Only one year later, the restaurant was devastated by flood, then again in 2000 when the River Cam burst its banks once more. After the second flood, instead of making all his staff redundant, he got them involved in the clean-up and only three-and-a-half weeks later, the restaurant reopened. During that period, Daniel Clifford and his team had time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the restaurant and when it once more opened its doors, it did so with many improvements and a stronger sense of purpose. Like many other high-end restaurants in Britain, the style of service was relaxed and the food was refined and simplified. He told The Caterer at the time: “Before, we were in danger of having too many flavours fighting against one another on the plate – now we make sure every ingredient is only there for how it tastes, not for how it looks.”
But this setback proved to be a turning point for the restaurant and just two months after it returned, in 2002, it won its first Michelin star. Its second came in 2005, which it has retained ever since. They also hold five AA rosettes and 8/10 in the Good Food Guide, and most recently they were awarded 12th Best Restaurant in the UK in the 2015 Good Food Guide.
With his first head chef position coming when he opened Midsummer House, Daniel Clifford has taken time to truly develop his own style of cooking – to pack his 3000 cookbooks away in the loft and look to himself for inspiration instead. He has moved away from cooking that is founded on a classical French tradition to something more experimental, more in keeping with The Fat Duck’s culinary oeuvre. Gone is the traditional adherence to luxuries – the langoustines, foie gras, scallops and truffle – and in its place is a broader spectrum on ingredients, with everything earning its place on taste alone. And in progressing his style he has drawn inspiration from his time in Tours, working with Jean Bardet. He told the Staff Canteen: “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.”
Noted for his absolutely outstanding amuse-bouches, such as this Bloody Mary foam with salsa, other signature dishes include his Hand-dived scallops with celeriac-truffle purée and apple textures – which has been on the menu since the outset – and his Chicken wings with Reblochon pomme purée and chicory. His dessert drink, Pousse café – layers of lemon and whisky cream, egg yolk cream and sweet maple syrup – has now become iconic and customers have been known to request up to four of these “shots” in one sitting.
With Daniel Clifford’s towering ambitions in mind, and the knowledge that he has five young daughters on his hands too, where he finds the time for another venture is a mystery. But he has just purchased a small local pub, 15 minutes from his home in a quaint village with thatched houses, which is due to open in summer 2015 following extensive refurbishment. Offering relaxed, traditional British pub dining such as steak and kidney pudding and homemade sausages, everything will be made on-site and beer and wine will both be produced locally. At least 90% of the supplies used by the kitchen will be grown or raised on Daniel Clifford’s farm – an eight-acre property in Ongar, Essex, around which he is also building a farm shop and cooking school.
He has also twice won Great British Menu – once in 2012 with a memorable Slow-poached chicken with sweetcorn “egg”, buttered spinach with bacon and peas, and again in 2013 with a Pineapple cheesecake, coconut sorbet, pineapple textures and piña colada.
Daniel Clifford – performing at the very top of his game – has fully realised his own unique style and is recognised as one of the greatest chefs in Britain. The Independent describes dinner at Midsummer House as “an almost faultless parade of beautifully crafted plates, enticingly sequenced and flashing not just intrigue, but ultimately delight, too. That is more than can be said for many of its equally garlanded rivals.” The Telegraph notes: “its style, theatricality and melding of utter technical brilliance with a wild imagination, Clifford and his restaurant are among the most unforgettably good in Britain today”, continuing “Clifford has his eyes firmly set on Midsummer House becoming the fifth British three-star restaurant. Whether he will beat his friend [Simon] Rogan to that punch is a hard call. These two outrageously gifted cooks will surely reach the highest plinth of the Michelin pantheon in time.” And we have no doubt that he will.