Daniel Clifford is a happy man. Perched on a comfy seat in the upstairs bar at Midsummer House, his two-Michelin starred restaurant on the banks of the River Cam, he has much to smile about. His Cambridge restaurant celebrates its 20th birthday this year and has just reopened after a £400,000 refurb that saw his kitchen nearly double in size and the dining room given a complete facelift; his debut cookbook is just weeks away from publication and his long-term friend Tim Allen, who is sitting opposite him as we talk, is now a business partner having taken ownership of Clifford’s Essex pub The Flitch of Bacon.
Rewind a few years, however, and the story couldn’t be more different. Life has been tough for the 44-year-old chef in both his work and private lives, with the strain of running two businesses becoming almost unbearable. While Clifford, who is arguably one of the best known and most respected chefs in the country, and one of only a handful to own a restaurant with a two-star rating from the red book, had been putting on a brave face, behind the scenes things had been far from rosy. His long cooking career had always been a tumultuous one, but in the past few years it had reached its low point. Or, to use his own parlance, things were fucked.
TO UNDERSTAND ANY OF THIS YOU NEED TO GO BACK TO THE START and to how a dyslexic child from a broken home came to run one of the UK’s top restaurants. Having left school at 15 in the late ’80s to work in the industry, Clifford is part of the generation of chefs that grew up in the old school, masculine and sometimes violent environment that typified high-end kitchens of the time. His brutally honest forthcoming book Out of My Tree – part autobiography and part chef cookbook – is littered with tales of him at the receiving end of violence. Some people talk figuratively about going to the school of hard knocks, Clifford worked in several kitchens that accurately fit this description.
His experiences have shaped his own attitude as a chef-patron, and often not for the better. His fearsome reputation precedes him, with Clifford last year admitting to audiences at the Food on the Edge symposium that winning two Michelin stars made him “not a very nice person”. This turns out to be litotes: in his book he elaborates, describing the first 10 years of Midsummer House as a “war zone”. “I would break
people without realising I was doing it,” he writes. “It was just the way I had been trained.”
Notable chefs to feel Clifford’s wrath include Russell Bateman, who was head chef at Midsummer in 2007 and Matt Gillan, who worked at the restaurant between 1999 and 2002 and who – now affectionately – refers to Clifford as ‘the Hulk’ in the book. But it is the bust-up with Allen mid-service that is the most intriguing.
Allen joined Midsummer House in the early 2000s and had been working there for nine months when the pair had, as Clifford describes it “a blazing row” over the pommes Anna garnish for a pigeon dish. Clifford had 12 pigeons, Allen had made only 11 garnishes and when the chef-patron demanded he made one more – a 25-minute job – and Allen replied that he had no time, something snapped. “We both walked down the garden, I punched the fence a few times, Tim took his apron off and left,” he says. Later, Clifford went to Allen’s house, possibly to apologise, “but I was told to fuck off”, he recalls. The pair wouldn’t speak for more than two years after that.
DANIEL CLIFFORD SWEARS A LOT. The f-word (and worse) rolls off his tongue with the ease of a football fan on the terraces. In today’s industry, where chefs have recently discussed banning swearing, Clifford comes across as something of a relic, a throwback to the bad old days of sweaty, sweary kitchens.
But the swearing is not aggressive, or at least it no longer is, but habitual and something that his staff have become accustomed to and even seem to enjoy. While he may not be regarded as the most PC of chefs in today’s calmer climate, he is well regarded by his team and those who have worked under him and gone on to other things.
The fact that Allen is now a partner in the business is testament to this (they finally buried the hatchet when Allen was working in the kitchen at Whatley Manor when it won two stars and Clifford called to congratulate him). Despite their rows, and they have had more than one, they are firm friends, with Clifford describing him as a brother. More recently, Allen has become something of a saviour for Clifford, helping him come through what has been the hardest part of his career – the opening of The Flitch of Bacon.
"I'd want to change a dish and he'd say 'that's two weeks
away chef'. Is that really what we've become?
Where's the passion in that?"
THE FLITCH IS A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR ANY HIGH-END CHEF looking to move into a more informal pub setting – of which there are quite a few. The idea was to run the pub, just round the corner from where Clifford lived, as a “place where you could go for a beer and a scotch egg” but the unforeseen costs quickly put paid to that approach. Bought for £330,000 on a blind bid with no survey, very soon costs had spiralled out of control.
“The survey came back and said the roof’s fucked, the floor’s fucked, the place is fucked,” he says in his deadpan delivery. “I started work and then English Heritage came in and threatened to arrest me. My window bill went from £28,000 to £72,000, I needed handmade tiles for the ceilings. The bills went up and up.”
Clifford had wanted to bring Allen back to run it from the get-go, but he had his feet under the stove at Launceston Place and was unwilling to move. He then decided to use The Flitch to progress the career of then Midsummer House head chef of five years Danny Gill and create a Michelin star worthy pub of an ambition that would match the £1.8m he had invested in it.
