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.

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.

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.

The Week in Restaurants – news round up

Grant AchatzThree-Michelin-starred chef Grant Achatz (pictured) made headlines this week, after he took to Twitter to question whether a couple bringing their eight-month-old baby to his restaurant Alinea in Chicago was acceptable. His frustrated tweet about the crying infant got such a huge reaction, a national debate erupted and the chef found himself on Good Morning America discussing whether babies should be banned from upscale restaurants altogether.

Here in California, new food safety laws have caused outrage among chefs and bartenders, who are now banned from touching certain foods with their bare hands. While a number of chefs – particularly sushi chefs – have labelled the new regulation ineffective and detrimental to their dishes, bartenders have called it off-putting and less hygienic.

The James Beard Foundation has announced that its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award will go to iconic New York restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, who opened the legendary Le Cirque in 1974. The annual award is given to a person in the industry whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way people in America eat, cook, and think about food.

Trois MecEating out guide Zagat unveiled its list of the 10 hottest restaurants in the world right now, which features establishments from across the globe, from Brazil to Singapore. Among them is French restaurant Trois Mec (pictured) in LA, where pre-paid dinner reservation tickets are about as hard to come by as a comment from President Hollande about his alleged affair. It also includes Story in London, where 26-year-old chef Tom Sellers is serving up his exciting menu inspired by the history of England and his personal experiences with produce; and Joshua Skenes’s incredibly expensive Saison in San Francisco where a special tasting menu will set you back $398.

Lanshu Chen of Taichung, Taiwan’s Le Moût has been named Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2014 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants – even though her restaurant hasn’t yet been included in the list. At Le Moût, which opened in Taiwan in December 2008, Chen has built on her experience in some of the top kitchens of France and America and continues to explore the boundaries of haute French cuisine and its place in Taiwan’s growing gastronomic scene. She will be presented with her award next month.

David_ThompsonMeanwhile Thai food aficionado David Thompson (pictured), who formerly ran the Michelin-starred Nahm in London and whose Bangkok outpost is currently ranked number three in the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, is to open Long Chim at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort. The chef will take over a space currently occupied by Guy Savoy, with plans to unveil the Thai street food concept, which has plans to be rolled out as a worldwide chain.

In France legendary chef Paul Bocuse, owner of the three-Michelin-starred L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon and founder of the world-famous Bocuse d’Or culinary competition, was released from hospital after back surgery. The 87-year-old chef had been hospitalised earlier this month to treat back pains and complications due to Parkinson’s.

Staying in France, the country’s government is aiming to put Burgundy’s vineyards and the entire Champagne sector on the UNESCO world heritage list. The move comes after ministers appeared to snub both wine regions in last year’s nominations round opting instead to put forward 25,000-year-old cave paintings in Chauvet and the volcanoes of the Auvergne.

Gordon-RamsayOn the subject of Champagne, sweary chef Gordon Ramsay (pictured) was stopped by airport customs in Doha after trying to bring a bottle of Dom Pérignon into the Muslim Gulf state. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been stopped by customs,” Ramsay said at a press conference. “The alarm went off and I got called into a little room. So it’s been confiscated – the first time I’ve ever lost a bottle of Dom Pérignon! It was a birthday present from a dear friend.”

In London, erstwhile Ramsay protégé, two-Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing announced that he is to revamp his eponymous restaurant at the Berkeley Hotel into a more informal eatery called Marcus, with a “high-end American” approach to service. “Michelin stars alone don’t fill restaurants anymore,” he told the Times.

Fellow two-Michelin-star restaurant the Greenhouse in London’s Mayfair was celebrating this week after being the only restaurant to be awarded four rosettes from the AA. A further 15 restaurants across England won three rosettes.

White Castle HamburgersAnd finally, back in the US, Time Magazine revealed its list of the 17 most influential burgers, which comes as the result of interviews with burger historians and experts (yes, these are actual jobs) to determine which patties made the biggest impact on the burger industry and the world at large. The top three were made up of the In-N-Out Burger (3); the McDonald’s burger (2); and the White Castle Slider, whose iconic square patty paved the way for the great American burger obsession, Time said.

London on verge of overtaking New York as most diverse dining destination, says Zagat

Zagat_London_2014London is on the verge of overtaking New York as the city with the most diverse restaurant scene, a new survey has claimed.

According to the 2014 Zagat London Restaurant Survey, the capital’s restaurant market has undergone a revolution in recent years that could see it nudge ahead of the Big Apple as the top dining destination in the world.

Tim Zagat, co-founder (with his wife Nina) of the Zagat restaurant guides, said: “In terms of diversity and depth of restaurants London passed Paris eight to ten years ago. I still think New York is ahead. I used to say New York was way ahead but I think London could pass New York soon, it is coming on strong.”

However, with the average restaurant bill in London at £37.35 a head, down 14% from last year’s £43.40, eating out in London remains more expensive than New York, where the average cost for a meal is $48.56 (£31).

The 2014 Zagat London Restaurant Survey, which covers 1,290 restaurants rated and reviewed by 10,271 diners, showed Londoners are eating out more than ever before at an average of 3.7 times a week, compared with 2.2 in 2012.

