'People think having three stars is glamorous, it's actually quite boring' 

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

As we spoke to three Michelin-starred Chef Clare Smyth on a fine April morning, she was gearing up, getting ready to reopen and packing the last of the Core at Home boxes. 

"Hopefully we'll be there on the 17th," she said, referring to the May reopening.

While the boxes have proved to be a really good way of entertaining people, keeping restaurants in people's minds and giving her team the opportunity to continue spoiling people and connecting with them, she's glad to see the back of them.

"It's done now. The spring's here and we're ready to get back to normal again." 

Achieving three stars in a pandemic

Normal will not be the same as before, however, as the restaurant closed its doors last year with two Michelin stars, and will be reopening with three.

"It's a little bit all over the place in terms of emotions," she said. 

"We were all on a massive low this year and then winning three stars is a massive high - I'm blown away, I really didn't expect it."

She and the team had been planning to "throw the kitchen sink at it" once they reopened, she said, but they didn't expect for it to come so soon. 

Clare has spent fifteen years in three star kitchens pushing for it, so "it would have been an injustice to myself if I didn't do that in my own right and in my team's right." 

Having said that, she added, "in a year where we couldn't celebrate, it's like, what a positive in such a crappy year." 

Shrouded in some mystery there are ways of figuring out whether one's place in the guide is more or less likely, and Clare did inquire as to how many times inspectors' had time to visit in the year and a quarter that elapsed between the 2020 and the 2021 guide. 

"They did tell me afterwards - I never speak to them but I spoke to them the next day just to thank them and they said that they had had eight meals at Core. They said they do have their ways in." 

On the importance of her team, past and present

Asked if she can credit any one with helping to achieve such a success, she said: "not really, because it's a team, it's an ethos, it's a culture." 

"There's about 15 people who've been there since day 1, about 30 people who've been there for two years. You think: 'hold on a minute, there's our three stars.'" 

"It's that longevity that really raises your standard."

"You can't do it alone. It's every little element, every bit, the consistency, discipline, the drive everyday of the whole team to achieve that level. You can't just achieve it once, you have to achieve it for every single plate, every single day. That isn't glamorous."

"People think having three stars is glamorous, it's actually quite boring." 

"You have to be a certain type of person to have that level of focus and dedication. It's akin to being an athlete or a professional sports person in lots of ways. You must do everything everytime and you must put that effort in every single day. 

Gordon, Angela, Alain, et al.

As for the influence the many people she had worked for and with, it is undeniable. 

"It's not just Gordon," she said, "but the first person on the phone when we found out we'd won three stars was Gordon, the second person was Angela Hartnett, then Tom Kerridge, then Paul Ainsworth," all people who have effectively seen her grow up in kitchens over the past two decades. 

"Those people have taught me a lot, in an industry that you always stand on the shoulders of people from before.

"As a British chef, to be the fourth British chef to win three stars, then I think about people that have gone before me," citing, among others, The Roux brothers, who she credits for up ending British gastronomy forever.

"They have resulted in me, a British chef, winning three stars, which is still incredibly rare." 

"Learning and taking that knowledge is incredibly important as a young chef."

The biggest thing Gordon gave her, she said, was opportunity. 

"it's always up to the individual - that person's got to have that inspiration and drive to do something. Gordon gave me the opportunity and opened the door for me, and I think he was a big enough person to let me crack on and get on with it, knowing that if something went wrong, he would back me up.

"I think that's an incredible to have and even to this day, I know he's always got my back. If I ever need anything, I can call him."

"It's an incredible thing to give someone the opportunities that he gave me, and always just to back me up, to give me that confidence to say 'yeah, you know what you're doing, get on with it.' That's how you learn, through making mistakes. I've made plenty, but to know that someone is going to be there and say 'it's fine,' allows you to grow." 

Not casting shadow on her many previous accomplishments, achieving three stars for her own restaurant rather than someone else's feels like a whole other ballpark. 

"It's mine. I own it, I put my own money into it - that's a huge thing. That's like backing yourself with everything that you've got. I put my house on that restaurant." 

And while Gordon provided some financial support, she said, "I put my heart and soul into it."

Starting with a low budget, the team has just reinvested in the business at every opportunity.

"We don't have the most expensive plates, we don't have the most expensive cutlery. 

"I think it's a really good thing for chefs and young chefs to see that you don't have to have a billionaire backer to open a restaurant and earn three stars.

"You can do it yourself, you can own it and I think that's something that I always want to promote.

"There's a big risk in it but if you back yourself and you're good enough you should succeed." 

