Daniel Clifford: “Michelin made me a terrible person"

By Sophie Witts contact

- Last updated on GMT

Daniel Clifford on Michelin and Midsummer House
In 2018 it will be 20 years since Daniel Clifford first opened his two Michelin-starred restaurant Midsummer House in Cambridge. The chef recalls the difficult first years of the restaurant, how the shock of winning a star made him ‘not a very nice person’, and when vandalism stopped him serving foie gras.

On starting in the kitchen…

I left school when I was 15 because I was useless at it. All the other kids working in restaurants knew how to fillet fish, but I was working in a university knocking out 1,000 meals a day, so I decided if I was going to cook I wanted to be good at it. I was lucky to get a position in a local hotel where we grafted all the time, then after two years I wrote to John Burton-Race and David Cavalier asking for a job. Back then, people used to cut their left arm off to get in to restaurants like theirs and there was a waiting list, whereas now we’re all struggling for staff.

On why he left the UK to work with Jean Bardet in France…

When I was 21 everyone in England was cooking Marco [Pierre White’s] food so I decided to go to France. I wrote 68 letters to all the two and three star restaurants and people asked me to pay them to go and work there, which I thought was fucking mad. I got to a two star restaurant in Tours in the Loire Valley, and when I arrived I was so nervous I stood in reception and couldn’t even get my words out. I couldn’t speak any French, and for nine months the main kitchen would go home and I’d stay behind and watch the pastry chef. He’d look at me like I was mad but in the end I was dressing the desserts and felt really proud.

On winning a Michelin star in 1996 at Rascasse in Leeds with Simon Gueller...

We went through 197 staff in the first year - the place was a zoo. It was back in the days when the kitchen abuse was at its best, Marco was on form, and I look back with great horror and surprise that we kept any staff at all. For me it was a drug and it was addictive that I could take the shit, but it’s totally wrong.

On the early days of Midsummer House

I got the opportunity to open Midsummer House at the age of 25. Being as stupid as I am I moved my wife there and the day we opened she told me she was pregnant, so she had to stop work and look after the kids. We couldn’t sell the house in Leeds so I was living in a converted garage, but I fell in love with Cambridge.

My business partner phoned me and said I had six months to make it work otherwise we’d have to close. I’ve always had this burning anxiety to be as good as the people I’ve worked with and worked for. I remember the first year we made £3,500 and I really needed to buy a Pacojet. I went home and my wife said we needed to change the front window as it was rotten and I said we can’t, I’ve just bought a Pacojet. 

Midsummer-House

On Midsummer House’s first Michelin star in 2002…

Those were the days when [the Michelin Guide] came out in January, and for me they were the best times. I was absolutely blown away, but then the shock of what one star meant hit me, and I wasn’t ready for it. It took me to a place where I wasn’t a very nice person, and I’ll openly admit that. [It was] the pressure of Michelin and the restaurant getting busier, suddenly we had seven or eight chefs in the kitchen.

And the second…

Two years later (former Michelin Guide editor) Derek Bulmer phoned me on the Tuesday and the guide was out on the Friday. I remember that fear I felt of losing the star, but he said they normally phoned people who were getting promoted. I look back on those days and think that’s when I became properly terrible, and I’m not proud of it, [but] I’ve produced some amazing chefs in my kitchen. Seven of them have gone off and got their own stars.

On taking foie gras off the menu in 2008 after the restaurant was damaged by animal rights activists...

The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) were outside the restaurant for about six months, I used to take them cups of tea as that was my sense of humour. Then one night they put a brick through the window and I woke up and they’d spray painted every window. That was life changing for me because it made me think that it’s not all about using top ingredients [like foie gras], it’s about simple things as well. A mackerel is just as good as a langoustine.

On changing his attitude in the kitchen for the better

I started the restaurant too young, I wasn’t experienced enough. I’m writing a book and looking at how my life’s changed. The one thing I always harp on about is how I don’t like change but it’s got me where I am today, learning to be polite to my staff and supporting them and explaining that the journey I’ve taken is maybe not the correct one.

We’ve grown from having four in the kitchen to 13 of us. My feelings are that it’s our job to nurture…the future is making chefs better than me. It’s about working together but not against each other.

Daniel Clifford was speaking at Food On The Edge, a two-day chef symposium held in Galway earlier this week.

Related topics: People, Small Talk

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