Honest_BurgersIt found that the arrival of burger joints such as Honest Burgers and meat shacks like Pitt Cue Co. has reduced the cost of high quality eating out in London, while at the same time highlighting a trend towards more informal dining.

Tim Zagat added: “There are more younger people looking for good food but not in in places with fancy decor and linen tablecloths. Eating out has become almost like eating in another room in a house, people are looking for a good meal but not looking to dress up.”

However, despite this trend towards informality, the Zagat Survey rated Michel and Alain Roux’s three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn in Bray as the best restaurant in the wider London area both in terms of food and service.

Japanese restaurant Yashin Sushi in Kensington was named best for food in London, where the Ledbury was rated top for service. The Wolesley remained London’s most popular restaurant, beating Hakkasan, while barbeque restaurant Pitt Cue offers London’s best value meal for under £25, according to Zagat.

2014 Zagat London Restaurant Survey Awards:

Top Food:
1. The Waterside Inn
2. Yashin Sushi
3. Barrafina
4. Gauthier Soho
5. The Ledbury

Top Service:
1. Waterside Inn
2. The Ledbury
3. Le Gavroche
4. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
5. Mosimann’s

Most Popular:
1. The Wolseley
2. Hakkasan
3. Hawksmoor
4. J. Sheekey
5. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Best Buys (£25 or less):
1. Pitt Cue Co.
2. Honest Burgers
3. The Pepper Tree
4. Spice Village
5. Morito

Top Décor:
1. Sketch Lecture Room & Library
2. Sketch Parlour
3. The Ritz London
4. Mosimann’s
5. Bob Bob Ricard


The Week in Restaurants – news round-up

Marco Pierre WhiteWhat a bad start to the weekend it has been for celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, who was branded a “dishonest idiot” by a High Court judge yesterday. The former three-Michelin-starred chef was also called an “unreliable witness” as his claim for £174,000 in damages against two former business partners, who allegedly cheated him out of his share of the Yew Tree Inn in Berkshire, was thrown out. He now faces an estimated £500,000 legal bill, with the judge ordering him to pay £240,000 of the costs within 14 days.

Across the pond, fellow celebrity chef and erstwhile protégé Gordon Ramsay is also facing a legal battle as ex-waiters from his LA restaurant the Fat Cow are suing him for alleged unpaid wages. Four former employees claim, among other things, that they were forced to work gruelling eight-hour shifts without a meal break, that they weren’t always paid their minimum wage and denied overtime pay.

James Petrie Heston Blumenthal didn’t have a great start to the week either, after his right-hand-man James Petrie, head of creative development at the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen, announced his departure. The Scottish chef, who is widely known as ‘Jockey’ and has worked with Heston for 11 years, said he was leaving to pursue new opportunities, although it is unclear what his plans are.

But it hasn’t all been bad news and a number of hospitality personalities were celebrating this week after the announcement of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Jill Stein, founder and director of the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, was awarded an OBE, while Clare Smyth, chef patron of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay; Jillian MacLean, founder of Drake & Morgan; and Geoffrey Acott, retired army captain and national treasurer of the Craft Guild of Chefs; were all made MBEs.

Angela HartnettMichelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett is to launch a new venture with chef Neil Borthwick, and Canteen founders Dominic Lake and Patrick Clayton-Malone in Shoreditch in September. Merchant’s Tavern will be an update of the classic tavern, with  Borthwick heading up the kitchen, who was previously sous chef at the three-Michelin-starred Michel Bras restaurant in France.

Restaurateur Rebecca Mascarenhas has announced her latest cheffy partnership will comprise a new Italian restaurant with Theo Randall. Mascarenhas, who already runs two restaurants with Phil Howard, will open Bibo in September on the former Phoenix site in Putney, which relaunched as Cantinetta in 2010.

Wabi LondonMeanwhile the collapse into administration of high-end Japanese restaurant Wabi London revealed a bitter dispute between its partners. While the owners lay the blame for the restaurant’s demise on former managing director and executive chef Scott Hallsworth, he strongly denies the claim and argues that it was a lack of investment that forced Wabi to shut.

Soho House Group has closed Boheme Kitchen and Bar and in its place will launch a new Soho Diner next month. Following on from last year’s relaunch of its restaurant at the Electric House in Notting Hill as the American-inspired Electric Diner, the new diner will be a joint-venture with Brendan Sodikoff from Chicago’s  Au Cheval.

Former board director of the Restaurant Group Kevin Bacon is opening a new chicken and egg concept called Whyte & Brown in London’s Carnaby Street. “It’s a concept that celebrates the extraordinary versatility of the chicken and the egg,” he said. But the question still remains: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

cevicheIt’s Taste of London this weekend and the festival kicked off with its annual prize giving for the best dish. This year gold went to the Michelin-starred L’Autre Pied for its ceviche of hand-dived scallops with black quinoa, creme fraiche, radishes, fennel and dill (pictured). The Cinnamon Club won silver with its Mumbai mille feuille of spring lamb and Launceston Place picked up bronze for its scallipop, a teriyaki dipped scallop and free range pork belly lollipop. Meanwhile Chris Corbin was handed the award for Best Restaurant of the Decade for the Wolseley.