After an inauspicious start that saw the manager quit and take the sous chef and pastry chef with him on the launch day having spent six months getting it up and running, things soured further. Gill left under a cloud less than a year in, forcing Clifford to man the stove at the pub which, while he wanted to own, he didn’t have the time or the inclination to run. In fact, while he’d splashed out the best part of £2m on it, it didn’t feel like his, he says.
“I’d given [the team] the plate order, the equipment order, and they employed the staff. I’d spent more on it than Midsummer House and I remember standing there and thinking I don’t love this place, it’s not meant to be mine.”
With graft he got it back on track with the introduction of more classic pub dishes, but ever conscious that his time away from Midsummer House meant that the two-star was treading water rather than progressing. He then left and installed a new head chef, who changed the menu – “he introduced London bullshit. That doesn’t work in Essex” – and undid all of his hard work. This was the nadir.
“I thought about burning it,” he says with no hint of irony. “But I’d invested so much in it I couldn’t give up.” He got the pub valued twice, at £480,000, meaning a sale would be costly. Had Allen not been in the right place at the right time that would have been his course of action.
"I thought about burning it," he says, with no
hint of irony. "But I'd invested so much
in it I couldn't give up"
THERE IS SOMETHING DELICIOUSLY SERENDIPITOUS ABOUT ALLEN’S RETURN TO CLIFFORD’S FOLD. Until recently at The White Rabbit in the Cotswolds, Allen had left last year to open a joint venture with Select Property in central Manchester.
Seeking advice on his contract, he contacted Clifford and his business partner Russell Morgan to help unpick it. During this time, it became apparent the Manchester deal wasn’t going to work, so Allen approached Clifford about taking on The Flitch.
“I told him that me and my wife (a former sommelier at Midsummer House and who now runs front of house at The Flitch) wanted to work there but that we didn’t want to work for him, and Daniel said he didn’t want that either,” says Allen. “He wanted someone to own it and for him to become a silent partner, and it was the right time in my life to take on my own business.”
“What it needed was Tim,” interrupts Clifford. “It needed someone to love it like I love Midsummer House. He’d picked up a white elephant. It had failed because no one had taken responsibility for it. I can’t run a two-star restaurant in Cambridge and do The Flitch as well. I needed Tim.”
Duly renamed as Tim Allen’s Flitch of Bacon, Allen has already put his stamp on it. The bar area has been redesigned to try and welcome back local drinkers and Allen continues to change the menu to make The Flitch suitable for more occasions and more appealing to locals. “We are starting again,” says Allen. “It’s a complete change of direction.
“It was beautiful even though it had its difficulties. I love the challenge of going into a business and starting again. I have ownership, which is really, really key. If I’m working for somebody else I won’t put in the hours I do. I know the business will come back.”
So too does Clifford. “In two years’ time it will have a star. It will make some money, I’ll get my investment back and Tim will buy it off me. With Tim, the cards fell in my favour. I count my stars that he came along.”
Does he have any regrets? “No. It’s worth doing and it’s a long-term investment,” he responds. Will he ever do it again? “Not a fucking chance. I should have done it in Cambridge. That’s where Daniel Clifford is fucking stupid – I fall in love, rush in too quickly and buy a pub near the place I live because there’s nowhere to eat on my day off. I really should have been living in Cambridge and bought a place there and cleaned up.”
“When I see Tom Kerridge expanding I think ‘you’re a brave man’. No matter how much money you put in front of [your staff] they will fuck you. That’s why it’s so important that Tim has shares in the business. I’m not a Jason Atherton, that multiple operating is too stressful. I don’t understand how he does it. I have more respect for him than anyone.”
WITH THE FLITCH IN SAFE HANDS, CLIFFORD HAS HAD TIME TO REFOCUS HIS ATTENTION ON MIDSUMMER HOUSE and to embark on his first, and hugely ambitious cookbook in which he recreated hundreds of recipes from the past 20 years at Midsummer. The book has been cathartic, with recollections of his past causing him to reflect on his behaviour and take stock.
“I’m shit at relationships. I’ve spent 20 years here fathering my restaurant but not my children. I’ve got five kids and I know what effect my job has had on them. I’ve had two serious long-term relationships that have both failed because of this industry,” he says, admitting that in the past the running of Midsummer House led to him to cancel holidays last minute, his own wedding and miss his nan’s 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays (he very nearly missed her funeral, too).
The book-writing process has also proved an eye opener. Returning to previous dishes when the restaurant just served à la carte has made him question his entire approach at Midsummer House over the past decade.
As a result, he recently ditched the tasting menu-only approach and reintroduced à la carte.“We moved to a tasting menu for lots of reasons. We noticed a massive rise in that type of dining but we were also struggling for staff and it was easier to keep things consistent. But looking back at the old recipes, it does make you stand there and think ‘that’s how I was trained to cook and how I want to cook’.
He’s grown disillusioned with what he believes is the stifling rigidity of tasting menus and the kitchens that they create. At Midsummer, the staunchly old school chef is going back to his roots.
