Daniel Clifford is one of those rare breed of Michelin two star chefs (20 in the UK) who collectively exhibit the on-going passion to succeed while encouraging those around them to learn and grow. Daniel has successfully spawned three Michelin starred chefs from his kitchen at Midsummer House – a restaurant which continues to gain plaudits and recognition. You can see Daniel on Great British Menu from March 11th onwards…here’s what he had to say to fine-dining-guide about his career and aspirations.
Tell us about your experiences cooking on Great British Menu?
I’ve really enjoyed it! It’s strange, when I watched back the first year that I participated in the programme I was shocked – I thought I would struggle to work for that guy! Maybe I could see some truth in the rumour (laughing) that I had been a tough guy to work for. So this was good for me, as it made me step back and think about the restaurant (Midsummer House), where we were going and the pressure I was putting on people.
Since that rethink it’s been a lot easier to do the TV. On the face of it, you’re put in a stressful (and competitive) environment, you’re not trained for it and you don’t know what to expect. Having got that first year under my belt it definitely got easier. I’ve taken part in it this year, going out from March 11th 2013, and hopefully people will enjoy seeing how a more relaxed version of me gets on! (laughing).
Describe the experience of setting up your own restaurant (Midsummer House)?
The fact is when you set up your restaurant and build it from scratch you are following a dream: You invest everything into it, your heart and soul as well as all your money. People may imagine that because it is (now) a Michelin Two Star restaurant that the chef/patron is making lots of money; on the contrary I’ve constantly re-invested every penny; this has been a fifteen year project and there are still a hundred and one things I want to do to take it forward. For example, I’ve just invested a large sum in improving the quality of the cellar. This may prove a ten year financial return on investment project. I suppose it’s a pension plan in a way but crucially it is helping me to drive forward the vision I have for Midsummer House in the here and now and right now that’s all that’s important!
So perhaps its understandable that chefs have that ‘passion’ because they do what they do because they love the craft and that same passion may lead them to getting upset when things don’t quite go right. (smiling).
At Midsummer House we’ve really relaxed into our personality as a restaurant. I feel like I’m inviting people into my home so we’ve moved away form the ‘stiff’ and ‘starchy’ to a more relaxed ‘British led’ service with a sense of theatre in many of the dishes – finishing the plating at the table, on some occasions the chefs coming to the table to finish the dish and so on. I feel it’s created a much more ‘relaxed and giving atmosphere’ rather than a restaurant in which you just eat quietly, are served at arms length, and appreciate the food.
How have you evolved your personal signature on a plate?
The important thing is to cook from the heart and share my personality on a plate. If I got too carried away with what other chefs were doing I could go round in circles wondering whether what I was doing was “right,” whether it should be “different” to be “better.” In actual fact learning to put my collection of 3000 cookery books in the loft and concentrate on developing my personal signature was the best thing that’s happened to me. Yes, you may get some inspiration from other chefs but ultimately it has to be in harmony with your own style.
Which chefs do you admire from the Michelin firmament and why?
What’s been great about Michelin recently is the diversity being shown in recognition of restaurants in every aspect of the word diversity. This must be applauded. In a way Michelin have been brave. What do I mean? Well one example is that they’ve demonstrated that someone can set up a restaurant with next to no money, follow their dream and get two Michelin Stars: Tom Kerridge (Hand & Flowers) produces a consistently great product; you may not get the theatre of Paris with truffles being shaved at the table but he is equally worthy and congratulations to him! At the same time such recognition must be an inspiration to so many aspiring chefs in Britain and that can only be a good thing.
Another perspective might be Simon Rogan (L’Enclume, two Michelin Stars) who is so in tune with what he is doing and a chef genius. You know he is possibly one of the few (if any) chefs that I’ve worked with in close quarters (on Great British Menu) and thought “If I were a few years younger I could work for him!” He has such a lightness of touch, which made me step back and think about, for example, my more classically rich reduced saucing. That’s the beauty of something like Great British Menu, you get to see others close up and not just learn from them but importantly learn about yourself!
Tom Kitchin is one hell of a cook and a certain tip for two Michelin stars, I worked with him at The Cube and he and his food are like Pierre Koffmann with a cheeky smile (laughing).
I’m also good friends with Claude (Bosi) who can pull almost anything together and make it work beautifully and Sat (Bains) who thrives on passionate organized chaos. We all speak regularly, visit restaurants together and socialize. Each has their unique signature and as friends and peers I admire them and they are influencial, too.
At what point in your career did you realize that being a top end restaurant chef was your destiny?
I think the first Michelin star was a massive moment. For me it took a long time to come but when it did come I was worried that we weren’t actually ready for it! I’d set myself a goal of achieving in my career one Michelin star so when it happened to say I was happy was an understatement. Then I stepped back and was so afraid of losing the one star that I turned into ‘an animal’ and everything that went out the door was perfect, perfect and more perfect. I was so determined to keep hold of that (Michelin) star. Then what happened? Two years later the restaurant got two Michelin stars!
How would you describe your kitchen management style?
I’ve mellowed and matured a great deal in my outlook toward the kitchen. I find that it’s so important to nurture the team and make decisions in the kitchen as collective as possible. The longer your team stay with you and grow together, the stronger you are, the stronger your restaurant will become. At the same time you have to show some strong leadership – if a chef cooks a piece of fish I want him or her to love that piece of fish as much as I do – there’s also lines that mustn’t be crossed as we have to be happy with absolutely everything that leaves the kitchen.
