The Fork in the Road: Clare Smyth

In the latest of a series of interviews with top chefs for The Caterer, in which I examine the turning points that led them on their path to success, Clare Smyth talks about her journey to becoming the UK’s first three-Michelin-starred female chef

7718153Things happen by chance, and it just so happened that when I was 14 and working at a local restaurant in Northern Ireland, my head chef gave me a book on classical sauces. It was this book that ignited my interest in reading about fine food. It spurred me on to read more and more cookbooks and ultimately led me on my path to becoming a chef.

The very first cookbook I bought for myself was Anton Mosimann’s Cuisine à la Carte. From there I went on to read the Roux brothers and the more I read, the more I came to understand what fine dining was. That really inspired me and made me realise I wanted to be a chef at the top level.

As soon as I left school, I went to England to go to Highbury College in Portsmouth. I got an apprenticeship and worked four days a week at Grayshott Health Spa in Surrey. I was lucky enough to have a great mentor there and I remember him being really surprised by my knowledge given my young age. But everything I knew, I had learned from books.

After working at Bibendum and the St Enodoc hotel in Rock, Cornwall, for a while, I decided to go Australia for six months and did a number of stages at restaurants around Sydney. When I returned to the UK, I knew I wanted to get into a top kitchen. I applied for positions at most of the two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants and did trials at the Fat Duck, the Waterside Inn, Le Gavroche and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, which had just got its third star. I knew from the moment I set foot in the kitchen that it was the place for me. I felt like I belonged right from the start.

It was by far the toughest kitchen I had ever been in. Gordon was there every day and the standards were incredibly high. It was like a military operation and almost like boot camp; you were either good enough or you weren’t. But I had expected it to be hard and that’s why I went there: I wanted to learn from the best. I loved the discipline; there was an energy about it that was just incredible and I knew that if I could handle it and thrive in this tough environment, I would be good enough to make it one day.

WORKING WITH ALAIN DUCASSE
After three-and-a-half years and working my way up from demi chef de partie to senior sous chef, I decided that I wanted to go and work in another three-star kitchen. One of the chefs I had always been drawn to was Thomas Keller, so I went to the US and did stages at Per Se and the French Laundry in 2004. After that, I knew I had to go and work with Alain Ducasse and I managed to beg my way into the kitchen at Le Louis XV in Monaco.

Working at Louis XV was the second biggest turning point in my career. Again, right from the moment I arrived, I knew it was where I was meant to be. I stayed for 18 months and it was an amazing place to work and a completely different environment from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. The head chef, Franck Cerutti, was a really happy, gentle soul who would come into the kitchen every day with a big smile on his face. He was as passionate as Gordon during service – especially when something went wrong – but he was just a totally different spirit and very much himself all the time.

The brigade was much bigger, with 26 chefs, but we were like a big family and I’m still in touch with many of the chefs I worked with back then. The produce was phenomenal and some of the finest I have ever worked with to this day. And while the cooking was very, very classical in its roots and most things were cooked à la minute, the simplicity but precision of the cooking, coupled with the passion for the product, was simply incredible.

7718152RETURNING TO LONDON
When Alain opened his restaurant at the Dorchester in London, he offered me the position of executive sous chef. But at the same time, Gordon was opening his restaurant in Paris and asked me to come back to Royal Hospital Road as head chef. It was a difficult decision to make, but I knew I had to take the head chef position with Gordon – it was too good an opportunity to pass on. Alain was very angry when I told him and I remember feeling down about having upset the best chef in the world. But then one of the other chefs said: “You’ve just been offered jobs by two of the best chefs in the world – you have nothing to be down about!”

Until I started at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, I didn’t quite understand what would happen and the amount of pressure I would find myself under. I was the first woman in the UK to head up a three-Michelin-starred kitchen, so there was a lot of interest from the media. I knew there was also a chance I could be the first woman in the UK to lose three stars. I was never really confident about retaining the stars and it was something I was very nervous about for a long time.

I didn’t take holiday for the first two years, as I was so determined to make sure that every single plate of food that left the pass was right. It wasn’t until a few years after retaining the three stars that I started to feel comfortable. I slowly managed to find the confidence to put my own touch on the restaurant, to make changes and evolve things. When I became chef-patron in 2012, I began to feel like I could own the three stars.

Now, after eight years at the helm, I feel like I have done most things I could have done. I have been awarded an MBE, received five AA rosettes, three Michelin stars, won Chef of the Year and achieved 10/10 in the Good Food Guide. But on a personal level, I have a lot more I want to achieve. That’s why I am opening my own restaurant.

