Daniel Clifford, Midsummer House, Cambridge

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st May 2010

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

This month's Featured Chef ...

Daniel Clifford

When Daniel Clifford first decided to take over Midsummer House in 1998, some might have thought him mad. The Cambridge-set restaurant was in a dire situation, struggling to get by with limited custom. In fact, it seems as though Daniel and his business partner’s takeover rescued the now-elite Midsummer House. The fine dining restaurant now boasts two Michelin stars and despite a number of challenges and setbacks over the years, seems to be the perfect showcase for Daniel’s seemingly unlimited talents. Daniel took to the small screen to show off his cooking know-how on BBC Two’s Great British Menu two years running. Reinventing British classics, informed by his training with classic French cooking techniques, Daniel has proved to be one of the best chefs in the UK – his achievements from Michelin, four AA rosettes and No.27 rating from the Good Food Guide only seem to underline that fact.  Firstly, Daniel thank you very much for inviting us here today. Pleasure. Daniel, tell us a little bit about Midsummer House. Well, I think Midsummer started as a forty cover restaurant in the middle of Cambridge. To be honest, when I first took it over it was in dire straits. Me and my partner, we came to look at it and we both had a vision of where we wanted to go; we both understood that we had to make money to get where we wanted to go. I have been very, very lucky that my partner has been very supportive over the last 12 years. And that is a business partner that you have? Yes, a business partner that has become, to be honest, more of a father figure than anything. He's very passionate about it. He has given me a lot of support and a lot of guidance and he is one of the main reasons that we are where we are today because you can't do this on your own. It's not a single minded, one person vision - it takes a team of people to get where we are today. And for me, it's about building on for the future. It's not about standing still; I still want to be here in 10/15 years time. I love the place; I have built it with my own bare hands. So it has been a challenge. You obviously have quite an emotional attachment to it, then? Yes. To be honest with you, I have tiled the kitchen myself; I've laid the floor in the restaurant myself; I've painted the restaurant. We've recovered from two floods. It's part of me. Two floods? That must be tough, to come in one morning and find your restaurant under two foot of water? Yes, I phoned the insurance assessor on the first day and I explained what had happened. He told me to take pictures and then I phoned my business partner and he said "Daniel, we're going to have to close. You are going to have to get rid of all the staff". And I said "No I can't do that." When you say "Get rid of them" you mean make them redundant? Yes, because we were going to be closed for a minimum of six months. Lucky enough I kept all the staff on. How did you manage that? Well, to be honest with you, I got them all involved in it. Basically, we went out and bought de-humidifiers and I got all the staff involved in building the restaurant back up and the thing about Midsummer, that the customer doesn't see, is that if there is a job that needs doing we will ALL do it. Yes. Regardless whether it's painting, decorating all the way through to kitchen cleaning and cellar management. It's done by everybody. And the reason we turned it round after the flood is because I sat in the restaurant and cried my eyes out. I can imagine. Yes, I cried simply because it happened in the October and, little did we know, but we got our first star in the January. We managed to get it re-opened for the 1st December, and that was tough but then we got the star in January and we have just grown and grown since. And every single penny we have made, we have re-invested. How close was the second flood to the first flood? Oh, it was 8 months afterwards. God! At that point you must have just thought "Why me?" Well, the second flood wasn't as bad. It only got to the cellar and my bakery. The first flood completely devastated everything - I had bottles of Petrus in one hand and the label in the other! And when you have got a £2000 bottle of wine in your hand and the label in the other - there is only one thing to do "¦ and that is to open it up and drink it! (Laughter) Yes. So every cloud has a silver lining! (Laughter) Well, to be honest, I did learn a lot in that period, it's heart breaking but you also learn a lot about yourself and your learn that you have got a great team and that is the most important thing. How have you developed in eleven years as a Chef? I think I have learnt to control my temper. Yes, lets be honest, you do have a bit of a reputation for your temper? Yes. You're smiling now. Yes, I know I have a temper but a lot