Northern Ireland

Clare Smyth: The NI chef who runs with royalty

Clare Smyth Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Originally from Bushmills, Clare Smyth's drive and ambition has propelled her to the top of the culinary world

County Antrim chef Clare Smyth has worked in her fair share of kitchens since leaving home aged just 16, but a visit to one in particular has impacted her more than any other.

She was setting up her own restaurant in Notting Hill in 2017, when a fire ripped through Grenfell Tower in west London.

In the aftermath, residents set up a community hub, with the Duchess of Sussex helping out by launching a charity cookbook to raise funds for the kitchen.

That's when Smyth became involved.

As the chef who catered for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's wedding, Smyth's friendship with the royal led to her joining the duchess at Grenfell kitchen in November.

'Big hug'

"They were feeding 300 people the day I was there, the whole community comes together and it's just such a happy place," she says.

"It's like being given a big hug when you arrive. Every community should have a model like that, which should care for the whole community.

"It was just very special."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Clare Smyth described the women who run Grenfell's community kitchen as remarkable

Smyth has given BBC Radio Ulster access for a documentary that charts her career from rural beginnings on her parents' farm in Bushmills to a stint as Gordon Ramsay's head chef, and finally, striking out on her own.

For the 40-year-old, who has lived and breathed cooking for practically her entire life, success has come through decades of hard work and self-belief.

She took the bold step of moving to Portsmouth as a teenager to go and study at cookery college.

'SAS of kitchens'

It was a decision Smyth said her parents found difficult to understand at first, but she was determined to make her way to the top of the profession.

"I knew if I wanted to be the best, I needed to work with the best," she says.

Image caption Clare Smyth showing presenter Jayne McCormack her kitchen preparation

And that's exactly what she did: in her early 20s she was working in Gordon Ramsay's London restaurant, what she called the "SAS of kitchens".

"I was petrified because it was cut-throat and the kitchen environment was testosterone driven, it's very different now to those days," she adds.

At the age of 33, having already won numerous accolades for her work, Smyth was awarded an MBE.

She says the honour was "extraordinary", and on the day she received it, she was among celebrities including Adele and Formula One's Christian Horner.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gordon Ramsay called Clare Smyth the 'Margaret Thatcher of cooking' and at one stage, made her a partner at his restaurant in Chelsea

"It was pretty cool as a chef to be in that kind of company."

After years working with Ramsay, Smyth decided she had one goal still to scratch off: opening her own restaurant.

She finally did it in summer 2017 when she opened Core, in Notting Hill.

Since then, it's received a raft of rave reviews and currently has two Michelin stars to its name.

Last year, Smyth was also voted the world's top female chef - another achievement to add to her rapidly growing list of successes.

Image caption Clare Smyth's signature potato dish

In a hat-tip to her upbringing in Northern Ireland, Smyth's signature dish on the menu is the humble potato, but with a fine dining twist.

She still gets back home when she can, and praises the changes in the food industry in Belfast since she was growing up.

"It's nice to see so many young Northern Ireland chefs who have travelled and chosen to go back and open their own places there," she adds.

But does she have any plans to expand her brand to Belfast?

Not yet, she says - but never say never.

Catering a royal wedding

In the meantime, the chef clearly has enough on her plate.

Running a restaurant is a 24-hour job in itself, but then last year, Smyth was also asked to cater for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's wedding.

She wasn't able to divulge too much, but says the occasion was "a real honour and privilege" and something she will remember for a long time.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Prince Harry and Meghan pictured leaving for their wedding reception last May

Her time spent creating a wedding menu for the royals sparked a friendship with the duchess, and Smyth described her as a "very caring person", especially because of her involvement with the Grenfell community.

Meanwhile 2019 brings another big occasion - a new royal baby.

But has Smyth been booked for the christening party yet?

"Not yet, of course we would love to do it," she says, with a smile.

"But we'll wait for that one."

Clare Smyth: Superchef is on BBC Radio Ulster at 12:30 GMT on Sunday 20 January and available afterwards on BBC Sounds and the iPlayer radio app.

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