Dwarfed by the vast stretch of common that lies beyond its wrought iron gates, you could be forgiven for not noticing the modest Victorian villa of Midsummer House, situated in the heart of the magnificent university city of Cambridge.
Discreetly nestled within a charming walled garden, the dining room is obscured from the many passing cyclists, dog walkers and grazing cows on the common outside. To the north of the building, canoeists speed past on the water below.
Approaching it, I am reminded of my visit to the French Laundry in the Napa Valley 14 years earlier. Back then, I remember being surprised at how understated the exterior of Thomas Keller's temple of gastronomy was, and yet I went on to have the best dining experience of my life.
Midsummer House hints at that je ne sais quoi that culinary institutions like the French Laundry have - that magical, spine-tingling sensation when you enter or dine there - and Daniel Clifford's two-Michelin-starred, five-AA-rosette restaurant has all the hallmarks. But could Midsummer House have the mystique to match its transatlantic rival?
The Telegraph's Matthew Norman seems to think Clifford is on the right track. Reviewing the restaurant last year, he wrote: "At this early stage, two things were already plain. One was that Daniel Clifford has redirected his restaurant dramatically, in both senses of that adverb, since I last ate there almost five years ago. Where the Michelin trend has been away from the intricate, Clifford has boldly travelled in the opposite direction, jazzing up the presentation and increasing the complexity of his cooking until it nods towards Ferran AdriÁ , Heston Blumenthal and Simon Rogan of Cumbria's L'Enclume - without compromising his individuality.
"The other is that Clifford has his eyes firmly set on Midsummer House becoming the fifth British three-star restaurant. Whether he will beat his friend 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."
Love at first sight
Once run as a small restaurant by Chris Kelly, one of the faces of BBC 2's Food and Drink programme, Midsummer House was taken over by Clifford in 1998 with the backing of his business partner Russell Morgan, founder and chairman of the Crown Group (now renamed the Crown Partnership), with the sole ambition of creating Cambridgeshire's best restaurant.
Clifford had met Morgan while working at Rascasse, Simon Gueller's former Michelin-starred restaurant in Leeds. "Simon was on holiday and Mr Morgan asked my wife, who was working there, who was cooking that evening. We arranged a meeting in London, and he said he had a small restaurant in Cambridge - I Googled it, saw it, and sort of fell in love with it."
Morgan was leasing the property at the time, but thought it had potential for greater things. At the time, Morgan, known for his conference and banqueting business, was looking for a flagship restaurant. "He was always passionate about great food and wanted a great restaurant in his stable," says Clifford. "Midsummer seemed to be the right thing and, looking back over the last 17 years, we've done alright. I was given six months to see if I could turn it into a financially sound business - or a nightmare."
That meeting was, as Clifford describes it, the most bizarre experience of his life. "Mr Morgan had no idea of me prior to Rascasse, but he could see how passionate I was at the meeting. He could see I really cared, but I don't think he realised how raw I was business-wise - food was everything to me then. I had been working six days a week for all of my working life, and then I got an opportunity to run a business, but to be fair I didn't have a clue. We'd have a monthly meeting about profit and loss and I'd sit there for two hours and at the end say: 'can I buy a Pacojet?' All I cared about was making the restaurant better, I didn't care if we were losing money, I just wanted to become a better chef and he found it really frustrating. We talk about those times regularly on the phone nowâ¦
"What people don't realise is that you run a restaurant day to day and month to month. There are months when you don't make money, and there are months when you do - and it's that balancing act. You have to bring it together, and employing that one member of staff can make a difference to a business."
Clifford said it took nearly 10 years as chef-patron until his business acumen really sunk in. During the recession, Morgan sat Clifford down and said 'we really need to make sure we don't lose any money this year'. Clifford says: "When I say we've lost money, we haven't actually lost money, but we've always reinvested it. When you put £400,000 into your kitchen, that has to come from somewhere, so you put that down as depreciation and you pay it off. Your depreciation is then higher, but your takings don't get any higher so you have to make a decision as to whether that is going to bring in more money to the business or not. And that is what has changed from my perspective."
