The first time I met chef Clare Smyth was on the Sony studio lot in Culver City, Hollywood in December last year. It's where they are shooting the ultimate episode of The Final Table, a new cooking show from Netflix that mixes the biographical elements of Chef's Table with the competitive nature of BBC's culinary rival MasterChef: The Professionals.
Smyth, one of the nine elite judges waiting to welcome the victor on to their final table of stardom, and I are both marvelling at the pizzazz. "It's probably the most glamorous set that I've ever been on," Smyth says, in the midst of flashing lights, triumphant music and an auditorium worthy of some of Los Angeles' famous concert venues. Then there is a digital mural with its illustration of the sky, replete with clouds, moons and stars, which is where the winner of the contest will probably end up.
It's a fitting venue for what is arguably the glitziest cooking show ever created, where even the contestants have earned Michelin stars for their restaurants. These chefs are paired with another cooking great, who either they have worked with in the past or cooks a similar cuisine.
Each episode concentrates on a cuisine from a country native to one of the nine judges: Anne-Sophie Pic (France), Enrique Olvera (Mexico), Helena Rizzo (Brazil), Grant Achatz (US), Andoni Luis Aduriz (Spain), Carlo Cracco (Italy), Vineet Bhatia (India), Yoshihiro Narisawa (Japan) and Smyth (UK).
There are several touches of spice that transform the traditional ingredients of a cooking show and give the whole thing an haute-cuisine makeover. The third episode, which focuses on British food, is where Smyth is most in the limelight.
In the first part of each episode, three celebrities from the country in focus – for the British leg it's former footballer Gary Lineker, television presenter Cat Deeley and Observer food critic Jay Rayner – decide on a national dish they want the contestants to cook, then judge it themselves. The chefs that they deem to have cooked the worst three dishes are then put into a play-off, where a chef decides on an ingredient typical to their own country that must serve as the basis of their next dish. The pair that makes the least-good effort (it would not be fair to say worst, given the standard of cuisine) is eliminated.
Smyth chooses the garden pea. What would make chefs who have earned Michelin stars enter a competition where they place their reputation on the line trying to invent a dish in an hour? The answer comes from the incredible success of Chef's Table, which in many ways rewrote the recipe for a culinary show. Any chef featured counted the rewards with tables at their locales being booked out seconds after going on offer.
The incredible exposure explains why Smyth flew to Los Angeles a couple of months after opening her own first restaurant, Core, in London's posh Notting Hill. "To be honest I didn't want to be away from it, but it's a great show and I couldn't pass it off," she says. "I'm a big fan of Chef's Table, and these guys make brilliant shows."
'I put pressure on myself, regardless of what happens'
Eleven months later, Smyth and I are sitting in Core. In that intervening period, she has been named World's Best Female Chef 2018 by the esteemed World's 50 Best Restaurants organisation, while Core has recently been awarded two Michelin stars.
When she was chef patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, she became the first female British chef at a restaurant that held and retained three Michelin stars. You sense that even if she is ecstatic that her 14-month-old restaurant has won two stars, she will not rest on her laurels and is striving for the ultimate accolade. For Smyth, receiving such plaudits "is important".
"Chefs who have them want to keep them," Smyth says. "They always want another one. Those that don't have them want them, no matter what they say. It adds value to the industry."
"Core has a long way to go. We've got a lot of plans for the next year, new things that we will be doing. I put pressure on myself, regardless of what happens."
The restaurant is beautiful and down to earth. There are spelt flowers on the dark-wood tables, and bucking the norm for fine-dining restaurants, there are no tablecloths. The plates are made in England and have Smyth's fingerprint embossed on them. There is a glass wall that lets diners see into the kitchen.
“For me now, it’s my home,” Smyth says. “That’s one of the key things for me, that I get to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to all my guests. We put a big glass wall to the dining room so I can see everyone, so there are no barriers. I want that familiarity; old-school hospitality in a very fine-dining way, because the welcome you get in that family-style restaurant the welcome you get is probably better than anywhere else.”
'It’s about making people happy'
Born in 1978, Smyth grew up in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. She loved cooking, and it was her friends that encouraged her to be a chef. At the age of 16, she went to study catering at Highbury College in Portsmouth, serving an apprenticeship at Grayshott Hall in Surrey. Then began her quick ascent, working at Terence Conran, then Gordon Ramsay, and Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV restaurant in Monaco.
When she opened Core, she wanted to challenge the status quo. "I spent 15 years of my life working at three Michelin-starred restaurants, using very luxurious ingredients," she says. "I really think it's a great challenge and mark of a great chef to create something spectacular from something so humble. It's easy to make a langoustine beautiful – it's a different challenge when you're starting to cook with peas and potatoes."
Her secret, she says, is “I don’t find it hard to be creative. I’ve always wanted to be at the top end of the industry because I’m a naturally creative person.”
She compares eating haute cuisine to putting on a show: “With fine dining, it’s a bit like going to the theatre. You want to be impressed by what the plate looks like as well as what the food looks like. It’s about making people happy.”
That means being ready to cater for everyone, no matter their food choice. "Going back 10 years, catering for dietary requirements almost didn't exist. Now it's very much part of what we do, so we embrace it. When we opened Core, we did a massive amount of research and development into the food to have versions of every dish to cater for pretty much every diet."
Given that she is the world's top female chef and considering the burgeoning reputation of Core, many people are curious to see if the restaurant is the first of a franchise. She views it differently.
"Core is meant to be the centre of the heart and the seed of something," she says. "It's come to life now, and it's living and breathing and has a personality of its own, and that's not for me to roll out. It's a unique place."
But she doesn't rule out an operation in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere. "Wherever I open in the world. I would do it in the same spirit of Core. We are in Britain so I use British ingredients, but elsewhere, I would look to the culture of the place and try to embrace that."
Until then, we can make do with watching Smyth cast judgment on The Final Table.
The Final Table is on Netflix from November 20