La Dulse Vita
Crowned the world’s best female chef, even before she rustled up the wedding supper for Prince Harry and Baroness Kilkeel, it was only a matter of time until Northern Ireland born Clare Smyth MBE would put her own name above the door. “For about 15 years of my life I’ve spent working in three Michelin star restaurants,” Clare recalls. “The last 10 years I spent heading up Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant – I was a partner with him. It was a very traditional style of cooking with beautiful ingredients. I just had a burning desire to do something new, a new challenge for me, and it became Core. Core meaning my heart, the seed of something new. It was a very special moment for me.” Previous experience included working for Alain Ducasse, Heston Blumenthal and the Roux Brothers.
Core by Clare Smyth is in the heart of Notting Hill. Kensington Park Road bisects this stunning stablished stuccoed world of terraces and crescents and circuses. “People offer you glass boxes in the City but I wanted something with character,” she says, “I’ve always had a passion for neighbourhood restaurants.” Her space occupies the ground floor of a block of three terraced houses. “We found a building that was built in 1861,” she explains. “It had lots of Victorian character but it was a shell; it was a mess. We had to do so much work to the building; it was a disaster, but a great journey! Inside, it had lots of beautiful features but as we started to pull it apart, the foundations crumbled, the drains fell in. It got very very delayed. This was my first project. It was a big project to take on. I started this from writing the business plan myself all the way through to going to the bank – concept, everything.”
As far as neighbourhoods go you don’t get much better than this. Next door to Core is St Peter’s Notting Hill. Like much of this swanky area’s architecture, the Grade II* Anglican church (designed by Thomas Allom) dates from the mid 19th century. It’s still an active contributor to the community. Vicar Pat Allerton says, “Whether you’re a lifelong Christian or just asking questions, you’re really welcome. We’re a church family doing our best to follow Jesus Christ, love one another and offer hope to our local community.” Jonathan Aitken, MP turned Prison Chaplain, recently preached at St Peter’s.
A more recent architectural addition to Notting Hill – not that you’d guess it at a glance – is architect Demetri Porphyrios’s residential building behind Core. Chepstow Villas, as you’d imagine, are chunky detached houses and Demetri’s infill looks like its neighbours, both in scale and style. Number 48 is stuccoed with two chunky bays rising through three lofty storeys to prop up an open pediment. But it was only completed in 1989 and is actually a block of purpose built apartments. Then of course there’s Portobello Market… so little time, so many distractions… but we’ve swashbucklingly swept into W11 for the Portobello mushrooms.
Booking three months ago, the last available table was for noon. Maybe that’s what happens when a restaurant’s so current it swoops up two Michelin stars a year after opening. And now she’s the star of a Netflix series, Clare Smyth has swiftly migrated from a name to those-in-the-know to the household variety. She’s upbeat about her industry: “The culinary scene’s phenomenal. Right across the UK we have brilliant world leading restaurants and we have a generation of chefs that have really made it their own.”
Clare has certainly made it her own. “I’ve worked very hard, it’s not just happened overnight. I don’t pinch myself and think ‘I’m lucky’. I think ‘I left home at 16 to become a chef and I worked for it’.” Indeed. “You want to be successful, you want your business to be successful, so you’ve always got to make sure you stay ahead of the game. I try to be better every day.” As to be expected at three figure prices per head, there’s a high sommelier to consumer ratio and even higher waiter to waited on quota. It’s a 54 cover dining room. We’re at Table Five: there is no Siberia. The beautiful people are here and there are some quite attractive couples at the other tables.
Upon arrival, Clare herself – tall, blonde, elegant – stands smiling waving at us from behind the kitchen window. After lunch we will chat to her in the kitchen. Like everything about Core, the menu is beautifully presented with great contents and a personal touch; it’s signed by Clare and her Chefs. The plates are decorated with her fingerprint, reflecting the Marc Quinn giant fingerprint pictures hanging on the walls. Naturally lit by two arched windows, the dining room is comfortably luxurious and luxuriously comfortable.
And so to the menu. “The beginning: lobster and black truffle thermidor gougères. Pepper and olive tart. Veggie Core Fried Chicken and caviar. Core Caesar Salad.” The tart shell is made of crab stock. “Colchester crab: black truffle, celery and red apple. Potato and roe: dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe. Seabass: oysters, cucumber and caviar. Celeriac: roasted over wood with black truffle and hazelnut. The other carrot. Snow ball: chestnut, vanilla, pine, eggnog.” The seabass is line caught from Cornwall. The celeriac is soft baked for four hours. The other carrot is posh carrot cake in the shape of a carrot. “The end: white truffle and hazelnut choux. Champagne jelly.” Shoot the moon, the food is fabulous, utterly knockout! It surpasses our wildest expectations and our expectations are pretty wild. Culinary art beautifully sculpted.
Clare hales from a farm near Bushmills, County Antrim. The north coast has two native delicacies: yellowman and dulse. The former is a chewy toffee textured honeycomb. The latter is a purply edible seaweed. Yellowman might not make an appearance on the menu – “I’ve made it once!” Clare admits – but dulse does. In fact, dulse beurre blanc is part of her signature potato dish. It’s good to see that a chef of such international standing hasn’t forgotten her roots. When Michel Roux Junior had Clare’s “potato and roe” he called it “divine”.
In fact Clare declares, “Core is all about being British as much as we can right through to the core, so I really wondered why in my career we were using everything coming from France? I really questioned everything before we opened. I thought, well, why can’t we use British plates? Why can’t we use British designers? We had a 300 year old tradition of making the finest bone china in the world in Stoke-on-Trent but when you go there now there’s huge unemployment and those cultures and traditions have almost died out.” She’s on a mission: “So I was like I’m going to have them make my plates; I’m going to use Sheffield steel; I’m going to use British wood. We source our scallops from The Ethical Shellfish Company on the Isle of Mull. The millers than make the flour for our bread, Wessex Mill, are a fifth generation family owned business. So Core is very much a project from the heart.”