Ripping up dodgy floorboards on a cold winter's day wasn't what Daniel Clifford had mapped out at the beginning of 2001. Yet last November, it was all hands on deck when chef-patron Clifford's dining room at Midsummer House in Cambridge was submerged under water after the nearby River Cam burst its banks. Scuttling the floor was Clifford's only damage-limitation option to prevent major structural repair work.
His quick thinking meant he was able to reopen Midsummer House just under a month after the flood, despite having had 5ft of water in the foundations under the dining room floor to pump, then dry, out. "The insurance company couldn't believe how fast we worked," says Clifford. "The fact that we were closed for only three-and-a-half weeks is testament to the determination of everyone here to open again as quickly as possible."
But then the staff had already had mop-up practice earlier in the year, when Midsummer's cellars had been under water in February. "When it happened the second time I did feel like someone had it in for me. Everything had been going so well. Bookings were looking good, we were getting good write-ups for the food. I actually sat in the middle of the floor almost in tears," Clifford confesses. However, devastating as the November dousing was, it proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Not only did the 60-seat restaurant receive an interior face-lift, but the closure gave Clifford and the Midsummer House team time to consider the restaurant's strengths and weaknesses, allowing an opportunity to refocus on different areas. New initiatives for marketing the restaurant were implemented, the wine list was extended from 400 to 750 bins, and the front of house uniforms were changed from waistcoat and bow ties to more informal black trousers and black shirts.
"We also took a close look at the style of restaurant service," says Clifford, who joined the restaurant as head chef in 1998 and was given the responsibility of overseeing the entire restaurant operation as chef-patron in 1999 by Midsummer's owner, Russell Morgan, owner of the London-based outside catering company Crown Catering. "As well as getting rid of the stuffiness of the bow ties, we wanted to make the service itself more relaxed - we didn't want any more pretentiousness or hovering, which can be very intimidating. There is a limit, after all, to the number of times a waiter needs to pour the coffee."
Careful thought was also given to the food, which resulted in Clifford and his brigade of five chefs taking a simpler approach to each dish. "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," he says.
Clifford believes that after nearly four years in what has been his first head chef position, he has finally developed his own style of cooking. "It takes time - particularly when there are so many other responsibilities in running a place like this," he reflects. "When I first arrived I brought many of the dishes with me that I was cooking at Rascasse. Now, all the dishes here are my own, although some have been influenced by dining at other restaurants."
Clifford's new-found culinary raison d'ˆtre must have been developing before the closure, though, because just two months after the disastrous November flood, the restaurant scooped a coveted Michelin star when the 2002 Red Guide was published at the end of January - the point being that each year's new stars are usually decided a good two months before publication. "Yes," acknowledges Clifford, "we were working well before the flood. But the closure just gave us time to sit down and think what we really wanted to do. You have to keep things moving, otherwise you stagnate. Getting the star really made up for all the difficult times."
Clifford certainly made good use of his time when the restaurant's £100,000-worth of repairs were being carried out. A visit with his brigade to Heston Blumenthal's celebrated restaurant, the Fat Duck, in Bray, Berkshire, sowed the seeds of culinary development in the Midsummer kitchen. "Eating at the Fat Duck has given me a new lease of life. It has made me think more about what I'm eating and encouraged me to take a new look at what I'm doing and be more experimental," admits Clifford, whose cooking has hitherto been founded on a classical French base.
One dish that has been developed following the Fat Duck jaunt is now on the à la carte menu, which costs £42 for three courses.
Roast Scottish salmon, wilted iceberg, pommes galette, almond purée, white chocolate and caviar sauce was inspired after Clifford was served a disc of white chocolate and caviar after his main course at the Fat Duck. "It was a shock at first, but the two flavours worked wonderfully well. I had wanted to do a new salmon dish for a while and decided to serve the fish with a sauce made from a white wine reduction and a vegetable nage, into which I blended white chocolate off the heat at the last minute, together with some caviar.
"As soon as the dish went on the menu I served it to a regular customer who is quite a gourmet and eats regularly at the likes of Alain Ducasse's restaurants. He was absolutely blown away by the dish and has been back several times since and ordered it again. Winning the Michelin star has meant everything to me, but having a happy customer like this is even more important."
Other dishes that have impressed customers include the deep-fried snails, risotto of bacon, Jerusalem artichoke purée and parsley ice-cream. The snails are wrapped in chicken mousse with some chopped bacon, shallots and parsley before being rolled into a perfect ball and then coated in garlic breadcrumbs, finally being deep-fried. As well as appearing as a starter on the à la carte menu, it is also included as one of the seven dishes on the £52.50 tasting menu.
"On the tasting menu we don't mention that the dish includes snails because I think about 40% of customers who do order the menu wouldn't otherwise do so, but everyone is very impressed when we tell them they've eaten snails," says Clifford. About 60 tasting menus are ordered each week, with 60% of customers on Saturday evenings choosing it.
Love of popcorn
Clifford, supported by pastry chef Elwyn Boyles, who was formerly at the Connaught in London, has worked particularly hard to produce some unique desserts. For instance, as a result of his wife Valerie's love of popcorn, Clifford has developed a caramelised popcorn parfait served with a sweetcorn ice-cream and sweet chilli salsa. "Elwyn has a very sound classical training and knows how to do all the basics properly," says Clifford, who believes that it is only when a chef is confident with the basics that he or she can start to experiment.
Alongside David Cavalier (see panel), the second most influential person on Clifford's career has been his current boss, Russell Morgan, who bought the restaurant four years ago from chef Hans Schweitzer and TV presenter Chris Kelly. "I speak to him whenever I need to, but he largely leaves the running of the restaurant to me," he says. "But he is a fantastic support and puts all the profits back into the restaurant. He has encouraged all of us to achieve what we have here today.
Daniel Clifford, 28, grew up in Canterbury, Kent, and began cooking on a mass catering basis at the University of Kent. He completed a three-year apprenticeship at Howfield Manor Hotel & Restaurant in Canterbury while attending Canterbury College on day release, and in 1992 went to work as a commis chef at the Bell Inn, Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, under David Cavalier, the chef who has had the most profound influence on his career.
"I looked up to him like God," says Clifford. "He was totally focused - nothing could be compromised."
Positions then followed at the Box Tree in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, as demi chef de partie; Millers, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, as chef de partie; and Provence restaurant, Gordleton Mill hotel, Lymington, Hampshire, as sous chef, before spending six months in France as chef de partie at the two-Michelin-starred Jean Bardet restaurant in Tours.
On returning to England in 1996 Clifford was appointed sous chef at Rascasse in Leeds under chef-proprietor Simon Gueller. He was appointed to his first head chef position in September 1998 at Midsummer House.
Tortellini of snails with frogs' legs (serves eight)
Pan-fried turbot with mushroom risotto (serves four)