Little Foodie Club – Why I decided to launch a baby food company

I recently launched a baby food delivery company here in Los Angeles. Little Foodie Club is all about helping parents to palate-train their babies, teach them to love fresh, health and delicious food and raise the next generation of foodies. Here’s my story on why I have invested everything into trying to change the way babies eat.

LFC_Logo_printHave you ever wondered why French kids eat everything and American kids don’t? Why petit Jean will happily tuck into a plate of spinach and blue cheese salad topped with roasted duck breast but little Johnny won’t touch anything other than chicken nuggets? Why do some kids love to eat vegetables and are open to trying new foods while others turn their noses up at anything fresh, green and remotely exotic?

I have been working as a professional food writer for over a decade. As part of my job I’ve traveled and eaten my way around the globe and have been able to acquire an international perspective on food and food culture. Through this I have developed a deep love not just for learning about ingredients, dishes and flavors but also eating and more importantly cooking. Food is quite frankly the love of my life.

When my daughter Maxine was born, I was determined to pass my passion for food onto her. I knew first hand from friends and family that babies and kids can be really fussy eaters and it was my biggest nightmare to end up with a child who hates to eat good food. Wanting to instill in Maxine a love of healthy, delicious food and to raise an adventurous eater, I started doing research into how to bring up a child who truly enjoys eating. This is when I came across a concept called palate-training.

Kerstin_KuhnPalate-training basically means that during the first months of a baby eating solid foods we can train their palate and influence their future eating preferences. The way it works is that during these vital first few months the kinds of foods that babies are exposed to will be the kinds of foods they will like later on. So if you want your baby to grow up to love real fruits and vegetables and be open to trying new foods, you have to palate-train them with real fruits and vegetables and an evolving variety of tastes and textures right from the start. Through consistent exposure to different types of fresh foods you can influence your child’s “anatomic palate” and neurophysiology to love healthy and delicious foods.

On the flipside if you consistently expose your baby to foods out of a jar or pouch, you’re conditioning their palate to prefer processed foods. The purees out of jars and pouches have little or no resemblance in taste or texture to those made from fresh ingredients so it’s no surprise that babies who are exclusively fed these bland and often tasteless manufactured purees turn out to be fussy kids who refuse to eat real vegetables and demand processed foods like chicken nuggets.

So going back to those gourmet French kids – the reason they are such great eaters is because they are exposed to great food right from the start. French babies’ diets consist of lots of fresh produce, whole gains, meats and cheeses all with added herbs and spices and lots and lots of flavor. The same goes for other countries: In Vietnam, for instance, babies are served soups that are seasoned with fish sauce and bone broths, while in India babies are introduced to spices like coriander, turmeric and ginger from the age of six months.

yellowThese are flavors babies in America rarely get to experience. What I came to understand was that in American culture many of us underestimate babies’ taste preferences thinking they favor bland, tasteless food when other cultures so clearly show us that the exact opposite is true. I realized that if I wanted my daughter to become a great eater who not only loves vegetables but has a truly adventurous sense of taste, I had to be inventive with what I fed her.

Way before it was time to start solids, at about three months, I began to introduce Maxine to the smells and scents of food. I took her out into the garden and let her smell the different herbs like rosemary, thyme, basil and lavender or some of the spice jars in the kitchen like cinnamon or cumin to open up her senses to things to come. I carried her in a sling while preparing dinner, exposing her to the aromas of home cooking and explaining to her what the different ingredients were.

Maxi_happy_eaterWhen the time arrived for Maxine to start eating solids, I first introduced her to very simple vegetable purees such as zucchini, carrot and potato. I made my own fruit purees and it didn’t take long before I started to add a few herbs and spices to her food to liven things up. I added vanilla to peach, rosemary to butternut, turmeric to carrots. The more I cooked for Maxine, the more I got into making baby food, trying out different ingredient combinations and making my own bone broths to season some of her vegetable purees. I won’t lie, it was a lot of hard work but the more adventurous I became with my cooking, the more Maxine started to enjoy her food and mealtime was fun time in our home.

Eventually I started chatting to other mothers about what they fed their babies and many of them admitted to only buying the baby food from the shop. This was due to a number of different reasons: some moms just didn’t have the time to cook baby food, others lacked the inspiration and didn’t know what to cook, while still others said they’d tried and given up because their babies didn’t like it. A lot of them revealed that mealtime wasn’t a fun time in their home and that there were only a few things they could get their babies to eat. I’ll always remember one of my friends saying she was so desperate for her daughter to eat, she put apple sauce on everything as this was the one and only thing she liked. I realized how lucky I was to have a baby like Maxi who is such a good eater. But then I also realized that the reason she was such a good eater was because I had consistently palate-trained her right from the start.

