'I had a long conversation with someone who was threatening to send 70,000 vegetarians to come and attack me'

The  Staff Canteen

If 2020 had to be a food, Chef patron of Cambridge's Midsummer House Daniel Clifford said it would have to be a bowl of sick. 

"2020 reminds me of the day I got two Michelin stars," the chef said. 

"We went out on the piss, and I was so ill that I puked three times on the bridge walking to work the next day. That's basically what 2020 has been to me: It's been a massive highlight and then a massive low."

 

This lockdown feels particularly punitive for restaurants, he explained, as shops are open for click and collect and able to keep their employees in work despite the restrictions. 

"Realitistically, this is a hospitality lockdown.

"It is madness. Absolute madness.

"Kids are still going to schools, people are still going to supermarkets, so what's changed? Restaurants are closed. That's all it is."

But really, hearing him and his head chef Mark Abott talk, this year's hardships seem to have set the stage for a brilliant future at Midsummer House.

New beginnings

When we spoke to both chefs in May, they told us about their plans to reopen the restaurant in a much more streamlined way, not just to accommodate the restrictions but to permanently improve the overall experience.

"We were smashing it," Daniel said. "When we reopened, we had the best three and a half months that Midsummer's ever had."

"Everything we'd spent the last six months planning on organising, we were on fire and it felt like everything was falling right into place." 

A new set menu, with an optional wine flight but no wine list; no vegan option, no vegetarian option, and only some allergens catered for meant that everything could be executed to perfection. 

"It took two months to grow the balls to do it, but it hasn't affected our business at all," Daniel explained.

Mark agreed, and this despite the extra pressure of operating under restrictions. In fact, he explained, the changes made during lockdown have made it possible for them to navigate the curfew without taking a financial hit. 

"I do think to myself, with the 10 o'clock curfew coming in, the pace in the service is very quick. Everyone needs to know what they're doing. Every single brief, I turn around to the staff and say: 'we don't have time to make mistakes. It has to be right the first time. We cannot repeat anything." 

"We save that 20 minutes a day at the start of the meal where customers aren't ordering, it's streamlined it so we're actually able to accommodate it and keep the standard of what we want to serve, even with the curfew.

"Our wastage is next to nothing, and with that you're able to give onto the customer extras as well as even better top end ingredients than what we were serving." 

Tucked in by twelve

Though he is critical of the restrictions placed on hospitality, including the current lockdown which he perceives as needlessly punitive of hospitality, Daniel is on board with the 10pm curfew, which he says allows his team to have a better work-life balance, and lets him get to bed by twelve. 

"Mark might be against it," he chuckled, "because he's the one that's got a stopwatch and a shotgun against his head, but for me, it's given everyone a bit more of a life," he said.

All in all, for the three months that they were open for, Daniel said: "We've both - me and Mark - known exactly where we were going, our costs were under control, our buying was much better, morale within the team was much better and I was a lot happier."

"At the end of the day, after cooking in the same place for 22 years, you need to be happy there." 

"I would say in the kitchen now I'm more fun than Mark is - I get to be the joker now, so it makes my life easier, and his probably harder, but there'll be a day where I retire and he can take my shoes, so it'll be good." 

Bye bye, keyboard warriors

A resolution which has changed the chef patron's experience has been to stop using TripAdvisor. Though Mark still checks it, Daniel has gone as far as deleting the app from his phone. 

"I just think to myself, if people have got something to say to me, they should ring me up or send me an email. Why would you put it on a public forum and slate something? If you didn't like it, you didn't like it, don't come back."

In one particular incident this year, he said, "I had a long conversation with someone who was threatening to send 70,000 vegetarians to come and attack me. 

"He had a table of five booked - which I told him he wasn't allowed to have anyway if it wasn't family members and he was telling me that she was a vegetarian and that she was very upset and that he was going to go on all these forums and completely slate Midsummer House. 

"That conversation went on for a while," Mark laughed, "he took a lot of convincing." 

Daniel added: "I personally think he was f***ing his PA and she was a vegan, and that's it."

Tunnel + light = ?

The ability to take his foot off the pedal - because he can't be at work - has undoubtedly put Daniel back in touch with what it means to have a personal life  - though he admits that his OCD has merely shifted to his home life.

"It's starting to drive me mental if you want the truth," he laughed. "Quarter to twelve last night I was out picking leaves off my garden with a head torch, that's how bad I am." 

"I'm used to working 60-70-80 hours a week, whatever it takes. And to wake up at half nine, ten o'clock every morning not knowing what the hell your day's going to be is soul destroying." 

Though times are tough for the industry, Mark and Daniel are allowing themselves to be optimistic about the future - and looking forward to a celebration with their hospitality peers as soon as they can. 

"I just miss eating out," Daniel said. "I see all my friends posting pictures of beautiful dishes that I'd really like to go and eat but I can't. That's the saddest thing." 

"I just feel like I've had a year of my life taken away. It's made us stronger, but there's only so much leaves I can pick up at twelve o'clock with a headtorch, that's for sure." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th November 2020

'I had a long conversation with someone who was threatening to send 70,000 vegetarians to come and attack me'