And finally, in Scotland a renowned food historian has sparked outrage after he claimed that the country’s national dish of haggis is in fact English, adding its Scottish origins are as made up as tartan. In his new book Peter Brears goes on to rub salt into the wound by claiming Scotland’s modern whisky-soaked image has been manufactured and owes more to romantic patriotism than historical reality. Ouch!

Joël Robuchon recalls throwing a plate at Gordon Ramsay

Joel RobuchonHaving a terrifying temper sometimes seems to be a prerequisite for being a great chef and among the culinary giants of this world Joël Robuchon’s reputation as an unforgiving stickler for detail certainly precedes him.

After all, even scary, sweary Gordon Ramsay confessed to being petrified of Robuchon in his autobiography Humble Pie. It was like working for the SAS, he wrote, adding that the French chef made the famously combustible Marco Pierre White look like a “f****** pussycat”.

This week, Robuchon, who holds a whopping 28 Michelin stars in his name, including two at L’Atelier in London, has admitted to losing control when things don’t go his way. In an interview with the Telegraph, he said: “It’s true that I can’t stand it when things are not done properly. When that happens, I cannot control my reaction.”

He added that “only once”, however, did he throw a plate at someone and that person was at none other than Gordon Ramsay. “I remember it was a dish of langoustine ravioli,” he said. “He hadn’t made it properly. I told him so and Gordon reacted in a very arrogant manner. Although he was very talented, his attitude had always been… difficult. At the end of every service, he used to fling his pan down on the stove and threaten to resign because I was so demanding. This time, it really got on my nerves and so I threw a plate at him.”

Robuchon also says that London is now the gastronomic capital of the world – a statement that had his fellow French chefs up in arms. “A lot of people in Paris thought I was mad to say such a thing. But it’s undoubtedly true. London is where it all happens. That’s where the cutting edge of fine dining is,” he said.

And whenever he flies to Las Vegas, he always goes via Heathrow rather than direct from Paris because he likes Terminal 5’s shops and restaurants so much. “Oh yes, the choice is fantastic!”

Read the full Telegraph interview.


The Week in Restaurants – news round-up Oliver made headlines for various reasons this week including the fact that his Twitter account got hacked by people advertising a quick-fix diet. A series of tweets went out from the celebrity chef claiming followers could lose up to 22lbs of fat in less than a month, and linking to a website, reports the Telegraph.

Jamie’s bank accounts meanwhile certainly aren’t getting any leaner as his restaurant chain Jamie’s Italian reported a 19.3% jump in profits to £13.2m on turnover of £94m and revealed plans to open up to 30 overseas outlets within three years, according to The Times.

Fellow celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and erstwhile mentor Marco Pierre White on the other hand closed some of their overseas ventures this week. Ramsay’s Michelin-starred restaurant at the Conrad Tokyo shut its doors, while White’s Titanic restaurant at the Melia Hotel in Dubai has sunk after just a year, announced Arabian Business.

Much activity was reported on the London restaurant scene this week, including news that Soho hipster joints Duck Soup and Bone Daddies are set to expand. Duck Soup is to open sister restaurant Rawduck in Hackney later this month, says Hot Dinners, while Bone Daddies is set to launch Flesh and Buns, the capital’s first restaurant specialising in hirata buns, in Covent Garden in July, according to Big Hospitality. North, former Great British Menu winner Kenny Atkinson revealed his plans to open a new restaurant in Newcastle to Caterer and Hotelkeeper, who also reported that Atkinson’s former stomping ground, Seaham Hall in County Durham, has named Martin Blunos and Ross Grieve as executive chef and general manager.

Caterer and Hotelkeeper also broke the news that former Michelin-starred chef and Saturday Kitchen regular Will Holland is to leave La Bécasse in Ludlow – part of the 10 in 8 Group – after six years. His resignation is the latest in a series of blows to the group in recent months, including the departure of Matt Weedon, the sale of the Angel in Dartmouth and the potential split from partner Hotel TerraVina.

In Scotland, the winners of the 2013 Scottish Restaurant Awards were unveiled this week, with Pompadour by Galvin, winning the urban restaurant of the year award and Timberyard’s Andrew Radford picking up the chef of the year gong, announced the Daily Record.

Over in France, restaurants serving ready-made food could lose the right to call themselves “restaurants” as a proposed law could stop outlets that don’t make dishes from scratch from ruining the country’s food reputation, writes the Telegraph.

Back in the UK meanwhile the Daily Mail (who else?) revealed the somewhat disturbing news that in six out of ten high street restaurants ice has more bacteria than water from the toilets. And while we’re on the subject, new research from Mintel revealed that the biggest deterrent for people visiting pubs are dirty loos, says the Morning Advertiser.

Finally, health minister Dan Poulter warned that JD Wetherspoon’s plans to open pubs at motorway service areas is a bad idea, according to the London Evening Standard. But the pub chain has defended its plans and said it wouldn’t be checking if drinkers were planning to drive. Road tripping could become a whole lot more interesting soon. Happy weekend!