905675_1523370517970589_8852142652319530545_oThis was my Aha! Moment, where I realized that palate-training really works and where the idea for Little Foodie Club began. I felt a real need to share my experience with other parents and enable those who weren’t able to cook their own baby food to still palate-train their babies and raise healthy eaters by supplying them with delicious fresh homemade baby food.

After months of research and menu development as well as getting all of the legal stuff like health permits in place, Little Foodie Club finally launched last month. It was a hell of a journey to get there but we are now delivering handmade, organic baby food all across Los Angeles. Some of our signature baby purees are: apples, pears and rooibos tea; baby Bolognese  (pictured) made with slow-cooked organic beef, vegetables and Italian herbs; lamb, potato, spinach and rosemary; and sweet potato and garbanzo bean curry with mild spices and coconut. Our simplest purees are not just vegetables: our carrot puree for instance is made with homemade chicken bone broth and has a hint of turmeric in it for added flavor; while cauliflower comes with a bit of pear and tarragon.

The idea is to provide healthy delicious food that will really open up a baby’s palate, get them used to a wide variety of different ingredients, herbs and gentle spices and inspire them to love fresh, healthy and delicious food right from the start.

Maxi_ThaiToday, Maxine is a toddler who loves to eat and is always open to trying new things. She doesn’t like everything but she’ll always give things a try. She’s now at an age where she can join us at the dinner table and thanks to her eating with us, we are eating a healthy, varied diet together as a family. Of course, there are days when I’d love to reach for the chicken nuggets but when I dare to serve her processed foods, she turns her nose up and demands something fresh and tasty. Like those French kids, her palate has been trained.

The Chef Shortage Facing the US Hospitality Industry

In my latest feature for The Staff Canteen, I speak to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about the chef shortage facing the US hospitality industry.

The topic of the skills shortage is hotting up both sides of the Atlantic. Even the USA’s finest restaurants complain that hiring has become incredibly difficult and there’s no solution in sight. It’s not just one single problem that’s to blame but a mélange of issues that are conspiring to put the industry at a crisis. Too many restaurants are opening and there aren’t enough people to work in them; pay is poor and the wage discrepancy between front- and back-of-house staff is putting people off working in kitchens. And then there’s the generation of those entitled millenials, who demand instant success and refuse to work their way up from the bottom. I spoke to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about how the chef shortage is affecting their businesses, why they think they’re having to face this crisis in the first place and what they’re doing to overcome it.

Timothy_HollingsworthTimothy Hollingsworth is the chef proprietor of Otium, a new restaurant in Downtown that is redefining Los Angeles’ dining scene. The former chef de cuisine of the French Laundry, James Beard Award winner and erstwhile Bocuse d’Or competitor says laws and attitudes need to change for the industry to overcome the chef shortage.

Josiah Citrin, chef patron of the two-Michelin-starred Mélisse in Santa Monica, meanwhile, says the skills shortage is nothing new. But the constant flow of information that is available on the internet coupled with a new generation lacking the determination to go through the ranks is making it worse.

Why do you think there is a chef shortage and skills crisis facing the hospitality industry?
Timothy Hollingsworth: I think it’s mainly because there is a change in people, with the millennials, who are very conscious of how they spend their time and how much they want to work. The old school mentality of working your way up for years, putting in extra hours and staging for free is gone now. I think I was the last of that generation. I was so passionate about what I do and so determined to succeed that I wanted to learn as much as possible and that meant that I was prepared to work as hard as I could even for free. That mind-set is gone now.

Josiah Citrin: I wouldn’t say there’s a chef shortage but rather a cook shortage. A cook and a chef are two very different things and there aren’t enough cooks for all the restaurants that are opening. Businesses are expanding so fast and there are more restaurants opening than people want to become cooks. This generation of people doesn’t want to work their way up from the bottom – they’re not interested in putting the time in and learning the trade, they want to go straight to being a chef and get to the top. People are more interested in promoting themselves online than they are in working They’re obsessed with celebrity but not the craft of cooking.