of it is old wives tales, but what people forget is that it's my money; it's my time and my reputation and it is also my bricks and mortar - what people don't realise is that the rumours about how I am, it can be rumours toward the food as well. There are a lot of people out there and you will get one person tell you the food is great and one person, who didn't enjoy the meal - they will tell ten. I don't want people leaving this restaurant being unhappy or having had a bad meal - that's why I get upset. To be honest, I am a pussycat at home - I have got five girls; a beautiful partner and I have got a female dog so at the end of the day I have got to be a pussycat at home but as soon as I step in to the kitchen, this is my lively hood and it pays for everything outside of work so for me it has got to be right. I don't see the point of working for 16 hours a day for nothing. But have you learnt to manage people better? Yes, I have learnt to hand over responsibility and I have also learnt to take 5 minutes. To be honest with you I had a shrink come and see me. By your own request? Yes, by my own request. He came to see me; it was meant to be a half hour meeting and it turned into be a 9½ hour meeting. You weren't paying him by the hour, were you? (Laughter) No, it was a friend of a friend who came to see me and basically, what a lot of people don't realise is that a lot of my anger and my "want to prove" was through my childhood; through constantly being told by everybody I ever worked for that I would account to nothing. Because when you are a young chef, you work in a kitchen and everyone calls you this, that and the other and tZanderhey put you down and, in my case, it was the thing that drove me to get where I am today. Yes. And I have just got to learn to cope with it. The thing is it is fantastic to have accolades, but accolades come with responsibility - some people can handle it and some people can't. And it takes a long time for you to become a chef and not one of the cooks. My kitchen is better when I come in an hour later in the morning because they have all had an hour to get into work; to get themselves prepped and to get into the flow of it because if I am on their back from 8 O'clock in the morning - it's not fair for them; they need some breathing space for themselves and, to be honest, I have learnt to listen, which has been the key to it. I noticed you have Scott in the kitchen now, as your number 2. Yes. And you were saying that you have learnt empower and delegate, so how important is it that you have a strong person that can run the kitchen in your absence. To be honest, that is the crucial part of any kitchen. You do seem to be "Good Cop; Bad Cop" to a degree? Yes, I would say so. And I would say that is probably how I have seen every kitchen operate. But Scott has got a fantastic palette; he's young and enthusiastic. He's one of those guys, who has come in; he's landed straight on it in a very difficult situation - my last Head Chef was with me for six years; he was a fantastic cook as well "¦ Where has he gone, then? He's gone to Restaurant Alimentum in Cambridge. Oh, yes, Mark Poynton Yes, he's a brilliant cook and it was great to see him flourish, and what I want to see with Scott is the same. I don't want the food to change but I do want it to develop and become more sexy and more flowing. I just love working with guys that are keen and want it just as much as I do. So how are you developing your food, then? For me, the taste is the most important thing. Presentation has always come into it but it's got to taste nice in your mouth first. At the end of the day, people are coming out for a good meal; this is a business; it's got to be a business; the minute it is not a business and it becomes just a passion I'll be closed in a year because I won't make any money. And that is the thing, I have a lot of salaries to pay; I've got lots of maintenance to do and it's about keeping the customers happy and making sure I have got a level balance between my outlook on the food and making sure the customers want to eat what I want to put on the plate. Yes, it is a business and I looked at your website and I noticed you have got a pub. Yes. How important is that? I mean, there is this myth that Michelin star restaurants don't make money. Is it a case that this is a Showcase for you and the pub supports that? No, we were in the middle of a recession, and I will be totally honest with you, Midsummer made more money than the pub last year and the reason that is, is that for ten years I have tried to shake this reputation that Midsummer had of being a "Special occasion" restaurant.Scallop Do you think that is changing now? I mean, I went to The Ledbury and what I liked about it was that you didn't feel you had to over dress to go there. No, my Manager doesn't wear a tie "¦ and I don't make my manager shave and when he first joined he had just come from Marcus (Waring) at Petrus and he walked through the