Clare Smyth: I don’t know any male chef who has taken paternity leave
In January, Clare Smyth achieved her lifelong dream of being awarded three Michelin stars, one of only four British restaurateurs to have ever received the honour. Despite having talent, determination and experience in top kitchens, throughout her career people have told Smyth that she would never make it.
She recalls being interviewed for a job at a restaurant with one Michelin star, early in her career. The chef asked her what her ambitions were, and she replied that she wanted to be a world-class chef. “[He] said to me: ‘Well, that’s probably not going to happen’”, she says. “I thought to myself: ‘One day I will have your job, or I will be better than you’”.”
She was correct. This year her Notting Hill restaurant, Core by Clare Smyth, was awarded three Michelin stars. She is the first British woman ever to receive the accolade.
Smyth was speaking to The Telegraph’s Claire Cohen on her Imposters podcast, which you can listen to using the audio player above. The series interviews a different woman in the public eye each week and asks how they experience imposter syndrome – the feeling that they somehow don’t deserve the success they’ve achieved.
Smyth’s passion for food started young. Growing up in County Antrim she spent school summer holidays working in the kitchens of local restaurants, and at 16 she left home to study catering at Highbury College in Portsmouth.
She quickly found her way into the best kitchens in Britain, working in the Roux brothers’ Waterside Inn, and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, before being offered a job at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant at the age of 23.
“It was a kitchen that was absolutely on fire at that point”, she says of the Chelsea, west London, restaurant. “The pace, the energy, the determination of the team. Everyone wanted to work there.”
However, when she joined, she was told that women never lasted long on the team – which sadly, was correct. “When they said that women wouldn’t last, it was generally because they just didn’t”, she says.
That’s perhaps not surprising, given the ultra-macho culture of haute cuisine kitchens at the time. Much of that reputation stemmed from Ramsay, who in 2005 infamously said that women “can’t cook to save their lives”. “When they eat, they cheat – it is ready meals and pre-prepared meals all the way,” he told the Radio Times.
Smyth defends Ramsay, and says that although he often loves “grabbing a headline and often says controversial things for fun”, in private he was an excellent boss. “He would take me outside and give me pep talks”, she says. “[He would] say: ‘Margaret Thatcher was a young woman one day also, and she was quite shy, but then she led the country’.”
She rose through the ranks and became head chef of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at the precocious age of 29. In 2017, she opened her own restaurant, Core, in Notting Hill, west London. It has been widely lauded, winning her a perfect 10/10 in the Good Food Guide, five AA rosettes, and her three Michelin stars. In the next few months she will open her second restaurant, in Sydney.
Other honours have included being chosen as the caterer for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018. She says the Core team felt “very privileged” to be a part of the day and describes the couple as “both really lovely people”.
However, she says the day was also incredibly stressful. The level of organisation, time management and perfection needed was like working “in a Formula One pit lane”. “But it’s something that the team I will certainly remember for our whole lives”, she says. “It was like a fairy tale.”
Smyth says that she has seen great change within the food world over the course of her career. She says she is naturally shy, but felt pressure to conform with the aggressive and shouty personalities in the kitchen. It took her a few years of being at the helm to realise that: “I could change things and I could do things differently and I could be myself”, she says.
Although the macho tempers of the kitchen have cooled down, Smyth says attitudes of many male chefs are still stuck in the past. Does she know any chefs who have taken paternity leave? “No, actually, I don’t”, she says. “We need to keep evolving.”
Listen to Clare Smyth on The Telegraph’s new podcast, Imposters using the player at the top of this page, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app