Daniel Clifford, Midsummer House, Cambridge

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th July 2013
Daniel Clifford is chef-patron at two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House where he has been serving great food for over 12 years while also turning out new stellar talent like Matt Gillan and Mark Poynton to name just two. The  Staff Canteen caught up with the 39-year-old chef  to find out how his food and his personality have changed, what it’s like to get a winning dish on Great British Menu and how it feels to have people inspecting your shopping trolley at the supermarket…   In your career before Midsummer House you worked for some great chefs like Marco Pierre White at The Box Tree, Simon Gueller at La Rascasse and Jean Bardet in France; which of the places you’ve worked has most influenced you? In terms of food I’d have to say at Jean Bardet’s in France. My first day there I called my dad and said I thought I’d made a huge mistake because the food was no good. This was back in ‘95 when in England it was the era of Marco Pierre White; everyone was making pretty pictures on the plate and the food looked fantastic. In France it just wasn’t like that. My dad said to give it another week, so I did and it wasn’t until I actually started tasting the food that I realised, wow, this is where we’re going wrong in England. So France was the turning point but Rascasse is where I realised, if I’m going to do this, it’s time to do it for myself. So you opened Midsummer House; was that a struggle at first? The problem is that when you get your own business, you’re basically putting the trigger to your head because you want to win awards and you want to make money and the two don’t often go together. The other problem is that when you start your first head chef position, you just take ideas from everyone else because you haven’t been allowed to think; you’ve always been a grafter for someone else. It wasn’t until about eight months into it that my wife said to me: “If you’re going to cook someone else’s food why are we doing this? You might as well be working for someone else without this stress.”  Also the aggressive mentality of some of the places I’d worked had rubbed off on me. It took me about 15 years to shake that mentality off. I was known within the industry for being a complete psycho for the first twelve or fifteen years. Why do you think you think that was? Chefs are hardened people because they’ve usually had a s**t time at school, or perhaps a s**t home life and then you come into this industry and you go through the ranks and every day you get told how useless you are. You never get a pat on the back. You go from commis to chef de partie and all you get told is how crap you are. Even when you get to sous chef there’s still someone standing there telling you that this isn’t right or that isn’t right; so realistically when you get your own place you’ve got all this doubt in the back of your mind – am I good enough? And it takes a long time to get the confidence to think, yes I am a good chef. Did that confidence come with the first star, or the second star, or somewhere in between? It came after spending nine hours with a psychologist. We’d had two floods since winning our first star and I was so scared of losing that star that I was a bit obsessed. This psychologist was doing a paper on Michelin-starred chefs. He’d interviewed most of them in the country but not me, then Sat Bains called me and told me it was really worth doing. It was supposed to be a 30 minute interview but it turned into nine hours! We spent two hours just talking about litter! I realised that I was in a bad mood every morning before I even got in the kitchen because there’d always be a bottle or a crisp packet outside that needed picking up and I’d always think: nine chefs have walked past this already this morning; why couldn’t anyone else pick this up? The psychologist made me realise that I just needed to chill out and not go in screaming and shouting every day at people who are already s**tting themselves about lunch. You’re so scared about not getting it right that that fear can sometimes hold you back. How did getting a winning dish on Great British Menu compare with your other achievements? To be in a kitchen with people like Philip Howard, Stephen Terry, Nathan Outlaw and Simon Rogan – you feel like a winner anyway. I’ve had two stars for ten years now but I still look up to these people like Michel Roux and Heston with massive respect and think, one day, one day… You never actually realise that people are also doing the same thing to you, which is quite a scary thought! The worst thing about GBM is that you’ll be walking around the supermarket and people start looking in your trolley to see what you’re buying. I had some ready-made Yorkshire puddings in my trolley the other day and some woman asked me why I didn’t make my own; I was so embarrassed! What would you say is your philosophy of food right now and how has that developed over the years? I’d say I’m much more focused on flavour now than I’ve ever been. The food has got so much simpler and as I look back at the dishes we were doing ten years ago, it’s quite scary compared to what we’re doing now. Now it’s about sourcing the right produce and doing as little to that as possible and it’s about consistency. Years ago I wanted to be the El Bulli of Britain. Now I’m very happy in my environment; I know what I’m cooking and I’m comfortable with it. Have you turned your back on those techniques or do you still use them? I still use them, but I think things like water baths are taking over cooking and I don’t use them anymore, the simple reason being that there’s the fear that people can’t cook in a pan anymore. I’ve worked in two-star restaurants that never had water baths; I bet Paul Bocuse doesn’t have a water bath in his kitchen. Is your attachment to Midsummer House as strong now as it’s always been? Oh yes, I wouldn’t move anywhere else. I built Midsummer House with my bare hands. I’ve had some great chefs work for me in the past and we’ve got their hand prints where they helped lay concrete to build sheds at the back. I’m constantly developing it; I put everything I make straight back into it. For me Midsummer is the last place I’ll work. I honestly think that I’m pretty unemployable anywhere else! Check out two of Daniel's recipes here: Crispy hen’s egg, griddled asparagus, asparagus puree, burnt onion Seared Hand Dived Scallop, Celeriac and Truffle Puree, Granny Smiths, Apple Caramel

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th July 2013

Daniel Clifford, Midsummer House, Cambridge