She catered for Harry and Meghan's wedding, runs a top London restaurant where dinner costs £95 per person and says her signature dish is the potato ... my behind-the-scenes glimpse into top NI chef Clare Smyth's kitchen
BBC News NI reporter Jayne McCormack spent a few hours with the Co Antrim culinary star for a Radio Ulster show to be broadcast tomorrow. She reveals how the 40-year-old Bushmills woman deserves her workaholic reputation
There is one word that best describes Clare Smyth: remarkable. She's currently the world's top female chef, she crafted the menu for Prince Harry and Meghan's wedding and was Gordon Ramsay's head chef at his restaurant - no mean feat in itself.
But her rise to the top of her profession was not through a lucky break.
Even when she was a child, growing up on her parents' farm in Bushmills, Co Antrim, she was obsessed with food. That obsession to learn everything she could about food kept building, as she dreamt of achieving success in the industry. Two decades later, that ambition has paid off in the shape of her very own restaurant in London, Core, which has two Michelin stars.
Smyth's rise to the top of the culinary world is being told as part of a documentary on BBC Radio Ulster tomorrow, in which we got special access to the chef and her kitchen.
When I arrived at Core in Notting Hill, the welcome was immediately warm and homely. Smyth's team took me and my producers into the bar to wait for the chef, who was finishing up a photoshoot with another magazine. She is very much in demand these days, but it's something the Bushmills-born woman doesn't always find easy to deal with.
She's a workaholic and feels most at home in the kitchen, meticulously checking every dish before waiters can take it out to eager customers.
I'd never been behind-the-scenes at a top restaurant before, and it was something to behold. The first thing that struck me was how quiet it was. Unlike her mentor, Gordon Ramsay, and other chefs in the field who are infamous for their kitchen antics, Smyth prefers her staff to quietly keep their focus. I stood in the pass, the area where dishes are plated up and collected by waiting staff, for 15 minutes and observed them all, almost military-like in their discipline and enjoying their craft. There was no shouting or swearing: a decision Smyth told me is conscious on her part. While she spent years working in kitchens that were, in her words, "testosterone-heavy", she is glad things are much different now.
While I was visiting Core, one of her suppliers stopped by to talk produce. His nickname, he told me, is Mushroom Mike, because he supplies truffles for Smyth. Having never seen a whole one, I couldn't resist having a sniff and finding out a bit more. The truffles, I discovered, are incredibly expensive, but Smyth says it's important to her that she only uses the best, locally-sourced produce in all of her food. And in a hat-tip to her Northern Ireland upbringing, Smyth's signature dish is the potato. Of course, she has elevated it by giving it a fine dining twist, with dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe and miniature salt and vinegar crisps - I was even lucky enough to get to try it while we were there.
Core opened in August 2017 and received two Michelin stars in its first year, a huge accolade for Smyth and her team. Every night before dinner service, a member of staff cooks supper for everyone else and they all eat together - like a family, Smyth said.
She has 44 people working for her and, even during my visit to Core, Smyth was constantly checking in with her staff to ensure everything was running like clockwork.
Gordon Ramsay once called her the Margaret Thatcher of cooking. Anyone who meets her can see why. Smyth admitted to me that she rarely gets a day off because she eats, sleeps and breathes the restaurant.
Many of her chefs are quite young, something that surprised me coming to a Michelin-starred kitchen, but they are just as dedicated as their boss.
As I moved through the busy kitchen in the heat of lunch service, I was introduced to one of her team, Lois Picken, a new trainee who was working on dessert. I struggled not to swipe one of the delicate chocolate feathers Lois was crafting and instead tried to focus on the task at hand.
I asked her what her ambitions were, to which she replied very casually: "I drew the logo for my restaurant when I was six." I was taken back but impressed by her honesty and drive. She said she hopes one day to follow in her boss's footsteps.
Smyth acknowledged that her growing profile over the years has led to her becoming an inspiration for budding chefs - and she sees herself as a role model for young women in the industry. But despite all of her success, Smyth remains level-headed.
The 40-year-old has a lot on her plate and told me she has no plans to expand her brand to Northern Ireland right now.
Smyth tries to get back home when she can and believes Belfast has a variety of fantastic restaurants, run by "talented" chefs.
Smyth recognised that fine dining is expensive, and often out of range for many people. She has tried to strip away some of the "fussiness" of the industry, by getting rid of fine table linens, and opening up the restaurant floor by knocking down the wall between the kitchen and the dining area. Instead, customers can sit at their table and watch Smyth and her team at work through a glass wall. She wants to remove some of the informality of fine dining, and ensure everyone who wants to eat at Core feels welcome.
When I was visiting, Smyth noticed a group of women arriving for lunch, who stopped to watch her in action. Smyth turned around and waved before saying: "Hi guys, welcome to Core, enjoy your meal." It's a nice personal touch. That being said, I still had to ask about the cost of her menu, given that dinner starts at £95 per person. Smyth put up a robust defence of her pricing, explaining that a customer of hers will get ethically produced, organic food; her staff will get paid a fair wage and then there are all the day-to-day running costs it takes to keep Core open.
Her favourite customers, she added, are the ones who tell her they've saved up to come to the restaurant for a special occasion.
For Smyth, work is not just about making good food, but making people happy. Her reputation in the culinary world has earned her an MBE and a developing friendship with royalty. She was asked by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to cater at their wedding in May 2018, something Smyth described as a "great honour" and that she and her staff will remember for a long time.
She told me she hasn't been booked for the next occasion yet - the royal baby which is due later this year - but Smyth is continuing to enjoy the excitement and challenges of striking it out on her own.
As my producers and I finished recording, Smyth's mind was already back on track and preparing for another sold-out evening. And for the Co Antrim super chef, it's that dedication, drive and determination that is likely to keep sending her star even higher.
Clare Smyth: Superchef is on BBC Radio Ulster, tomorrow, 12:30pm and available afterwards on the BBC Sounds app