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Northern Ireland star chef Clare Smyth on encouraging young women into career that is her passion

She's one of the world's leading chefs, and 14 months after opening her own London restaurant she was awarded two Michelin stars. Ahead of a television profile, Bushmills-born Clare Smyth tells Claire O'Boyle how cooking is her life and why she encourages more young women to aim to make their mark in the industry

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Clare Smyth

Clare Smyth

The Duchess of Sussex and Clare at the Hubb Community Kitchen in London, which helps refugees and homeless people

The Duchess of Sussex and Clare at the Hubb Community Kitchen in London, which helps refugees and homeless people

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Clare Smyth with Rita Fitzgerald in the kitchen

Clare Smyth with Rita Fitzgerald in the kitchen

Clare Smyth with Rita at Queen’s University

Clare Smyth with Rita at Queen’s University

Rita with Gordon Ramsay

Rita with Gordon Ramsay

Clare Smyth

She catered at the star-studded wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and is on first-name terms with the Beckhams, yet for Clare Smyth, one of the world's top chefs, the glitz of her job is not the part she loves most.

As she prepares for a documentary to air on Friday night on UTV telling the story of her remarkable road to success from rural Co Antrim to where she is now, Clare, whose London restaurant Core by Clare Smyth received two Michelin stars just 14 months after it opened, admits she finds the experience an odd one.

"It's exciting, but it's a bit bizarre really," she says. "It's strange to have something like this made about yourself. I often don't watch things I'm on.

"It's nice to do the odd bits and pieces of television, but my ultimate focus is on what I'm doing every day and what I love doing.

"I'm kind of a chef's chef. I love the restaurant and the cooking and working with people.

"I'd never say never, but I believe anything you do, you have to put 100% into it if you're going to be successful at it.

"A lot of the chefs that are very successful on TV are 100% focused on that. I'm just not ready to do that. I'm very much focused on the restaurant business right now."

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The Duchess of Sussex and Clare at the Hubb Community Kitchen in London, which helps refugees and homeless people

The Duchess of Sussex and Clare at the Hubb Community Kitchen in London, which helps refugees and homeless people

Getty Images

The Duchess of Sussex and Clare at the Hubb Community Kitchen in London, which helps refugees and homeless people

The remarkable course of Clare's career, laid out in tonight's Taste of Success, fronted by Rita Fitzgerald, has meant she's moved in impressive circles from the very early days.

After leaving home - her family's farm in Bushmills, Co Antrim - aged just 16, she went to culinary college in Portsmouth.

Meghan and Harry are a fabulous couple. They're very, very kind people and they're lovely to have worked with

Her parents, William and Doreen, hoped she would be home before long, but the determined young woman had other plans and her phenomenal talent, extraordinary work ethic and now-famous attention to detail meant she was soon working in some of the best kitchens in the world for everyone from Alain Ducasse and Heston Blumenthal to the Roux brothers.

But it was her relationship with Gordon Ramsay that transformed Clare's career. She was head chef at his Chelsea restaurant while still in her 20s, becoming the first woman to hold and retain three Michelin stars.

Her invitation to cater for Harry and Meghan's 2018 wedding was another stand-out moment.

"It was an absolute privilege and an honour to be part of something like that," says Clare.

"It was a magical day. I love it with those big celebrations when everyone comes together. They're a fabulous couple. They're very, very kind people and they're lovely to have worked with."

Despite the glitz and the glamour - Victoria Beckham has said she loves her "energy" and "spirit" - it's her chef credentials and airtight discretion that have earned the meticulous foodie such incredible respect among her peers.

Ramsay, star of TV show The F Word, once labelled Clare the "Margaret Thatcher of cooking" and in tomorrow night's documentary he adds: "Don't ever call her the best female chef in the world. She is one of the best chefs in the world".

Clare, who received an MBE in 2013 for services to the hospitality industry, credits her old mentor with a lot - and says he's still a huge support.

"I learned so much from Gordon, and I still learn so much from him," she adds. "He's a really great mentor. I gained so much experience and learned a lot about management of the business and myself.

"He'll always give me advice on anything I want to know about - he's done it all before."

Like most high-profile people in her line of work, Clare's dedication to her job is paramount.

Reports have claimed she's worked anything up to 80 hours a week.

But while the hours might seem long, the 41-year-old insists she doesn't consider her job "work" - instead, she sees it as her life.

"I think of work all the time," she says. "Literally all the time. It's just my life. But I don't think of it as work, per se, because as a chef it's what I am. It never stops. I think about it and do it all the time.

"Even when I was younger I much preferred to be in the kitchen working than in the pub with my friends. I just enjoy learning and cooking so much. I just love being in a kitchen, every minute of it. I wanted to get in and get better and work my way up to see how well I'd get on.

