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Reflections: Daniel Clifford on twenty years at Midsummer House

Reflections: Daniel Clifford on twenty years at Midsummer House

by Tom Shingler 28 November 2018

After releasing Out Of My Tree – his debut book – Tom Shingler sits down with acclaimed chef Daniel Clifford to chart the highs and lows of two decades at the multi-Michelin-starred Midsummer House.

‘I’ve got chefs downstairs who are younger than the restaurant, how fucking mental is that?’ Daniel Clifford tells me as we sit down to talk about his new book. It must feel a bit strange, but then again he has been the chef-patron of two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House for twenty years. During that time he’s become one of the UK’s top chefs, after spending his younger years honing his craft in the old-school kitchens where aggression and machoism ruled supreme. That in turn earned him his own reputation for being the sort of chef you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of – and his debut book Out Of My Tree is his chance to tell his story first-hand.

Part-recipe book, part-autobiography, the pages tell the story of Daniel and Midsummer House, charting the highs, lows and intense pressures of running such a high-end establishment. It’s already been likened to Marco Pierre White’s seminal book White Heat (and rightly so), offering an unfiltered glimpse into Daniel’s rise to the top without glossing over the gory details. Raging tempers, natural disasters and broken relationships pepper the pages, while Daniel’s borderline obsessive grit and determination paint a picture of a chef who is willing to sacrifice more than most in the pursuit of perfection. But it’s not all shouting, fights and swearing (although, as you’ll soon see, there’s still plenty of effing and jeffing) – there’s a clear mellowing in Daniel’s temperament in the final chapters of the book, and while I still wouldn’t like to spill his pint in the pub, when I met him he wasn’t the mad-eyed monster he’s sometimes depicted to be.

‘I wanted the book to lay it all out and get the story out there properly; the pain of what we’d been through, the floodings and all that,’ he explains. ‘People hear all these stories about me and the restaurant but a lot of the stories get blown out of proportion. You call a chef a c*** and he tells someone, they tell someone else and before you know it everyone’s saying you smashed them in the face. I wanted to get the truth out there.’

Out Of My Tree has been a long time in the making, with Daniel originally starting work on it back in 2015. However, after purchasing the pub that would become the (now Michelin-starred) Flitch of Bacon – something he admits was a bit of an impulse buy – it was all put on hold. When he finally returned to the project, Daniel had a very clear vision of what he wanted (which sometimes clashed with the publisher’s); it was to be a chef’s book, not dumbed down for home cooks, with recipes exactly as they were cooked at Midsummer interspersed with the story of the restaurant.

‘Writing the story was easy – the front cover and title were the hard part,’ says Daniel. ‘I didn’t want to be on the cover; I wanted the Midsummer tree instead. But the book’s photographer Tim is a sly dog who looks like he’s doing fuck all but actually he’s doing shitloads, so I ended up on the front of the book after he took that shot. The title was also a nightmare that took three months to come up with. It was originally going to be called Be Here Now after the Oasis song, then it was going to be True Perfection Has To Be Imperfect. But the publisher wasn’t keen as there was no mention of Oasis or anything in the book, so I said ‘look, let’s just call it Out Of My Tree’ because it reflected my personality, had the apple tree of Midsummer in it and, to be honest, you have to be slightly out of your tree to fucking do this.’

1998–2002

The photography and recipes weren’t a walk in the part, either. With over 140 recipes to write up and shoot in a small amount of time, it was all hands on deck to get it done. ‘We’d plan the photoshoot and we’d say, ‘right, we’re going to do twenty dishes in three days’, which is fucking hardcore when you sit down and work out how much mise en place that takes. We were working until three in the fucking morning the night before getting everything ready and built a kitchen out the back of the restaurant where we could shoot everything. Once the photos were done, there were six of us writing the recipes after service every night for about five weeks, then my daughter would come in and type them up.

‘The recipes were fucking extreme,’ adds Daniel. ‘It took nine pages of A4 just to get the recipe written down for the seventeen-pan lamb. But I didn’t want to do a book where things were left out because at the end of the day, we’re an industry for sharing. I’m not going to change the recipes because someone doesn’t have the right piece of equipment, because it bastardises the fucking thing. It’s a chef’s book, which is what I wanted to do from day one.’

