Clare Smyth MBE
Clare Smyth might just be the most talented chef you have never heard of. And, as Marcus Janssen discovered, she might also be the nicest.
The fact that you may never have heard of Clare Smyth is ludicrous. Not only is she the first female chef in the UK to run a three Michelin star restaurant, but she has an MBE for services to the hospitality industry and, in August 2014, she became the first woman in 15 years to receive a perfect 10 in the Good Food Guide. These are serious accolades. All the other chefs who fall into this category are household names – Marco, Michel, Heston, Raymond and Gordon, for example – no surnames required.
But that's the remarkable thing about Clare, she isn't big on self promotion, and prefers to let her food do the talking. Moreover, she is seemingly without an ego – a rare breed in an industry where the elite have achieved rock star status in recent years. And she certainly qualifies – she has worked under some of the most highly regarded chefs of our generation; Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in Monaco, Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, Michel Roux at The Waterside Inn and Gordon Ramsay at his eponymous restaurant in London where Clare is now chef proprietor, having taken over the reins from Gordon in 2008. She has every excuse for a bit of rock star swagger.
But within minutes of meeting her, it becomes clear that smugness isn't a Clare Smyth trait. I don't know if it's because she is a protégé of Gordon Ramsay, the chef we all like to think of as confrontational, arrogant and rude – which Clare assures me is just his TV persona – but I just never expected her to be quite so humble and down to earth. Indeed, I am caught off-guard and before I know it, my admiration is snowballing dangerously towards sycophancy as compliments suddenly start to roll off my tongue. But she gently sweeps my praise aside with an embarrassed smile, insisting that she still has everything to achieve. “It's nice to get the accolades,” she admits, “but having happy customers and a happy team are far more important to me.” Sigh.
Just as I am pulling myself together, regaining my cool air of professionalism, Clare mentions her love of country sports and, before I know it, I am once again hanging off her every word. “I don't actually remember the first time I shot something,” she says, casually. “Like most farm kids, I just started off rough shooting, decoying pigeons, walking-up rabbits and the odd pheasant, that sort of thing.”
Clare grew up on a farm in County Antrim where she was immersed in the country life from a young age. “Hunting is my thing, really,” she admits. “I absolutely love it. We used to hunt along the beaches there, and now, when I think about those days, I feel so lucky to have experienced it. It was wonderful – truly spectacular fox hunting country.”
Nowadays, although Clare occasionally hunts in England, her cooking has pretty much taken over her life, as you would expect. She does, however, manage to find the time for a couple of shoot days a year. “I enjoy a few driven pheasant and partridge days in Wiltshire every year. And last year I shot grouse in the Scottish Borders for the first time, which was truly amazing,” she says with obvious enthusiasm. Although she claims that she's not a brilliant Shot, I'm simply not buying it. After all, she also told me that she doesn't feel like she has achieved much as a chef. So, on that basis, she'd probably give Phil, Simon and George a run for their money (note: no surnames required).
It won't come as a surprise that Clare uses a lot of game in her kitchen: “We use a lot of venison, wild duck, pigeon, woodcock, hare, rabbit etc. I also occasionally do a complete game menu which is a real challenge in terms of trying to make it balance. You just need to know the animal you are dealing with and make sure you make the most of it.”
But she is quick to point out how fortunate British chefs are: “We are definitely the envy of our European neighbours when it comes to game,” she says. “We have such an abundance of it and it is so well managed. In a lot of other countries, there is hardly any left. When I worked at Le Louis XV in Monaco, for instance, the chef there (Franck Cerutti) used to go out shooting with his friends and it was always such a big deal when he came back with some game for the kitchen (you can't buy game in Monaco). We take that kind of thing for granted here in the UK.” Indeed, after a day's shooting, Clare always takes home a brace for the table or for friends, whether it's pigeons, pheasants, grouse, duck or woodcock.
“We should all be eating more game,” she adds with a real sense of conviction. “People who don't eat game really are missing a trick. And it should be on school lunch menus, too – children need to learn about game so that they don't grow up to be afraid of it. When I went to school, we were taught how to prepare and cook game, but those skills and that inclination to cook a meal from scratch seems to be disappearing in the younger generation. It's sad. As a population, we definitely don't value our own local produce highly enough – it's all about convenience, which is wrong.”
When I ask Clare to summarise what it is that critics and customers alike love about her food, she typically downplays the finesse, balance and attention to detail that she is renown for. “I would say that my food is all about the natural product. I will always try to leave things the way they are, the way nature intends. Great ingredients and great flavours don't need to be complicated. The techniques are merely a means to get the very best out of the ingredients, not the other way around.
“But nature is different every day, and that is what makes it exciting. It is only with experience that you really start to gain a true understanding of your ingredients. But in terms of my cooking, I really don't feel like I have achieved anything, yet,” she says, almost demurely. “I really do feel like I am just starting out.”
She may not be a household name yet, but I think it's fair to say that it is only a matter of time before Clare becomes the next Gordon – a name we automatically associate with culinary excellence – no surname required.