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Daniel Clifford: Pearls of Wisdom

By William Drew , 08-Feb-2013
Last updated on 08-Feb-2013 at 10:09 GMT

The Kent-born chef-patron has held two Michelin stars at Midsummer House in Cambridge for the past eight years. He was also one of the winners of last year’s Great British Menu.

The recession has taught me a lot. You’ve got to give those people coming in for a £20 lunch menu the same respect as you did to those who used to spend £1,000 on wine. Every customer that walks through the door is equally important.

My dad’s second wife was a brilliant cook. I broke my leg when I was 13, stayed at home, and baked with her. I then did work experience in the kitchens at the university in Canterbury. It was the first time I’d ever had straight As in a report – usually it was the other end of the scale.

When I opened Midsummer House I ruled it with an iron bar. I’ve mellowed but it took a long time. It’s a better place to work though. The food is more consistent, my staff stay longer, and I’m a happier person.

Marco [Pierre White] was a massive influence. I was at The Box Tree in Ilkley [West Yorkshire] and Harvey’s [in Wandsworth, south-west London] as a commis. The food inspired me every day. It didn’t matter how many times you got kicked up the arse, you always wanted to go back the next day and prove you could do it – a drug without taking drugs. 

We’ve tried to brush away the cobwebs of being a stand-offish two-star restaurant. We are in the hospitality business, so if customers want to come into the kitchen, see the cellar, have a chat during service – we’re more than happy.

Whatever people say, Great British Menu is good for business – it really does fill restaurants. But having done it for a second time, I won’t be cooking on it again.

After a few years at Midsummer, my ex-wife said: ‘Why are we running our own place if you’re going to cook someone else’s food? This is your chance to cook your food.’ That was a real shock, but she was right, I was cooking recipes I’d learnt over the years. It takes time to develop your own style.

I’d like to see colleges working more closely with restaurants. They also need to stop selling pipe dreams; kids think they’re at chef de partie level before they start.

My business partner has been a real father figure to me. We lost so much money in the first five years it was unreal, but he believed in me and could see the business growing. Now we can laugh about it

Tom Kerridge is an inspiration to us all, but especially to young chefs. He’s made them believe they can achieve what he has without spending a fortune.

A few years ago I opened a pub in Essex but I soon realised I couldn’t be in two places at once. It was meant to help finance Midsummer and push it to the next level, but it turned out to be the other way round. I found it more stressful than anything, up and down the motorway, so it had to go.

I really admire Andrew Fairlie [at Gleneagles] – it’s brilliant what he’s done for Scotland. And seeing Simon Rogan cook on Great British Menu was a revelation. He can really cook and makes it look effortless. I was jealous! L’Enclume is where I want to eat next.

Chefs don’t usually admit this, but it took years for me to believe in myself. When you get the accolades, you don’t think you deserve them. The first year, after we’d got two stars, I drove home every night doubting myself. I always question whether it’s good enough, but that’s made me the chef I am.

I’m probably more proud than anything else of the boys from my kitchen that have gone on to great things. Tim Allen at Launceston Place, Matt Gillan [The Pass at South Lodge], Mark Poynton [Alimentum] and Elwyn Bowles, who’s head of pastry at Per Se and The French Laundry.

You used to have to wear your Sunday best to go to a two-star restaurant. Now you can walk in wearing jeans. We want the waiters to have a laugh with you, rather than at you behind your back.

I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m 40 this year, I’ve got five daughters, three dogs and a couple of ex-wives! I take the kids to school in the morning, then work from 9am until 11pm five days a week. It’s hard graft but I love it.

www.midsummerhouse.co.uk

This article first appeared in the February issue of Restaurant. Subscribe here .

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