Of course, there’s never enough room in just one book to tell the complete story, which meant Daniel had to choose what to include and what to leave out. He said he could’ve written five books with all the anecdotes, tales and tribulations that have happened at Midsummer House over the years, and he regrets not finding room to talk more about his personal life. ‘I think I could’ve gone more into my relationships,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t want to get too personal, but it’s an important part of a chef’s life. We’re adrenaline junkies and are totally driven by that. A chef’s life can be really dark at times, and we’ve all got fucking secrets. We’ve all done things we shouldn’t have done because we’re so driven by success and the fear of failure. At the end of the day the people at Midsummer are as much my family as my real family is at home. I spend more time with my restaurant manager than I do with my missus.’

2010–2011

Writing the book was clearly a therapeutic experience for Daniel. After signing it all off in January 2018, he started counselling in February – something he has stuck with ever since. ‘After writing everything down I had some questions that I needed answered about my childhood, my temper and how I’m perceived,’ he says. ‘I get hate mail from the residents around the common because of things like parking, and if you continuously poke someone they’ll eventually bite back, especially when they’re stressed and tired. So I went to counselling to understand myself a bit more and why I’m so quick to get like that. To be honest, I quite enjoy and look forward to it now. Spending an hour talking to someone I don’t really know about all the dramas of the week actually helps you reflect quite a bit. I can now look back and realise I shouldn’t have let certain staff go, shouldn’t have been such a c*** to certain people and all that. Writing it all down on paper started that whole process.’

I doubt you’d ever get Daniel to admit something like that in his younger days. Back then he was all fire and brimstone, relishing the intensity of a kitchen with a near-impossible workload and the unattainable high standards he set himself, firing people left, right and centre for tiny mistakes to the point of being self-destructive. Today, however, at forty-five years old, he appears much more reflective and – once you realise the constant swearing is just the way he talks rather than a sign of aggression – a lot more relaxed. He was reduced to tears when he read the forewords to his book written by Tom Kerridge and Giovanna Grossi (former group area manager at the AA), an admission you wouldn’t expect from someone sometimes caricatured as a demon chef brought up the old-school way. ‘Whenever we meet up they always take the piss out of me, calling me a fucking psycho, but this was really heartfelt shit,’ he says. ‘That makes you stand back and think to yourself, ‘you know what, life is fucking good actually. I’ve got some great friends’.’

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There's a constant focus on pushing and evolving the food at Midsummer House, making the most of new or undiscovered ingredients or heritage varieties of vegetables whenever suppliers bring them in
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Out Of My Tree was released in June 2018 to critical acclaim, with chefs and passionate home cooks calling the book this generation's White Heat

Evolution, change and refinement

The recipes in Out Of My Tree follow the chapters chronologically, giving you a good sense of how Daniel’s cooking style has changed and evolved over the years. In the first few years at Midsummer there’s a clear classical French influence, thanks to Daniel’s time in the kitchens of the country and honing his skills under the likes of Marco Pierre White and Simon Gueller. However, by the early 2000s things start getting a little more experimental – the period when Daniel began carving his own culinary path.

‘I think that’s when my confidence came in,’ he explains. ‘My ex-wife said to me, ‘Daniel, we’ve got a house in Yorkshire that we can’t sell, we moved here to live in a fucking converted garage, I’m coming in to help you every Sunday because you keep sacking people even though I’m pregnant and you’re not even cooking your own fucking food. What the fuck?’ It was a bit of a kidney jab really. But she was right.

‘So I started travelling and really thinking,’ he continues. ‘There are loads of disasters when you’re constantly trying to make something unique happen, but for me that era was the most exciting, because there were no boundaries. I’d broken away from working for anyone else – it was me putting my heart on the plate. There’s a dish in the book of popcorn parfait with sweetcorn ice cream and chilli jam, which I thought up after a trip to the cinema around that time. That’s really fucking mad, but that was me trying my hardest to be different instead of having people just saying I’m cooking Marco Pierre White’s food.’