While Clifford admits to having made some "howlers", one decision that has transformed the business has been the extension of the restaurant's conservatory, from 38 seats to 58.
In fact, Clifford's mindset has changed considerably over the past decade and a half. He admits to having had a reputation for being "a complete terror", but says it was something he could never understand. "How did people in London know I was a nutcase? Well, it's because the staff you get rid of go to their next place of work and talk about you, and then the story doubles and gets worse and worse."
It took viewing himself on Great British Menu to really open his eyes. "I remember sitting down to watching GBM with the team, and I thought 'I don't think I can work for that guy'. It made me think, 'wow, I need to look at the bigger picture here, because at the end of the day, without the team, I am nobody. And that's the key to my success now: I have realised that without my team, Midsummer wouldn't be anything. It can't be one person's vision - I need to be the driver of the ship - but I need to start to respect and appreciate the staff that are working for me.
"I am sorry for what I have done to the staff previously, and I am pleased that my staff are happy to work here now."
That breakthrough in mentality, added to the fact that he's in the kitchen perhaps more than many of his contemporaries, puts him in a position to think more critically about what the customer wants: "I walk in through the front door every day now; I don't walk in the back door. I walk in as a customer, with my eyes open, and I see what happens.
"In the middle of service, I'll say 'three bread away' for a table of two. We'll dress the three bread, and the head chef [Mark Abbott] will look at me thinking 'it's a table of two', but he goes along with it. Then I'll say 'eat it, and tell me what you think'. Because a dish will change - the love you put into it the day you put it up is brilliant, but two months down the line, when you've done 4,000 of those dishes, they won't have the same love."
Starting an hour later than "the boys" has also made a difference. Having taken the younger of his five daughters to school, he rings his chef on his way to work so that he's aware of any problems before he gets there.
"It gives me 20 minutes to think before I walk through the door. What used to happen was I would walk in and they would hit me with all the problems and I would get upset - that 20 minutes before work gives me time to digest things. I think about things now before I go off the handle and it makes me a better person. I'm a happier man."
Daniel Clifford (front) and head chef Mark Abbot (fourth from left) with the Midsummer House brigade
Down on the farm
At the end of last year, Daniel Clifford purchased a farm on the A414 towards Ongar, also in Essex,
which he is currently converting to a farm shop, cookery school and wedding venue.
The 7.7-acre farm will be called Morgan's Farm after Russell Morgan, Clifford's business partner, and plans are in place to demolish the existing buildings and overhaul the lake and fields.
"I wanted to do something without the Midsummer House stamp on it," he says. "Something that is not overly luxurious, but family-friendly.
"What I would like to see is a typical family of four spend the day - mum can have a cookery lesson, dad can take the kids fishing, they can order a picnic from us and sit around the lake and enjoy themselves."
The cookery school will cover basics such as baking cakes through to making chocolates and butchery classes. Former Midsummer House head chef Scott Fricker and former pastry chef Michelle Gillott will oversee the classes.
A YouTube channel will back up the lessons. "The idea is you come to the school to learn or buy some produce from the farm shop and go home and follow the video," he says.
Fricker will also oversee the events side of the business and will work on menus alongside Clifford. They will be able to cater for up to 250 guests.
In addition to selling produce from the farm, the shop will also sell pre-made dishes such as steak and kidney pudding or shepherd's pie with ready-to-cook vegetables.
"Having the farm shop will enable me to cook all the dishes I can't put on at Midsummer House. I make a blinding steak and kidney pudding, but I can't put that on the menu here and I can't find a decent one anywhere else either because the classics have been forgotten."
Clifford hopes to work with Writtle College and allow students to use the site as part of their studies. The college will be assigned two of the nine polytunnels, which they will use to grow produce that can then be sold back to the farm. Clifford says it's not only about teaching them how to grow produce, but also how to start a business.