How have things changed from an industry point of view?
TH: Now there are a lot of labour restrictions that the industry has to deal with. Restaurants get in trouble for people working too many hours, minimum wage keeps going up and it’s much harder to maintain that same kind of work ethic. Even for the people who do want to work hard and perfect their skills, it’s more difficult because of all these laws and regulations. And then there’s the whole idea of the celebrity chef. People have this perception that being a chef is this amazing, creative, inspirational job when the reality is that – in addition to all those things – it is also an awful lot of hard work and a craft and art that you have to spend years to learn. You don’t just wake up one day and know how to make a dish. It takes a long time to develop those skills. What is lacking in cooks in the USA today is that foundation.

Josiah Citrin_CharlesParkJC: Everything is online and available all the time. Recipes are there for anyone to see and pictures of dishes are all over Instagram with way more emphasis on looks than flavour. You can see anything you want online, it’s all there – you don’t have to work with anyone, you don’t have to travel, you can do it all sitting behind your computer. People used to have to work with chefs at different restaurants, come up the ranks and learn their craft, now they just look online and think they can figure it all out that way.

How is it affecting things at your business?
TH: It’s difficult to train staff. We have to look at things in a very different way –it’s a different time and we have to adapt to it. I am responsible for the people who work for me, I’m responsible not just for their livelihood but also for their development. When they leave my restaurant they have my name on them and that has to mean something. It’s my job to teach them a certain level of standards, a certain set of skills, respect for their stations and understanding of how things work in different positions. They won’t learn as much because the system is not as good as it was before. But we are making it work.

JC: It’s really hard to find good people and inspire them to stay with you. People are always coming and going and it makes things difficult. The only way around it is by investing in a system that really works so people can come in and out of it. That’s how I run my restaurants. You have a few key people who stay and the system operates by turning people in and out.

What needs to be done to address this issue?
TH: It’s not just the industry that needs to change it’s the laws. We open at 5pm for dinner and close at 11pm – that is six hours. Chefs work for eight hours so with cleaning down your station and a 30-minute break, there literally is no time to learn the fundamentals of cooking. They are learning; they’re learning how to cook and do certain things but they’re not learning how to operate in a full circle.

JC: I really don’t know what can be done. It’s very complex. But it’s nothing new.  When I started Mélisse 17 years it was tough to get cooks. It hasn’t changed and it hasn’t improved and because food is so hot right now, more and more restaurants are opening effectively making the situation worse.

The Fork in the Road: Alain Roux

This is the first of a series of articles I have been commissioned to write for The Caterer, in which I trace a successful chef’s career path to the top: Three-Michelin-starred Alain Roux, son of Michel and chef patron of the Waterside Inn, talks about his route to join his family’s culinary dynasty.

7715598I made the decision to become a chef when I was 14. My parents were divorced and I lived with my mother in France, so I didn’t spend a lot of time with my dad when I was growing up. I only saw him during the school holidays when I would come to the UK and follow him around everywhere. He was all about work and I remember, during one of my holidays, spending a few days in the kitchen at Le Gavroche when it was on Lower Sloane Street. I wasn’t really working, but more observing the action, watching my father and uncle work.

Seeing them in the heat of the kitchen definitely inspired me to want to become a chef. In some ways it was probably also a subconscious decision to get closer to my father but, more than anything, I got the feeling of the team spirit that exists not just in the kitchen but front of house, too. It’s like a family.

MY FIRST MENTOR
The first real turning point for me came after dad arranged for me to begin my training in pastry in France. I started at Pâtisserie Millet in Paris under Denis Ruffel, who was my tutor when I was just 16. When I think about my career now, I realise that what shaped me more than anything else was this beginning and training under Denis – he was truly exceptional. His capability as a pastry chef as well as a cook and a mentor had a huge impact on me.

He taught me everything there was to know. It wasn’t just about pastry but also about cooking savoury dishes. From him I learned all the basics of French cooking. I discovered all the ingredients and different techniques through trying different recipes. It was very hard work, being locked up in a small, hot basement in front of the three-decker oven cooking a few hundred trays of bread or viennoiserie. But he somehow gave me my love for the job.

He also really pushed me with my studies. I was training at a specialised pastry college at the same time as working for him and he helped me not only to pass my exam – which was the first exam I ever passed in my life – but also get a very good mark for it. Denis
Ruffel made me progress and gave me my love of the whole business of cooking. But he also built up my confidence by making me aware of what to expect, and helping me understand that it’s all about hard work and the relationships between people.

From there, I went on to work at five Relais & Châteaux restaurants: Maison Pic, Le Domaine d’Orvault, La Bonne Etape, Château de Montreuil and La Côte Saint-Jacques, and I did my military service at the Élysée Palace. All the places I worked at during my eight years in France were very different but also similar in many ways as they were all family-run. Some were one-star Michelin, others were three-star, and the brigades varied from five to 50 or 60 chefs. I really loved working at all these places and meeting all these wonderful people who were so in love with their trade; each chef I worked under was so different from the next and I learned so much from all of them.