2012

This wild, untamed style of cooking eventually led to a second Michelin star for Midsummer in 2005 (it had received its first star just three years earlier). It was the best moment of Daniel’s life, but also the most daunting, as he had not been expecting it at all. ‘Getting a second star so suddenly made me freeze for like four months, because I thought I had to keep doing what I was doing just before I got it. It took me another six months to get my confidence back and say, ‘you know what? Fuck it, we’re going to do things this way from now on’. You have to keep growing. New things come on the market; a forager will bring in something you’ve never seen. You’ll go on Great British Menu and spend time in the kitchen with other brilliant chefs, doing new things you’ve never come across before. I started refining all the craziness because people suddenly knew who we were, and we weren’t able to experiment on our guests like we’d done in the past.’

This is reflected towards the end of the book, where Daniel’s more leftfield creations are tempered and perfected, resulting in the food that Midsummer House serves today. The kitchen now has that perfect balance of uniqueness and classical technique, with a stronger ‘less is more’ approach than the dishes had in the past. But it’s clear he sometimes misses the raw creativity from around that time. ‘I wasn’t scared to do anything – if it worked it went on the menu. Back then there were four of us in the kitchen and four of us in the restaurant, and we did all kinds of mad shit. Nowadays we can’t fuck about as much. But I look at the food we’re serving today and I think it’s the best food we’ve ever served – nothing goes on the menu unless everyone who works here thinks it’s fucking mind-blowing.’

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Daniel's knife skills are second to none – something that's only achieved after decades of graft in the kitchen
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Head chef Mark Abbott started out at Midsummer House as a chef de partie, and is credited by Daniel for steadying the ship at the restaurant and bringing a calmness to the kitchen

Midsummer and beyond

Holding two Michelin stars for over ten years is no mean feat, but does Daniel ever feel frustrated that he’s yet to make the jump to the hallowed three-star status? ‘Absolutely not,’ he says definitively. ‘Every fucking year the Michelin inspectors come in and I cross my fingers that I’ve got two stars. I feel very privileged because I never expected to get them in the first place. Do I want three stars? Of course I fucking do – I think every chef in their right mind does. But will I kill myself working like shit to get them? Not anymore. I’ve worked out that I’ve got to be happy in my private life to move forward in my workload. I think it will reflect on the food. People come to restaurants because they’re calming places; if a chef’s gone off his fucking head in the kitchen, something’s not right. I’m a lot calmer these days – I don’t get stressed about things like that.’

2013–2014

Rather than worry about accolades and inspectors, Daniel’s focus is entirely on growing Midsummer and continuing to learn and develop as a chef. He’s a big fan of how social media lets chefs share ideas from all over the world, and credits the constant stream of new ingredients and products coming into his kitchen as a source of inspiration for dishes.

‘Produce has come on massively since we started,’ he says. ‘When I started cooking, vinegar was either red, white or, if you were lucky, sherry. Now we’ve got loads – yesterday my head chef Mark brought in bonito vinegar and black garlic vinegar and it’s a fucking lightbulb moment. Fifteen years ago it was impossible to get raw milk, but now we can and we’re going to start making our own curds and mozzarella. I asked our veg supplier for some onions the other days and we ended up with sixteen varieties – and they were all completely different.’

2017–2018

Midsummer House has been through a hell of a journey in the past two decades, and achieving its current status as one of the best restaurants in Europe hasn’t been easy, as the book clearly shows. But as I watched Daniel prep a sea bass in the kitchen so we could get some photos, the entire kitchen brigade stopped what they were doing to see him in action. We were watching an absolute master of his craft at work, the kind of person who could fillet a fish with his eyes closed.

It takes blood, sweat and tears to get to that sort of level, and it’s certainly impossible to do it alone. Daniel has built an incredible team around him, particularly his head chef Mark Abbott, who is calm, quiet, centred and like a yin to Daniel’s loud, slightly more in-your-face yang. Despite his raucous past and troubled relationships, it’s clear that Daniel has calmed down with age. He spends his spare time with his five daughters rather than staying late at the restaurant killing himself through work. He gives himself more time to go carp fishing – his favourite hobby – or walks his two bulldogs around Midsummer Common. It’s easy to write him off as a kitchen tyrant; a cartoon chef who throws pans around in a rage whenever there’s a microherb out of place. But Daniel is just as human as the rest of us. It’s just taken him a little longer to admit it.

Out of My Tree is available to buy now from Amazon and Waterstones.

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