This article titled “Clare Smyth, world’s best female chef: ‘I’m not going to stand and shout at someone. It’s just not nice’” was written by Decca Aitkenhead, for The Guardian on Friday 3rd August 2018 14.00 UTC
For reasons I have never fully understood, egomania in the kitchen has traditionally been rewarded with a kind of monstrous glamour, making celebrities out of men whose management style in any other workplace would get them fired. For a mild-mannered chef few of us had even heard of to be named the best in the world at the industry’s “Oscars” was, therefore, a remarkable achievement. What made the accolade even more unusual was the widespread unease – acknowledged by the winner herself – about whether the prize should even exist.
Clare Smyth, chef patron of Core in west London, was named best female chef at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards gala in Bilbao in June, prompting other female chefs to object that the category was “ridiculous”, “outrageous”, “outdated” and “bizarre”. Some, however, pointed out that, when only four of the world’s 50 best restaurants are run by women, the industry has a sexism problem, which the award recognises and seeks to mitigate. “If discriminating on gender can be a step towards gender-neutrality, why not?” argued one commentator. In her acceptance speech, Smyth expressed the view that “there is no right and wrong way to address this, but things won’t change if we do nothing”, while accepting that a gender-specific category felt “strange”.
It would be hard to imagine anyone less temperamentally suited to controversy than the tall, flawlessly composed figure in chef’s whites who greets me in her Notting Hill restaurant. Core has been open for less than a year and represents a synthesis of Smyth’s classical French training and British artisanal influence; its tasting menu features dishes such as jellied eel with toasted seaweed and malt vinegar; foie gras parfait with madeira jelly and smoked duck; and Isle of Mull scallop tartare. The restaurant is closed on the day we meet, so we talk in the dining room, which is a vision of understated elegance – cool blond wood, ambient lighting, crisp white linen – the quiet subtlety of its perfectionism appearing to channel the sensibility of its chef. Smyth, 39, left home – a farm in Northern Ireland – at 16 to train in England, worked under Heston Blumenthal and the Roux brothers, became the first woman to work in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen and rose to be head chef at his Chelsea restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, picking up three Michelin stars and an MBE along the way.
She chooses her words carefully and speaks softly, without any gesture or turn of phrase to animate or reveal her character. The almost glassy self-containment reminds me of the focus of a professional athlete, as though dedication to her vocation has absorbed every ounce of her.
I am sure Smyth would happily talk about nothing but carrots and potatoes for the entire interview. On her “day off” in the week we meet, she had set off for Leeds at dawn to spend the day “digging potatoes out the soil, working with the agronomist, learning the history of them … everything about them: ‘You need to eat them within 24 hours, you need to get them to this temperature,’ and so on. There is so much science, history and everything in a potato.”
She looks mesmerised by these obscure gastronomical details, but, of course, I’m more interested in her thoughts about the hoo-ha surrounding her prize. If she considered the category “strange”, did she have any misgivings about accepting the award, for fear that it would formalise female chefs’ status as inferior?
“When the food community votes for you and wants to give you something, it’s nice. So I felt: ‘Thank you very much.’ It’s about recognition,” she offers cautiously. “It’s definitely not an inferior category. I’ve not considered, and it doesn’t enter any of these people’s minds” – she gestures at her team in the kitchen – “that I’m a woman or a man. It doesn’t and it never has done.”
This consummately diplomatic answer doesn’t entirely square with what Smyth has said about gender in the past. I quote back a line from an interview she gave in 2008: “People say: ‘Isn’t she a good chef?’ and they mean: ‘For a woman.’ But I want to be a great chef just because I am one, not because I’m a woman.” Her former boss, Ramsay, memorably once said: “Women can’t cook to save their lives,” and, in 2007, Smyth revealed that, when she first joined his team, “there was a hell of a lot of testosterone in that kitchen. I was told I wouldn’t last a week – Gordon even said that. There were people saying: ‘It’s not for girls; you shouldn’t be here.’ It took me a long time to earn respect. I had to work twice as hard. I could never say I was tired or I was sick or I had cut my finger because the response would have been: ‘It’s because you’re a girl.’” A gender-blind kitchen may be logical in theory, but, from the sound of it, it is far harder in practice.
According to Smyth, 11 years later, though, it can and does exist. “When I started out, yes, generally those kitchens at that time were very testosterone-driven places. Traditional kitchens at the top level were always very tough: long hours with poor staff meals. Those days were very much like that, but thankfully we approach human resources in a very different way now.” The cliche of the volcanic-tempered chef is, she says, laughably out of date. “The approach we take more now is trying to inspire, rather than rule by fear.”