One of the hardest things to learn (for me) was to respect the fact that everyone expresses themselves in their own way and that this can be developed to the benefit of the kitchen. After all, if everyone in the team was a clone of me and cooked in exactly the same way, not only would we all fall out but they’d all be off running their own restaurants (laughing). In fact when they’re ready to leave and set up on their own you can see it – like Mark Poynton (seven years here), Matt Gillan and Tim Allen and I’m so proud that they’ve all gone onto to gain Michelin stars.
Describe one of your favourite ingredients to cook and the techniques involved?
I love poaching birds, for example, Quail which I might poach in a chicken stock with herbs and aromats for about three minutes. Then as soon as it is poached and seasoned we roast it in the pan (does not enter the oven) and it stays moist.
I have spent many years of my career fascinated by water baths but they have to be used only for the right kinds of produce. There’s also a worry of de-skilling chefs for the future if there is over reliance on the concept. We now use pressure cookers in many instances and we’re finding that a technique which is producing some wonderful results.
What is the menu offering at Midsummer House and how often does the menu change?
I like to change about two dishes a week, which keeps us all sane and motivated. It also ensures the regular customers have variety. When we had the chicken dish on the menu that won on Great British Menu last year, we sold 70 portions of chicken a day for two months. As soon as it was becoming robotic to the chefs (and me) and some love had been lost for the dish it was time to change. This is true of any dish – it has to loved and be produced perfectly for every guest, every time and the only way to ensure that is to retain the love and passion for what you are cooking! Having said that, the scallop dish has been on the menu since day one and is a signature to hang your hat on, year in year out.
What are your views on regionality, sustainability and foraging?
Foraging has been an interesting experiment for me. A couple of years ago we picked chickweed outside the restaurant which was a success so I bought the foragers book and took out my sous chef on a foraging adventure. I picked what I thought was wild spinach, put it in my mouth, my tongue went numb and my mouth blew up. That was the last time I went foraging. I think it’s brilliant if you know what you are doing and dangerous if you don’t. I do have a forager for some things that I can trust but ultimately it’s about an end customer experience at a Michelin two star restaurant in Cambridge.
Regionality and sustainability are of course important, you want to help local businesses and reduce transport miles while ensuring your produce is sustainable. At the same time, I remember a talk by Ferran Adria about red peppers – he said that the taste of the pepper would actually be enhanced travelling from one side of Spain to the other compared to one picked in the garden. So you have to think about what tastes the best for your customer. I source some things from further afield quite simply because that is where they taste best. On the other hand, we have, for example, a local chicken farmer who produces the best chickens in the UK.
What do you make of the information age and its impact on chefs eg Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Websites?
It’s a genius invention and wonderful for the industry. When you create a dish you put it on the web and then everyone knows it’s yours! I remember working for Marco (Pierre White) at Harveys before going to France for a while. At the time everyone was doing what Marco (the master) was doing at his peek and I think the web helps and encourages chefs to embrace their own style and signature of cooking.
Twitter also provides a role in chefs coming closer together as a community, I socialize on twitter and copy in three of four chef friends. We have a laugh and joke and also share ideas.
As a flip side something like twitter has its dangers – you have to think carefully before posting things out onto social media as once it’s out, it’s out and what may seem funny to you may cause offense to others. As an example I own two King Charles Spaniels (and love them dearly), we’d just got the brand new barbeques and before they’d ever been switched on one of the dogs jumped up on the barbeque. I posted a picture with the caption ‘hot dog’ which I thought was very funny. You’d have thought the world had ended on twitter. So you have to be careful!
When you get the chance where do you want to eat out?
The four three stars are all so different. I want to try all four of them in a week. Each one offers such a unique package so I’ll be fascinated to try them again in a short space of time. Last year I went to Scandinavia, which confused me a little and the year before to Spain (which I loved).
What do make of reader-led Guides like Zagat, Hardens and Trip Advisor compared to inspector-led Guides such as Michelin, AA and Which?
I think you have to take them all very seriously! With certain reader-led guides people can write a nasty review (if they have an axe to grind) having never eaten at the restaurant. However, I do listen to them all.
Michelin remain the strongest of all guides and certainly the most respected in the industry. I think customers can be confident that they’ll always get a good meal at a Michelin restaurant and if they don’t you can be sure Michelin will be onto it quickly. The interesting thing, perhaps driven by the web, is whether Michelin will start updating awards on-line on an on-going basis rather than having an annual publication.
I remember the day Derek Bulmer called here, a day before the guide came out, my receptionist didn’t have a clue who he was and asked me if I wanted to take the call. “Of course I want to take the call”, I said (or words to that effect). I was frightened that he was calling to say that the restaurant had lost the Michelin star. We started chatting “Hello Daniel, how’s it going?” he said, I said “Oh fine, Mr Bulmer” I had started shaking with fear at this point. “We’ve never met,” he said “but I’ve been to Midsummer House many times.” Where is this going I thought, starting to feel physically sick – an hour had seemed to go by but it was seconds – “You’ve got two Michelin stars,” he said. I dropped the phone, ran into the garden and was physically sick.
Only people within or close to this industry can know what that moment of recognition means! Within a couple of days I had received congratulatory calls from Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay. Should three stars ever come along I’ll probably collapse (Laughing).
What are your plans for the future?
Continue to enjoy laying down more roots while encouraging those around me to develop and grow. I hope to be at this restaurant for some considerable time to come and enjoy my job every day.
And so it was time to leave after a thoroughly enjoyable lunch and an hour’s chat in the company of Daniel Clifford. A far more relaxed and approachable man than the interviewer had anticipated – his sense of fun and humour in abundance. Who knows the workings of Michelin but if there are marks for bold, imaginative and honest cooking with underlying sophistication then Daniel Clifford stands well in the firmament. We wish him well!