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Bushmills-born Michelin star chef Clare Smyth joins Netflix's The Final Table as judge

'I felt I had a lot to prove... this did not just happen overnight'

By Ella Walker

To say Netflix's latest culinary show, The Final Table, is dramatic doesn't quite do it justice. A huge midnight blue set in what looks like an aircraft hangar, it's kitted out in slick, reflective work surfaces that flash with every swipe of a knife blade.

Hosted by Andrew Knowlton, editor-at-large of Bon Appetit magazine, it's a global competition featuring 12 pairs of chefs tasked with cooking the national dishes of Mexico, Spain, England, Brazil, France, Japan, the US, India and Italy.

The challenge is to avoid being eliminated by each country's appointed "greatest" chef - and a gaggle of hungry critics and celebrity ambassadors - to take a seat at the Final Table alongside the planet's most respected culinary icons.

In the British episode, it's the turn of presenters Gary Lineker and Cat Deeley and food critic Jay Rayner, who demand a twist on the classic fry-up from the competitors.

They jolly their way through over-salted sausages and souffled eggs - not a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup in sight - before things get truly serious and chef Clare Smyth enters the arena.

At just 40, Co Antrim-born Smyth is a giant of the food world. The first and only female chef in the UK to hold three Michelin stars - while chef patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay - she now runs her own two Michelin star restaurant in London, Core, and has also cooked for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

The challenge she set the contestants didn't involve baked beans and hash browns, though. Instead, Smyth presented an opportunity to make the most of the British pea.

She is sanguine on her role in ejecting contestants, who are her peers, from the show.

"There has to be a winner," she says. "Everyone understands if that's not been their day. It's a really big challenge, they have everything thrown at them."

Having previously appeared on MasterChef and Saturday Kitchen - and despite the epic manner of The Final Table - Smyth wasn't overawed by the telly experience.

There's still the tricky matter of having to navigate judging and eating, with an audience, on camera. How do you do it without chucking sauce all over yourself?

"Yeah, it happens," says Smyth with a laugh. "They can edit it out."

"We're so used to being on show anyway, for our guests," she adds, referring to the open Core kitchen, where her team clatter away in preparation of dinner service, like an orchestra rehearsing their scales. "It's what we do."

Despite Knowlton's bemused assertion at the beginning of the show that British food has "somehow" become worthy of recognition, Smyth accepts we might not be as renowned for our cuisine as other cultures "yet, the culinary scene's phenomenal".

She says: "Right across the UK we have brilliant, world-leading restaurants and we have a generation of chefs that have really made it their own."

Smyth is undoubtedly one of them, but nudge the phrase "celebrity chef" towards her and she'll look out of the window and reply "erm, no".

She has been named best female chef at the World's 50 Best Restaurant awards 2018, earned five AA rosettes for Core and has an MBE for services to the hospitality industry.

Her role, as she sees it, is "always very much being here, in the restaurant - that's what I enjoy".

Precise and highly organised - vital, if you spend up to nine hours a day doing service, run the business side of the restaurant, turn up on Netflix and walk the dog every day - there is also a stillness and a calm to Smyth. You cannot imagine her yelling at her sous chef, or throwing pans.

Perhaps surprisingly, that's a principle that threaded through her years working with the notoriously fiery Ramsay.

"When Gordon was in our restaurant, he wasn't that shouty," she says. "You're always going to get a bit of heat in kitchens."

That pressure, she adores, but even in an industry still dominated by men, and often riddled with systemic bullying, sexism and a poor work-life balance, the pressure she puts on herself has consistently outweighed the demands of outside forces.

"I always felt I had a lot to prove," she says. "I always knew what I wanted to achieve and so I was harder on myself. Maybe I was sometimes unnecessarily hard on myself.

"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' and we've got a long way to go."

The Final Table is available on Netflix from Tuesday.

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