Smyth describes today’s kitchen culture as one of courteous civility. It sounds so unlikely that, at first, I assume she must be making it up. Aggressive control freakery has long been part of the mythology of the great chef and, having interviewed several over the years, I can confirm that there is more than a little truth in it. But it becomes increasingly clear that Smyth is unlike any other chef I have met.
When I ask how often she shouts in the kitchen, she looks bemused. “Not very often. I’m always very calm and chilled. Rather than screaming and shouting at someone who is not capable of doing something, we will just very gently coach them into another role. We may even help them find a job somewhere else. But I’m not going to stand and shout and abuse someone because that’s not what I’m there for. It’s just not nice, you know, and it’s just not good for anyone. We try to look at problems in a much more, let’s say, professional light, with a more adult way of dealing with things.”
It doesn’t sound as if she feels a need to exercise tight control. “Oh, but we do,” she corrects me. “Because of training.” Her restaurant operates a de facto internal academy, running a weekly training day when kitchen staff are given projects to research – which they present to the whole team – and a daily training session before each service, when a staff member prepares notes and briefs the team on a particular wine or dish. Is that normal practice for restaurants? “Er, no. But we give people the tools to be able to do their individual jobs properly, with confidence. That’s a huge part of what we do. That’s why, although we say we don’t have the control, we probably have more because our team really know their subjects.”
She is equally happy to devolve power to her customers – or guests, as she calls them. Core does not operate a dress code for diners, unlike Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. “People who were quite formal there will come to Core and they’ll have trainers on and I’m like: ‘Oh! You’re actually not that person. If you choose how you dress to come to a fine-dining restaurant, you wear trainers.’ I love that. I love to see people – who they are, what they choose to be.”
There is no salt and pepper on Core’s tables, but if guests request it she’s happy to provide some. I ask if she winces if someone orders the “wrong” wine, but she shakes her head firmly. “No, not at all. As long as people have what they want, that’s our job. If someone wants their meat cooked well done, whatever they feel comfortable with is fine by us. My mum might want her beef well done. It’s not up to us to dictate how they wish to eat. We just want people to have what they feel comfortable with – because the worst thing is coming to a restaurant and not feeling comfortable. If I were to take my sister or my mum or my aunt, I wouldn’t want to sit uncomfortably in a dining room because they want well-done meat or salt and pepper. No, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to take care of people.”
A policy of taking care of people also explains Core’s limited opening hours. The restaurant operates just eight services a week – five dinners and three lunches – so the full staff are on duty for every shift, meaning there’s no danger they will be called in when off duty to cover an absent colleague. It’s her industry’s punishing working hours, Smyth says, that accounts for just four of the world’s 50 best restaurants being run by women. “Lots and lots are coming into the industry, but what we need to do with this generation is make sure we support them, so they get to the top. I hope that, when we do that, they’ll break a mould and that will be finished. We won’t need to talk about [gender] any more.”
Smyth looks a little bashful when I ask about her own work-life balance and admits to working an 80-hour week. “But I wouldn’t rather be in the pub tonight, for example. I’d rather be here. For me, this isn’t work.” Given her devotion to the job, I’m curious about why she’s not more famous. Does a cooking show on TV not appeal? She looks aghast.
“Not at all. Not at all. That isn’t something that inspires me, certainly not at this point in my career. Working with food, produce, nature – that’s what gets me excited. I’m not a television-studio kind of person.”
She catered for the royal wedding reception earlier this year, but grows coy when I bring it up. Beyond the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex had previously dined at Core, she gives nothing away and affects a surprising insouciance about being the royal couple’s choice. The trouble with outside catering jobs, she explains, is that she has to close the restaurant for the day. “And we’re, um, quite busy,” she murmurs.
What an understatement this is becomes clear when I ask how long I would have to wait for a table for four on a Friday. “September?” Presumably, though, if I called that afternoon to make a booking for the Beckhams and Oprah Winfrey, one would magically become available, wouldn’t it? She looks at me as if I must be mad.
“But we couldn’t do it. We don’t have the table.” She can’t be serious, can she? “Oh, yes. We couldn’t do it. We’re full and we’re not going to just phone up the people who booked table five and tell them: ‘You’re not coming.’ It just wouldn’t be fair.”
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