London is open: Michelin chef Smyth hails survival of toughest year

·3-min read

By Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) - Celebrated chef Clare Smyth sold out three months of bookings in 20 minutes when her Core restaurant said it would reopen from lockdown, underscoring her faith that London is ready to rebound with a bang on May 17.

Smyth became the first female British chef to win Michelin's highest distinction of three stars when all restaurants were shut as part of a strict COVID lockdown in January, shoring up the team after months when she wondered if her life's work would ever return to normal.

One of only seven to hold three stars in Britain, Smyth said during the first lockdown last year she had been forced to contemplate whether restaurants would continue to exist in their current form and how she could retain her staff of 42.

"It's my life's work, it's my business, it's everything and I was waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror, thinking to myself is everything going to change?" she told Reuters in the bright Core dining room in west London. "Thankfully we're still sat here."

Hailing from a farm in Northern Ireland, Smyth trained in some of the world's most celebrated restaurants including Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monaco and as chef patron of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay before she launched Core in Notting Hill.

During the pandemic she trained her staff online for hours a day, cooked via charities for 600 people a week and created a tasting menu for customers to be sent out in London. That helped to retain all her staff and keep suppliers in business.

She is now preparing to reopen as restaurants in England will be allowed from May 17 to serve customers inside for the first time since January in what they hope will be the end to more than a year of ever-changing restrictions, from last minute closures to curfews that left them in despair.

BREXIT, PANDEMIC CHALLENGES

Smyth, 42, spoke to Reuters as her team prepared the dining room and as she cooked her signature dish of potato and roe: dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe, in the glass-fronted spotless kitchen.

While the excitement is tangible, Smyth worries that the broader industry is yet to feel the full force of the pandemic: costs have jumped, rent arrears have ballooned and skilled European staff have left the country. Social distancing will limit the scale of the recovery.

"We were challenged with Brexit, prices have gone up and there's a real skill shortage in the UK," Smyth said.

"People have borrowed a lot of money. There's a lot of things going to happen in the next six months to a year. And I think that's probably the most challenging time for businesses."

Kate Nicholls, head of trade group UK Hospitality, estimates that in the year after the first lockdown in March 2020, one in five restaurants shut. Those still standing have to establish how they will pay back rent and government loans.

With food tourism on hold for now, Smyth said British customers who had struggled to get a table before had jumped to the front of the queue. When they opened for bookings the website almost crashed.

"London is opening up and exciting times will be ahead and it will bounce back," she said. "In the first few days we're pretty full of our regular guests, some of them I've known for over 10 years so it'll be like seeing old friends. The atmosphere I know will be great."

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)