"Restaurant Gordon Ramsay was standalone and won three stars, Pierre Koffmann, The Fat Duck. As time goes by we always think: 'oh it's because I don't have the most expensive plates that I'm not getting it.' It goes to show that it is about the food that you put on the plate." 

What comes next after achieving three stars

Clare Smyth will not be deterred by her successes, and there is a lot she and her team still want to achieve.

"We were on a journey regardless. I want to make it a world-class restaurant, a world-class destination, a world-class place to work and I really want to move it forward and continue to move it forward and make it better all the time for everyone in it." 

"It's just three years old, the restaurant is just a baby. We're just getting started." 

One thing Clare is particularly passionate about is education, and her education platform, Core Academy, is just the beginning. 

While it isn't every chef's dream to achieve three Michelin stars, she said, "educating young people and making our industry more respected within the UK is really important." 

"We know with Brexit that the education system for the hospitality industry could do with a real lift and some better PR for it - I think that is the kind of thing I would like to help move forward a bit." 

Her rigorous internal training programme instills her team "with knowledge, tools and the confidence they need. Plus if someone has a lot of knowledge, they want to share it with everyone else and it just creates a culture." 

"We need to resolve other issues in the industry and we've got a long way to go but we can do it bit by bit, but one of the key things for me is education." 

"How do we get more young people in the hospitality industry in the UK and how do we get it more respected - we need to move it forward. I think that's what chefs like myself and high profile chefs can help to do." 

"It's a brilliant profession, it gives so many opportunities to young people, it's something I'm really passionate about. When you look at some of these young people in hospitality now, they're fantastic." 

With most of her interns having trained in France, Spain, Switzerland and beyond, she said:" I'd love to see some world-class hospitality schools in the UK." 

"We don't have things like that here in the UK. I'd love to see that change - I think that at a government level we should really consider investing in." 

A proponent for a hospitality minister, she said she laughed when she saw government talking about the hospitality industry for the first time in the context of a recovery plan. 

"Now they've realised how important the hospitality industry is to the economy - it's the first time they've started talking about us.

"And actually, yes, we need more investment into education, and now with Brexit we're going to really struggle to get the staff we need and we need the workforce to be able to fuel hospitality which is massive - and it always grows. It will continue to grow as soon as it comes back, we'll be pumping it." 

More than that, she explained, but hospitality has real a role to play in restoring the British spirit. 

"I feel we're all really passionate about it - we've had everyone from the scientists and doctors and nurses to get us out of the hole that we're in, and the next bit is the recovery in terms of people's wellbeing, mental health and connecting with other human beings, and that's where we come in." 

"We're the bit that people live for, the enjoyment that is hospitality and leisure, tourism, food tourism. That's our bit now." 

On what the pandemic has taught her

What struck Clare when the pandemic hit was how quickly her team was able to change its business model.

"We never had to think like that, we never had the time to do it, setting up new systems, organising an online shop, getting the At Home offering online. I'm always surprised at how popular we are and quite humbled by it; you don't realise until you do something that people really want it." 

"We are more resilient than we think and we will survive regardless and we will find ways to do things. I love business, I'm always fascinated by doing business and I think being able to pivot and do something completely new was fun. We've grown in confidence for sure and we know that we can do it and how resourceful the team are." 

I laugh at how it took three Michelin stars and massive public support to realise that her restaurant is resilient, and she said: "I think the day you stop thinking like that, everything will change. I'm always grateful for every single guest who walks through the door. I was always from day 1 when Core opened, I was just humbled that people came." 

"Our goal is to always try and treat every single person like superstars, make them leave feeling special. That's not just got to do with the food, that's got to do with the whole team and everything that we do." 

"Sometimes I'll walk out of a high-end restaurant feeling unsure whether or not I've enjoyed it - is the atmosphere quite right, did I really enjoy the food. I actually want people to walk out of the doors thinking to themselves, 'God I had a good time, I really want to come back.'"

"That is the best thing that you can do, that is the biggest achievement for me." 

time for some fun

Mighty impressive as she might be, Clare is only human, and is looking forward to the same things as we all are when we come out of lockdown. 

"Seeing my friends, my family, and getting back to travelling. It's what we work for, it's what we live for, to spend that time we care about and love and that's done in hospitality. Eating out, going out, having those great moments, getting back to travelling and going to those great places that I love." 

California will be her first destination - because that's where some of her favourite restaurants in the world are. 

A restaurant launch in Sydney is due soon - and she hopes to visit when it does, but she can't say for sure. 

"It's far from an ideal situation but we are faced with what we are faced with, and we just have to get on with things."

Videos from restaurant Core by Clare Smyth:


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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 20th April 2021

'People think having three stars is glamorous, it's actually quite boring'