door and I said to him "Take your tie off" because as far as I am concerned I want my customers to feel relaxed. But there is this perception that Michelin star restaurants are either for the very elite or they are one off occasions. Yes, but it shouldn't be like that. No, it shouldn't. Because nowadays you can go to an average restaurant and pay as much there as you would for lunch here but here you would get precise cooking; you'll get great service and what I am trying to get across to the customer is that it is relaxed. I don't want it to be a stressed environment and that helps me be relaxed. Because if I am stressed, you will feel it across the whole place. If I am in a great mood; If I can control my temper the restaurant will be a great success - and it has taken me a long time to realise that. So, going forward then Daniel. You have got two Michelin stars; you have got the pub; you've got a business partner in place; you are making money here - where are you going as a business? I've done a lot of TV in the last couple of years. How important is that? I saw The Great British Menu. I have decided that my TV career is not the avenue that I want to go down. Why is that? I am the sort of person that loves being in my kitchen too much and I don't think the spotlight is where I want to be. Does one not feed the other? I think The Great British Menu helps with PR, there is no doubt about that but it doesn't give me the satisfaction that the restaurant does. For me, I know I work five days a week; I am away from home five days a week, but those two days a week are very special to me and those two days off a week are the reason I work the five, so I can look after my kids and my partner and give them a life that I didn't have. I think that is very, very important but also I want to educate my kids. They ate here last week and for me, for my kids to eat five courses, and one of them is only 6 years old, that is fantastic. InsideHow old are your kids? I have got one of 10; one of 9; one of 6 and one that's 1 and one that is going to be very shortly, so I am a busy man. Is that the reason you had to answer your phone earlier, just in case? (Laughter) Yes. Well I have to be honest; I have five girls - the new ones a girl too. Oh, you know that already? Yes, I really wanted a little boy but "¦ That's the excuse is it? So we can expect another 6? (Laughter) No, that's it now. I've decided that, hopefully, one of the girls will come in and they will take over because that's what I want; I want Midsummer to carry on in a route that one of my kids wants it to, even if they don't want to continue down my route I would still like one of them to take it over because I love food and I love going out to eat and I think it's food that brings people together, and that is what we all forget about. You have had a fantastic career, Daniel even before Midsummer but who do you think has been the biggest influence in your career? I would say my trip to France. I worked for Chef called Jean Bardet, which was an inspiration because it wasn't about pretty pictures on a plate, it was all about the quality of ingredients and how they were cooked. Over in France the Foie Gras doesn't come in vac-packs it comes in tissue paper and they slice it completely differently; they cook it differently and it can be a piece of Foie Gras with Fig Chutney and that will be it, but when I first got to France I didn't understand it. How long were you in France for? I was there for 9 months. And I got a job afterwards to go to a three star restaurant, and to be honest, my old Head Chef, Simon Gueller was pulling me to come back to England; I looked at the three star restaurant - in hindsight I wish I had gone but "¦ Where was Simon at the time? He had just opened Rascasse and he was asking me to go up and be his Senior Sous, and at the end of the day it has all fallen into place because I wouldn't be at Midsummer now if I hadn't have come back. It's funny how life works, isn't it? It is because nowadays you can learn do much from the people you work with but there has to come a time where you put your own b***s on the line and open your own place. Some people achieve it and some don't. You can work with 100 chefs but only 5 will go out and get their own stars. That doesn't mean to say they are bad cooks, it just means they have gone down a different avenue. It is a very difficult industry to be in. Last, but by no means least, Daniel can you tell us about the dish you are going to cook for us today? Well, the dish today is the newest dish on the menu; I wanted to show you a cold dish; using a new technique. The dish is Salad of Squid, Red Vein Sorrel, Bavette of Beef, Sautéed Calamari, Citrus Oil. That sounds fantastic. Let's go through to the kitchen and see you in action. Thank you Dan. Thank you. consertatory Daniel Mid summer
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st May 2010

Daniel Clifford, Midsummer House, Cambridge

IN ASSOCIATION WITH