Two months ago, British chef Gordon Ramsay announced that he was briefly closing and relaunching his London flagship, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. And, along with the revamp, Ramsay also revealed that head chef Clare Smyth would become a partner with him in the restaurant where she has worked for nine years.
Now a month into her chef-patron role at the Chelsea restaurant, Smyth talks about creating a brand new dining room and how it was designed to feel a little more like a restaurant of her own. Smyth also discusses the need for a restaurant with three Michelin stars to stay at the top of its game and, as the only women in the UK to hold three stars, weighs in on whether the restaurant world needs a separate award system for female chefs.
So when did you guys decide to relaunch Restaurant Gordon Ramsay?
We refurbed about six years ago and we had to make a decision whether we were going to just sort of update it a little bit or actually do the whole thing again. We decided to do it completely brand new refurbishment of the restaurant with a new interior. It was a good time to launch our other partnership between myself and Gordon.
Yeah, how long had that been in the works?
It was something we've talked about for awhile now. And also we wanted to make the restaurant feel a little bit more like my own. So when we did the redesign we made it sort of timeless and classic, but a little bit more feminine. I worked a lot with the designers on it, choosing the new plates and really just [tying] everything together. It does really feel like much more mine now. I've always been very passionate about this place and loved it, but this time around being involved in every single detail of it was something that I'm really proud of and really happy with.
So you added a liquor library and a chef's table, right?
We call it the Experience Table. It's not a chef's table in the same way as lots of other chef's tables. It's a table that at the moment we're using only [to serve] four of our regular guests and offer them a slightly different experience because they have been coming for so many years, for the last 15 years. Some of them have been dining with us since Gordon was at the Aubergine. We wanted to offer them something a little bit special, something that's different. So we want to interact with them in a bit more of a fun way.
We've developed a relationship with these people over so many years that normally they would just come into the kitchen and say to me, "Hey Clare, what have you got for me today?" or "What are you working on?" And I'll tell them, "Okay, why don't you try this? I'll do this for you." Now they've got that table, and I'll try out my new dishes and they can give me their honest feedback. And also kind of have a little bit of fun with them, where I go out to the table and talk with him. I actually did one last night for one of our neighbors. It's just quite cool. It's great fun.
How did they like it?
They absolutely loved it. It does feel very special. And then a couple of the other regulars have come in and saw the table and they've said, "Hey, how come we're not this table?" And now they've booked it now also. So I think this is going to happen a lot. I don't think the table will be very available.
That's a good problem to have.
Yeah. It'll sell itself for sure.
And what has the general response been since the refurb?
The other guests genuinely love it. Before we closed, we had been talking to everyone saying we're changing the design of the restaurant. Lots of the regulars were saying, "Oh, but we love this one" and they were worried about it. Now since they've all been back, they love this one even more.
You know, things get outdated and times change quite quickly. I think the last dining room was of its time, and this one now definitely feels more comfortable. It's a little bit warmer and it's just a little bit lighter and more feminine. All the guests absolutely love the new design even more.
It's been three brand new dining rooms here, which is pretty unusual for a restaurant. Normally places are designed once and then they're just updated. But we've had three completely different looks and dining rooms. And so some of our guests have been here through all three and one thing that's always the same is the food and the service, which is the most important thing.
[Photo: Restaurant Gordon Ramsay]
Have you changed the menu at all?
No we haven't. We're always evolving the menu anyway and we very much work with the seasons and the produce. We're not going to change the style of what we're doing. It's difficult for us because everyone asks the same questions. We have our loyal following and our regular customers and our style is very set here. We don't just change the style of what we're doing because that's the reason people come to the restaurant. I think it's an iconic restaurant where people know they're going to come here for certain dishes.
For example, I recently ate in Per Se while we were closed and I had the oysters and pearls and the egg with the truffle custard, and I just was so happy to have those dishes because those dishes are fantastic and I really look forward to eating those when I go there. I think that's the sign of a great restaurant, they have signatures like that that are just fantastic. And people want to eat that when they go back because that's the restaurant. Like our lobster ravioli. It's always on the menu here and people, they come and have it time and time again.
And I read in an interview Gordon explained changing up every few years at the three-star Michelin level restaurant is necessary to stay ahead of any criticism and keep things fresh.
Yeah. Having three Michelin stars, people have expectations when they come here. And they come from all over the world. So we need to keep up-to-date and keep everything absolutely immaculate in the restaurant. Absolutely. For sure.
And we look at everything all the time. It's a constant research and development. We always have the best of everything, from products to glassware to plates to the interiors of the dining room. We need to constantly work on these things to stay at that level. I always say it's like anyone that's at the top of any industry or sport, you have to keep working every day to stay at the top. If you don't, you're going to fall down. So absolutely, that's why we needed to make this investment again now and stay right at the top.
So switching to another topic, there has been some debate here about the Best Female Chef award saying it shouldn't be necessary to separate men and women. What do you think?
Yeah, that's a really difficult question. I don't think it's necessary really, but it is a nice award. And I think the people that get recognized really deserve to. Someone like Nadia Santini this year is a phenomenal chef. Certainly she inspired me when I was growing up. So yeah I do think it is nice that people like her get recognized. Sometimes trends and fashions pass by or she might not be in the media limelight, but it's nice to bring it out and give her some recognition because she's quite a phenomenal lady and she has a very unique story.
But it is debatable about the whole female chefs thing. Everyone always asks me about that. I've not felt any different because I've just always come through male-dominated kitchens, but I've always been kind of one of the boys. It's never been any different to me. I've always competed on the same level, I've always been accepted on the team. Yeah so, I feel there is no difference to me.
Does it bother you to always get questions about being a female chef?
Yeah, lots of questions about that. But I didn't even think about it until I actually took over as the head chef here. That's when everyone started asking me. Before that in my career it never really occurred to me that there weren't that many female chefs. I just did my job every day. And then suddenly everyone starts asking me. And it was like, "Oh really? Oh yeah." It's something I never really even noticed before. I just kind of got on with the job.