"Restaurants are great places to be in, I love them and I would never change what I do, but I feel the time is right to do something the public can enjoy as well as me. And once it's all set up, I can go there, pick up my lunch and sit and fish and watch everyone else work!"
Smoked butternut squash velouté, mushrooms, crème fraÁ®che, cep biscuit
The menu at Midsummer
The seven-course menu, £82.50 per person
- Smoked haddock, pickled onion, grilled cheese
- Beetroot baked on open coals, quinoa, goats' cheese, mizuna
- Roast quail, shallot purée, grapes, celery, sourdough
- English asparagus, burnt onions, potatoes, sauce Hollandaise
- Pot-roasted pigeon "d'Anjou", chickpeas, apple and chamomile
- Poached kumquat, tamarind yogurt sorbet, carrot and cardamom
- Chocolate dome with coffee, almond and mascarpone
Roast quail, shallot purée, grapes, celery and sourdough
- 2 extra large quail
- 500ml duck fat
For the shallot purée
- 1 kg shallots, sliced
- 100g butter
- 10ml lemon juice
- 100ml double cream
For the quail eggs
- 6 quail eggs
- 300g Chippers Choice potatoes
For the raisin purée
- 500g raisins
- 200ml white wine
For the croÁ»ton
- 1 loaf of white sourdough
- 200g purple seedless grapes
- 2 sticks of celery, peeled
- 200g chicken liver parfait
- 100g pickled onions, finely sliced
- 50g celery cress
- 50g walnuts, finely chopped
To prepare the quail, start by removing the wings, wishbone and guts. Poach the quail crown at 80ÂºC in chicken stock for three minutes. Remove and season with salt. In a hot pan, add a little vegetable oil and caramelise the quails until golden brown all over and then rest them.
For the legs, remove the skin and lightly season with salt. Place in duck fat and cook, not allowing the fat to go over 80ÂºC, for two hours or until tender.
To make the shallot purée, sweat the shallots with the butter, lemon juice and a light seasoning of salt until soft but not coloured. Add the cream and cook out for two minutes. Blend until smooth and adjust the seasoning with salt and lemon.
Rapidly boil the quail eggs for two minutes and five seconds and place into ice-cold water. Peel the shell, ensuring you do not damage the eggs.
Put the peeled Chippers Choice potatoes through a Japanese turning mandolin to get potato string. Drain the starch off the potatoes and then wrap the egg in the potato string until it is totally covered, ready for deep frying.
Measure 300g of the raisins and cover with water. Bring to the boil and then blend to a smooth purée. Place the remaining raisins in a pan with the white wine. Bring to the boil and allow to cool while in the liquid.
Cut the sourdough into a croÁ»ton measuring 2.5cm wide by 8cm long and 1.5cm thick. Colour the croÁ»ton in a pan with butter until golden brown on all edges. Remove and allow to cool. Cut the remaining sourdough into 2mm dice and colour quickly in butter. Remove and drain.
Finely slice the grapes, peel the celery and finely slice. Finely slice the celery leaves. Begin to assemble the crouton by piping three dots of chicken liver parfait and two dots of raisin purée onto the base of the crouton. Carefully arrange shreds of confit leg meat, slice of raw grapes, slice of pickled onion, celery cress and chopped walnuts on top.
In a hot pan, sauté the celery, grapes and celery leaves for 30 seconds. Season with salt then place to one side to build on the top on the quail breast.
Carve the quail breast and arrange the sautéed celery and grapes on top of the breast so they look similar to the scales on a fish.
Deep-fry the eggs until golden and crisp. Drain, season, place in a lidded bowl and smoke. Place a spoonful of purée on the plate and a line of five small croÁ»ton on top. Place the quail breast beside it and serve with the sourdough and smoked egg.
Additional reporting by Katherine Alano
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