of female chefs and, above all, the culture of culinary terror and shouting in which she learned. Perhaps Ramsay helped things along himself by turning kitchen aggression into a caricature on TV. Smyth points out that footballers, like chefs, have also calmed down in recent years.
“We’ve got to get the most out of our team – they’re like athletes, you know? We think about what we feed them, for their concentration levels and service, so we don’t want big, heavy meals and then them feeling tired. Youngsters will run off and not eat. They’ll go to the shop in their break and drink a can of Red Bull and have a Snickers.” Her own staff, meanwhile, serve each other coq au vin.
At the door to the kitchen they are hovering, wanting to get on with the service, their black shoes visible on the threshold. “They are like robots,” she says. “Their only focus is to get their jobs done. You can’t stop the machine. The guy who does the food for Wembley Arena asked me the other day, ‘How do you get them like this?’” She looks slightly apologetic.
Smyth’s micro-management extends to the people who eat her food. Every diner who comes to Core is recorded: not just their names and numbers, but everything they ever ate and drank on her turf – including the guest, as she shows me on her iPad spreadsheet, who has been 137 times since she opened.
Why does she do this? “Because you want to know, say, if they like still or sparkling water with their meal,” she explains. “So they don’t have to order it – it just arrives at their side. You want to know what they like to eat, what flavours they prefer…”
Her own tongue, Smyth explains, is a flavour bank. Every time she has ever eaten something, she sees herself as consciously registering the memory of a taste, to be returned to later, to create new recipes. “The flavour bank builds up in your head, and when you know that a dish needs balancing, you think: it could take a bit of this, or a bit of that. I’m looking for a really savoury flavour, I’m looking for something bitter. I know automatically where to go with it, and what to do with it.”
Can she remember a taste from years ago? “Yes. It could be tiny, it could be a little dot of purée or a sauce or something – but it can have such an impact.”
The key to being a good chef, she says, is greed. “So you’ve cooked a roast. And you might have one end that’s darker than the other. There’s a Maillard reaction there,” she says, referring to the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that occurs when meat is browned. “What does it taste like at that end? And the other end? You’re picking little bits and pieces: is that too bitter? Is that not enough? You’ve got to be curious. You dip into all the juices: is that salty? Can I use that in something?”
In March 2020 Smyth noticed she couldn’t taste anything at all. At the time, this was not a recorded symptom of Covid. For a chef to suddenly lose her taste must have been terrifying, like a pianist losing the use of their hands. But Smyth says only that it was “a bit strange”. In fact, she probably learned something from it.
In the lobby her Polish front-of-house manager, who followed her to Core from the Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, tells me that lockdown was busy: there were compulsory Zoom meetings every day for the many months in which the restaurant was closed, and endless rebookings. He still seems a bit shell-shocked. Unable to rest – she does not like to rest – Smyth ran “Core at Home”, making up parcels of her fine ingredients, complete with her other-worldly instructions (“pre-heat the dehydrator to 75°C… place the smoking chips in tray and set them on fire with a blowtorch”) and sending them out across the globe in the world’s most demanding delivery service; £175 was a lot to pay to cook your own dinner, even if that dinner included caviar gougère and Tasmanian mountain pepper. Do people actually make her stuff? “Some of our guests do cook the things,” she says. “And that really surprises me.”
“Core” by Clare Smyth with Kieran Morris is published by Phaidon
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson