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The secret recipe for success

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin10/4/2022 05:09 PM GMT+08  • 11 min read
The secret recipe for success
Friend of Hublot, three Michelin-starred chef Clare Smyth draws similarities between fine dining and luxury watchmaking
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When cooking in a Michelin-starred restaurant, timing is everything, right down to the second. British chef Clare Smyth likens her dinner service to a Formula One race, where multiple things are happening, and everyone on duty — both front and back of the house — is constantly monitoring the clock.

Hanging in the centre of the open kitchen at her three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Core by Clare Smyth, is a Hublot Classic Fusion wall clock — a gift bestowed to her when she became a friend of the brand last year. This clock has become the pulse and heartbeat of the restaurant ever since.

“When working in fine dining, it’s all about precision. Timing is everything. It’s down to the second. Everything is measured, weighed, written down and counted down. It only takes a few seconds before something is overcooked or undercooked. Every single ingredient takes a certain amount of time to cook, plus you’re also talking to a team of about 18 chefs that are also counting down time. With service running so quickly, it's essential that everyone stays on track to make it all come together,” she emphasises.

This is the kind of standard that Smyth has become known for and expects from her team. This level of perfection is why her flagship restaurant, Core — which she opened in London's Notting Hill in August 2017 — is the first restaurant to enter The Good Food Guide with a perfect 10 score. Not only was Smyth named World’s Best Female Chef Award by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018, she walked away with not one but two Michelin stars in its first year of eligibility.

Last year, she received her third Michelin star, making her the first and only British woman to achieve this honour. “It was fantastic that we achieved it, even though it was a difficult time, as we were going through a pandemic. It has been in the making for 15 years of my career. When we opened Core, we had a lot of things, experience and knowledge. I had an excellent team with me. They knew what they were doing,” she says.

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Groomed for success

Smyth, a culinary graduate of Highbury College in the UK, was offered a position at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2002. She became part of the team that turned the restaurant into a three-Michelin-starred dining destination. For a brief time, she also worked in Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV restaurant in Monaco before returning to the UK to run Ramsay’s Chelsea-based restaurant.

“I wanted to learn from the best to give myself the best opportunity to be successful. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay was the only three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK then, and I was the first woman in the UK to do that. It was quite a high-pressure job, and I was only 28 years old,” recalls the 44-year-old.

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She was then named The Good Food Guide's National Chef of the Year in 2013 and appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) that same year for services to the hospitality industry. She has been honoured to cook for some prestigious guests and events, including the wedding reception of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018.

“It was a real privilege and honour to cook at the royal wedding. There was a lot of pressure to make sure we were on time. Everything had to run like clockwork. You can imagine the amount of security we had to go through, plus we were in the middle of winter. It was like a stealth mission to get the whole team in and out without the public noticing because it was a private reception,” she adds.

One of her more memorable catering events was last year at the Global Investment Summit at London’s Science Museum, chaired by former UK prime minister Boris Johnson and attended by business leaders like entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates. “That was quite daunting because the PM asked me to do a welcome speech and introduce the meal to everyone.”

The Core of it all

Smyth parted ways with Ramsay in 2016 and was ready to open her first solo restaurant, Core by Clare Smyth, in 2017, which would reinvent British produce and deliver a new world experience in an informal but luxurious space.

“Although I managed someone else's restaurant for most of my career, running my restaurant presents different challenges. But there's a lot of enjoyment in it as well. You learn to be nimble and move quickly when unexpected things happen. It's great when it works,” she says.

One of the UK’s brightest gastronomic talents, Smyth grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland — raised by her farmer father and waitress mother with her two older siblings — and understood the value and provenance of farm-fresh produce. Core emphasises relaxed dining with natural, sustainable food sourced from the UK’s most dedicated farmers and food producers.

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She continues: “I grew up on a farm and always had great respect for produce and to use it in the best way. We must be more conscious of it, especially concerning produce and waste. That’s why I like to be close to the suppliers and producers to understand how they produce the food and ensure they have good farming practices.”

“The food I create is very much about my culture, where I've grown up, the things I love to eat, and my culinary journey. I've worked in many French kitchens, but I am British, and I feel I should be using my producers and pushing forward British gastronomy.”

Smyth is known for her ability to transform the finest and most humble local ingredients into globally acclaimed cuisine, like her famous “Potato and Roe” dish, cooked low and slow in kombu butter, then topped with herring and trout roe and tiny fermented potato chips planted among baby shoots of sorrel, chives and rocket.

“People thought I was crazy because no one's going to serve a potato in a fine dining restaurant, but it worked. It’s a popular dish because it is beautiful, and there's something nostalgic and comforting about potatoes. It may look quite simple, but it takes about two days to prepare,” she continues.

“Very often, the dishes that use more humble ingredients are much more technical and take a lot more time to prepare because they are going in a brand-new direction. We know it will be luxurious and amazing if you cook lobster or a piece of beef. But when you're cooking with an onion or a potato, it will take a lot more skill and creativity to create a dish worthy of three Michelin stars.”

Smyth recently published her first cookbook, Core, featuring over 200 recipes for anyone interested in recreating some of her award-winning dishes. “We crammed the first three years’ worth of recipes into the cookbook just to ensure we won’t forget them,” she jokes.

“I have no secret recipe. They're all the actual recipes from the restaurant. Some of them are quite challenging to recreate, but you can easily make a sauce, a dressing or a puree — lots of very useful techniques.”

Venturing Down Under

Last year was a great one for Smyth, despite being smack in the middle of a pandemic. Not only did she bag her third Michelin star for Core, but she also opened her second restaurant, Oncore by Clare Smyth, at the Crown Sydney in Australia.

“I have been to the Crown in Melbourne several times and knew some of the Crown people that worked in hospitality. They came to London and dined at Core, and a conversation started about the potential of opening this restaurant. It was such an incredible opportunity that I couldn't say no,” she admits.

Overlooking the breathtaking skyline of Sydney Harbour from 26 floors up, Smyth gushes that this could be one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world with the best views. When she is in town, she likes to jog around the Crown, down to the harbour, the botanic gardens and back.

How different are Core and Oncore? “They’re very similar. We are sister restaurants with the same ethos and standards, but I love that we’re on the other side of the world and in opposite seasons. We're in the middle of summer in the UK, but it’s autumn in Australia, and I’m here now using truffles that I dug up myself. It’s fantastic that we can roll from one season into the next and complement each other,” she says.

A vast country rich in biodiversity, Australia has more plant and wildlife species than the entire UK, says Smyth. She likes to spend her time on-ground getting to know the local farmers and their produce. Some ingredients she is impressed with are the wild honey from the Blue Mountains; Blackmore wagyu from Melbourne; and local potatoes that taste just like the ones back home.

With all the numerous accolades Smyth has bagged for Core, is there any pressure for Oncore to follow in its sister’s footsteps? Smyth says that her priority now is to spend more time getting to know the suppliers, developing the menu, grooming the team and evolving the restaurant to a standard that will impress gourmands.

“Being on the other side of the world is difficult, but we're very well connected. I'm in no hurry to do things because what’s important to me is the quality over quantity and just enjoying the process.”

Joining the Hublot family

To top her big year of achievements, Smyth was invited by Swiss watchmaker Hublot to become a Friend of the Brand. A watch fanatic with several Hublot models, she joins the brand’s growing network of culinary partners, including three Michelin star chefs Yannick Alléno, Andreas Caminada and Paul Pairet.

“I am a big fan of Hublot. When they contacted me in London to see if there was any possibility of working together, I jumped at it because it is a brand I admire,” she confesses. “I love the creativity, audacity and boldness. I think there are a lot of similarities between Hublot’s approach to fine watchmaking and my style of cooking. We are both quite bold, creative and innovative. Always pushing new ideas, pushing the envelope and not being scared of trying new things.”

Meticulous expertise and a passion for fine artistry blended with time are the ingredients of gourmet cuisine and Haute Horlogerie. Hublot’s mastery of ‘The Art of Fusion’ is most evident in the brand’s tradition of innovation. From the first use of rubber in fine watchmaking to creating new precious alloys such as scratch-proof Magic Gold, Hublot has consistently pioneered by discovering new purposes for materials and boldly combining them, like Smyth’s inventive approach to her dishes.

She says: “Watchmaking is extremely similar to fine dining. People wonder why it’s so expensive, but you only realise the value of it when you find out what goes behind the creation of one plate. From the ingredients to the techniques and the people involved — we’re talking 35 chefs with almost 70 staff for a 50-seater restaurant — it’s a highly-skilled operation and a beautiful thing to watch.”

“I once did a workshop with a watchmaker in London to try and put together the pieces, and until now, I still can't figure out how this little thing keeps perfect time and how beautiful the movement is inside. It gives you a real understanding and appreciation for fine watches and what goes into making them. It’s so fascinating.”

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