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Clare Smyth with Rita at Queen’s University

Clare Smyth with Rita at Queen’s University

Clare Smyth with Rita at Queen’s University

"When you compare it to sport, those people who go into rugby or football, well, they have a passion for it and they love it and they want to spend their time working at it.

"They don't know if they're going to win the World Cup, they don't know where it will end up, but they keep trying to be the best. That's it."

Much of Clare's work ethic, she says, was set down in her childhood.

As the youngest of three siblings growing up on a working farm, the 24-hour nature of the lifestyle, as well as a love of produce, came to be part of her DNA.

"That work ethic was something I grew up with," she says. "Working on a farm there also came a respect for produce and where it comes from.

"That's so important for a chef. If you have that respect and love of produce and what you're using, then ultimately you treat it with a lot of care.

"I didn't realise until later in life how much of an impact it had, but it obviously seeps in.

"I wanted to be a chef from a young age. I knew everything I wanted to do, but I didn't understand why I was so passionate, or why I became successful quite young.

"Obviously my upbringing had a lot to do with that, taking on some responsibility, being practical.

"We used to cook at home every day because there were farm workers who needed to eat healthy, hearty meals and everyone was hands-on.

"You learned to cook at quite a young age, but it was also very much learning that respect and love for food."

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Clare Smyth with Rita Fitzgerald in the kitchen

Clare Smyth with Rita Fitzgerald in the kitchen

Clare Smyth with Rita Fitzgerald in the kitchen

Describing herself as "quite creative" Clare, who lives in London with her financier husband Grant Heath, says her plans to make high-end food came early on too.

"I started working in local restaurants quite young," she recalls. "I'd read about chefs and the amazing things they were doing.

"I was always quite creative too and loved art and things, so it was the Michelin, high-end kind of cooking I was interested in from a young age."

As a woman in what has traditionally been a male-dominated business, Clare stands out as a success story.

As well as her breakthrough achievement running and maintaining three Michelin stars at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, she of course has achieved two stars of her own and was named best female chef in 2018 at the food industry's Oscars, the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards.

I notice in young women that they probably have less ego than men

While she says her own career has not been held back by her gender, Clare, who comes home to visit her family a few times a year, is quite clear it has happened to other people - but things are improving.

"About 50% of our team is female," she says. "I look at many great restaurants and kitchens across the world and it makes me so happy to see that things are changing considerably.

"We just need these ones to grow up a little bit and they'll change all that.

"Being a female or male has never had an impact on my job, but you can't deny the fact it does happen to others.

"It is there and although lots more are coming through, we still need to recognise it, so it does help to keep promoting and pushing more young women through."

What does Clare see in young female chefs breaking into the business?

"I notice in young women that they probably have less ego than men," she says. "It's almost like they need encouragement to put themselves out there.

"Young men have a tendency to have more confidence in promoting themselves, to puff their chest out and say, 'Look at me', whereas young women tend not to.

"My coaching and mentoring is really about trying to get them to do that a bit more, be ambitious and make them realise they can have their own voice and vision. They can learn from me, but ultimately I want them to be what they want to be and to be successful at it."

With her Notting Hill restaurant so strongly established, Clare has plans to open another location in Sydney next year.

"I love it there, so at the minute I'm working on that and I've got an incredible site overlooking the Opera House," she says.

"I lived there when I was 21 and I'm normally there once or twice a year. I have a fantastic team, which is ever growing. To maintain a team you've got to create opportunities for them. Otherwise you'll lose them."

Having learned her trade from a long list of incredible mentors - Ramsay and Ducasse in particular - Clare is still working hard to make them and her family proud.

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Rita with Gordon Ramsay

Rita with Gordon Ramsay

Rita with Gordon Ramsay

"When I was younger I was completely in awe of these chefs," she recalls. "I'd be nervous around them because I admired them so much. I still feel incredibly lucky now, of course, and sometimes wonder, 'How did I get here?'.

"There was one night I was having dinner with Gordon at his restaurant Lucky Cat and the next morning I was meeting Alain Ducasse for breakfast.

"That's two of the greatest chefs in the world, in history really, and I feel so lucky because I have those people who recognise me and who were also such wonderful mentors. It's about doing them proud, taking what I've learned from them and using it."

Of course her family at home are incredibly proud too.

"They are," Clare says. "They're proud of everything I've achieved and my sister will always send me messages when she sees me on things.

"I've always tried to keep myself grounded and not pay too much attention because I want to be great at what I do, but I want to be great for a long period of time, so I just keep going."

Taste of Success is on UTV on Friday at 8.30pm

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