As part of the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2019, a talented aspiring cook will complete stages in the kitchens of Julien Royer at Odette, Jorge Vallejo at Quintonil and the elit Vodka World’s Best Female Chef Clare Smyth at Core by Clare Smyth.
Now widely recognised as one of the leading cooks on the planet, Northern Ireland-born Smyth opened her restaurant in London’s Notting Hill in 2017, after undertaking dozens of stages as a young chef and working with Gordon Ramsay for 13 years, becoming chef patron of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in 2012. We find out her tips and opinions on doing stages, finding a mentor and what a stagiaire can expect at Core.
The importance of doing stages
“I knew I was going to be a chef from the age of 15. I went to college, but I was always hungry to get into the best kitchens very early on. Doing stages even for a couple of days was key to my development as a young chef – to have even a day or two to understand a few things, the kitchen or the style, the atmosphere, or to become inspired by something.
“Even when I was at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, when I was head chef at 28 years old, I still went off to Spain and spent a few days at Arzak and El Celler de Can Roca. That thirst for learning, for experience, for understanding the spirit and the way other people cook and think, is invaluable.
“As a young chef, you have to find the place that feels right for you. Kitchens have a feeling. If you belong there, you’ll know. It's something that just feels right and you need to have the opportunity to do that.”
Choosing the right restaurant to work in
“I love the energy and the buzz of certain kitchens, the atmosphere. Everyone is unique at the top level and that's a great thing, because you can follow a certain chef's style of cooking that you really connect with. I certainly followed my gut instinct my whole career.
“It takes a long time to get to the top, but in my early years, it was really valuable to choose the best chefs to work with. If you want to make it to the top of the industry, don't waste your time. There is no easy route to the top, it’s all hard work and you've got to have a lot of passion, drive and determination to do it.
“I stuck with my jobs for a long time, I went all the way through the kitchen and I learnt all areas. Stages are invaluable because they give you a little glimpse into certain ways to cook, but afterwards, you need to select where you want to work and spend a good amount of time there.”
Smyth in the kitchen at Core
Working with Gordon Ramsay
“I learnt a tremendous amount [from Ramsay]. The thing I probably absorbed the most is his management style. He's an extremely good manager of people. The consistency and the discipline in the kitchen enable him, at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, to maintain three Michelin stars for all these years.”
When Ramsay told Smyth that she ‘wouldn’t last a week’ in his kitchen
“I think it's really important to prove people wrong. That kind of comment fuels me. The thing at that point, at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, is that he wasn’t being nasty. It was just that most people, male or female, didn't last a week, because it was so difficult. It wasn't that he was saying 'oh, you're a woman, you won't last a week', or because of lack of skill, it was just that most people didn't [last a week]. He wasn't even the first chef to say that to me. In those days, they almost wore it as a badge of honour when people couldn't handle working in their kitchen.
“But that fuelled me to prove people wrong. Something that Gordon taught me quite early on was: focus on yourself and don't worry about anyone else. Don't let anyone ruin your opportunities and what you want to achieve. Set out what you want, focus on you and on being the best that you can be every day.”
Training and working at Core
“You have to train people. Giving someone the tools to be able to do their job properly is key. If they don't understand, or if you haven't trained them properly, then there is no point in getting upset when they can't do it.
“We have quite a good training program, we call it Core Academy. It's a big part of what we do and every week there is a different project. One of the team members sets the project and they gather research for it. Every Wednesday morning they do a presentation for the whole team.
“Normally [on the first day], we do an interview with them and then an induction, so they get their training manuals and information packs about Core. One of the senior team members will explain everything to them. They are given a programme to work their way through the kitchen and they are put with a chef de partie. Depending on how long they are with us, we set them a schedule to be able to see the whole kitchen.
“I want everybody to be themselves, I want their characters to come through. I want people to be happy and I want to see people smiling a lot, and to see who they are as people. By the time they leave after working with us, they should be well-rounded individuals. They should be respectful towards each other, the producers, the customers and the hospitality industry.”
Potato and roe
Becoming and being a great chef
“To be a great chef professionally, you should have very good training and understanding of every operation. You should be able to step from one kitchen to another kitchen to a five-star hotel. You need real discipline, consistency and knowledge.
“It's like learning to play an instrument, then learning to play lots of instruments so that you can be the conductor of an orchestra. The more you can learn when you're young, the better chef you are going to be. You are going to have all that in your toolbox to be able to use it later on.”
The importance of inspiring young people
“It's key to inspire people. I wouldn't be where I am today if people didn't take me under their wing and inspired me as a young chef, giving me opportunities and a certain kindness as well. People I looked up to taught me things because they could see that I was passionate about learning and they inspired me.
“We don't know anything as young people. We only know what we see. So to get exposure to things, to be inspired, it's so important.
“Give it a go! The most important thing, whatever you do, is learn, work hard, but also be yourself. Be confident and be yourself.”
The value of the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship
“It's a brilliant programme. It's great to be able to give someone the opportunity to come into Core and to do this stage. It's global, so it’s great to give anyone coming from any background this opportunity. We're excited to show them a little bit about our culture and our kitchen culture – the fact that we’re a very British restaurant and that we are so passionate about training and educating young people.
“Each restaurant is unique. The three restaurants that this person is going to be working at are completely different from each other and that's phenomenally exciting. They are going to see very different things and be inspired in many different ways.”
Find out more about Smyth's philosophy and inspiration in the video:
Header images: Clare Smyth in the kitchen at Core; Lamb Carrot
Applications to the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2019 are open until Wednesday 19th December to chefs with less than three years’ experience in a professional kitchen. Apply now on the Scholarship portal and read the interview with Julien Royer of Odette and Jorge Vallejo and Alejandra Flores of Quintonil, the other host chefs for the 2019 scholarship.
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