“Mark [Abbott, head chef] is the one who now does the ordering and running the kitchen,” he says. “I’d want to change a dish and he’d say ‘that’s two weeks away chef, you can’t change that because this is happening’. Is that really what we’ve become? Where’s the passion in that?
“My passion is that I’m dying to get this dish on the menu now and his is to keep consistency and not rock the boat in the kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, I completely respect and understand that but it makes me vacant. I was frustrated standing at the pass watching my kitchen run smoothly but it didn’t feel like my kitchen, more like a production line.”
The constant amendments to dishes because of dietary requirements also had an impact. “On the pass on Saturday night, there’s more red lines on dockets for allergies than black lines. We’re bastardising dishes anyway.
“I wouldn’t say tasting menus are dead, but unless you do one where there’s impact on every course and it tells a story they don’t work. Some people do that brilliantly, but very few. It’s now all about theatre.
“I’ve got a beautiful dish how am I going to give it a wow factor? Fuck me, it’s a perfectly cooked piece of cod on a langoustine and cauliflower purée – what more theatre do you need? I don’t want to bathe in the glory of what we achieve by blowing people’s minds with theatre.”
HE ALSO BELIEVES THE TASTING MENU CULTURE THAT TYPIFIES MANY RESTAURANTS IS CONTRIBUTING TO THE SKILLS SHORTAGE IN THE INDUSTRY. “These days it’s just assembling stuff. You look at your cook and think ‘if you were here 10 years ago you wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes’. But that’s my fault not theirs.
“There is a massive crisis of cooks. Everyone’s moaning but nobody is doing anything about it. You go to college and get three hours to make a tomato soup. You come to my kitchen and you’ve got 15 minutes to put staff food on the table. If you take a chef who’s cooked in whatever restaurant in this country and all they’ve done is tasting menus and put them on the fish or meat section for à la carte, they’re going to sink like a brick.
“The younger generation are opening tasting menu restaurants now. It’s all they know. Some have never even worked in an à la carte restaurant. This is the problem. We’ve got people who can cook 50 scallops for lunch and 50 for dinner but that’s all they can do – basically they should go and work in a factory.”
Clifford is recruiting chefs at a young age before they get into the tasting menu mindset. A woman recently came to him asking for a job for her 16-year-old son, who had been chucked out of school. His response: “Tell him to grow some bollocks and knock on my door. And he did and he’s got a smile on his face, and he’s got no bad habits
“He’s never going to try and do things in a different way. When someone’s prepping 300 quails, by 50 they’ve got no respect for it anymore. But if they’ve got to do 10 quails, 10 pigeons and a rack of venison they have respect for everything.”
The precise kitchens and dining rooms of today may be more tranquil places to work than in Clifford’s early career, but that doesn’t necessarily make them more appealing, he says. Yes, there may be less swearing in other kitchens, but potentially also less passion.
“If I look at my service staff, the difference is they now have something to do in the dining room [since reintroducing à la carte] – something to carve and present. I’ve got a maître d’ who worked at The Waterside Inn for 14 and a half years and who can carve a duck better than anyone, but him putting the same plate of food down every time is not where I want my restaurant going.
“I want to see love and passion and people loving what they are doing. The fish section got fucked on Saturday night by the number of checks, but the chef went home and felt amazing about himself. It put an extra six months on his cooking ability. The biggest and bravest move is going back to à la carte. If I went to the bank manager tomorrow he’d think I was a lunatic.”
THERE’S ANOTHER REASON WHY HE HAS MADE A RETURN TO À LA CARTE: MICHELIN. The restaurant won its first star in 2003, its second in 2005 but a third has not been forthcoming. “The biggest question I’ve asked myself over the past three years is will I ever get three stars doing a tasting menu? If you look back at the Michelin guide in the UK, the only restaurant doing a tasting menu to get three stars is The Araki. The Fat Duck was doing à la carte when it got three stars.”
He makes no bones about the fact that he’s aiming for three stars at Midsummer House. “I still want them, what chef doesn’t? I’ve still got it in me, and I’m still investing in the restaurant.”
So why does he think there are there so few UK restaurants with the top rating? “Every year we wait for it,” he says. “I’ve no idea. If I knew I’d have three stars. I don’t think anyone understands why there hasn’t been an English three-star chef since Heston.
“I was told eight years ago we had a three-star property but you have no idea what you’re doing right and wrong. But at the end of the day you’re not cooking for Michelin but for customers. I’d love three, but that’s not why I’ve made the changes. I’ve made them for my own benefits and to still carry on enjoying my job.”
And he is again. Clifford is now cooking more at home and enjoying himself. “Moving to Cambridge means I now go home at 3pm, tend my garden, walk my dogs. Me not being [at Midsummer House] in the afternoon helps the staff. When I hold court because I’ve nothing to do it holds them up. I’ve finally got a life.”
Daniel Clifford’s book Out of My Tree is published on 21 June by Meze, priced £45.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the May issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here