7715602JOINING THE WATERSIDE INN
Then dad told me that it was time for me to get ready to come and work with him. I was happy that he hadn’t forgotten about me and was keen for me to come back. It made me feel privileged and proud. This was to be the second biggest turning point in my life.

I joined the Waterside Inn in 1992. Mark Dodson was the head chef at the time and I started at the bottom of the ladder. I had never worked with dad before then, so it was a strange experience and very daunting at first. We didn’t know each other all that well, having spent so much time apart when I was younger. I knew I had to prove myself because ultimately one of two things would happen: either I would learn, work my way up the ranks and open my own restaurant with dad’s support; or I would take over the business.

There were some really tough moments during the first few years. The Waterside Inn is unique – it is small but very busy and when you have to do things to the standard of three Michelin stars for so many people, it is very challenging both mentally and physically. I could hardly speak English and I had so much to learn, but at the same time I had eight years in France under my belt, so starting again at the bottom was tough for me even though I was only 23. It felt like I was taking three steps back. Some of the chefs felt threatened by me because my name was Roux, but dad was very old-fashioned in his way of working and he was treating me like everyone else. Of course, that was fair enough – but as a son it probably wasn’t the best environment to get to know my dad.

At the end of 2001, Mark Dodson left and I became joint chef-patron. We decided then that it was time for dad to pull out and for me to take over. It was very scary; it was a big new start and a huge challenge that was intimidating, but also exciting. I knew I would either make it or fail.

Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana named the World’s Best Restaurant

Picture by Oliviero ToscaniMassimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana has been crowned the Best Restaurant in the World.

The three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Modena, Italy, beat incumbent El Celler de Can Roca in Spain to win the title having previously placed second (2015) and third (2014/2013) in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which is run by Restaurant Magazine. For the first time this year the awards were hosted in New York City and not London.

Massimo is known for his highly artistic avant-garde cooking style, which reinvents traditional Italian cuisine. His signature dishes include the Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, which sees the famed cheese served in five different forms and textures ranging from demi-soufflé to a mousse, a liquid cream, a crisp wafer and a “breath of air” derived from a broth of Parmigiano rind.

This year, the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants saw a bit of a shake up, with New York City’s Eleven Madison Park taking third place (fifth last year) and Central, Virgilio Martinez’s restaurant in Lima, Peru, ranking in fourth place.

Copenhagen’s Noma, which had previously won the award four times, has dropped to number five. The remainder of the top 10 is made up of Mirazur in Menton, France; Mugaritz in San Sebastián, Spain; Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan; Steireck in Vienna, Austria; and Asador Etxebarri in Axpe, Spain.

Tdominique crennhe USA boasts a total of six restaurants on the list including former One To Watch winner Saison (27) in San Francisco, which is one of four new entries to the list (along with four re-entries). New York’s Estela (44) is also a newcomer, while Alinea in Chicago has climbed 11 places to 15. And San Francisco’s Dominique Crenn (pictured), who was the first woman in the USA to have won two Michelin stars, has this year been named the World’s Best Female Chef.

Bad news, however, have come for iconic US chefs Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud as their restaurants have dropped off the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Boulud’s eponymous Daniel in New York dropped to place 71, while Keller’s Per Se is now ranked 52nd and The French Laundry is at number 85.

Other US restaurants ranked in the top 100 are: The Restaurant at Meadowood (67); The Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (81); Manresa (83); and Benu (89).

The highest-ranking UK restaurant this year is Brett Graham’s The Ledbury, which has climbed six places to number 14. Meanwhile Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, which ranked in seventh place last year, has dropped to number 45 this.

The Clove Club in Shoreditch has won the Highest New Entry Award after climbing 29 places to enter the top 50 for the first time at number 26. Other UK restaurants featured in the top 100 include: Hedone (60); Lyle’s (65); and St John (91).

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Top 10:

  1. Osteria Francescana Modena, Italy
  2. El Celler de Can Roca Girona, Spain
  3. Eleven Madison Park New York, USA
  4. Central, Lima, Peru
  5. Noma Copenhagen, Denmark
  6. Mirazur, Menton, France
  7. Mugaritz San Sebastián, Spain
  8. Narisawa, Tokyo, Japan
  9. Steireck, Vieanna, Austria
  10. Asador Etxebarri in Axpe, Spain

See the full list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants here.