In August 2017 Daniel Clifford began to get a little excited on social media, sharing news that a book was in preparation marking twenty years of his restaurant, Midsummer House. And social media got a little excited too. My interest was piqued.
The idiotic excuse that I most definitely do not need another cookbook stalled things for a few months after publication but it appeared on my wishlist and one of our junior ‘Cheoffs’ - the younger son (Sous Cheoff?) if you must know - sent me a birthday gift of ‘OUT of my TREE’.
My review follows but let’s throw in a spoiler straight away. This will not be loaned out in the foreseeable future… get your own lovely copy!
Mine is not the slip-cased, four-times-the-price limited edition. It doesn’t want to be. I shouldn’t like to be distracted by considerations of keeping it pristine. There is too much here which demands to be propped up in the kitchen and cooked from.
If you have come for the food you will be richly rewarded. Research and reminiscing leads Daniel Clifford to a nostalgic trawl through dishes which have disappeared or been reinvented over time at Midsummer House. Some were remembered with such affection that they have found their way back on to the menu at the restaurant. This has resulted in a very generous doubling of the originally proposed recipes to a finally published one hundred and forty.
Those recipes, presented as far as possible in chronological order, range from a very accessible one for egg sandwiches by Chef’s mum to more intricate efforts by Chef’s mum’s son. These involve techniques I am prepared to struggle with but which might be abandoned if they require a centrifuge or a pacojet. The food is gloriously presented through the patient, painstaking photography of Tim Green. The recipes and the short stories about their development make a strong claim as the star attraction of this volume.
But this is much more than a cookbook. Although it does not contain everything. As Sat Bains explains in his foreword (there are several forewords by much-respected, big-hitting members of the culinary and hospitality world), something is missing… namely ‘bullshit’. I would have expected that. My understanding of Daniel Clifford has come mainly from his appearances on Great British Menu over the last decade. He is both a winner and a ‘Veteran’ judge. In the latter guise his reaction to one competitor instigated Twitter fury. But I remember silently shouting at the screen seconds before Chef Paul Askew was pulled up short for over-enthusiastic garnishing… and thus being in total agreement with Daniel’s timely interruption. And previously his response to a teacher who exercised creative writing skills to describe her meal at his restaurant also received much coverage. The rebuttal of his customer’s letter of complaint was a lot more polite than the aforementioned Sat Bains’ occasional vitriol on ShitAdvisor. Especially considering that a Cambridge newspaper had undermined one of their community’s prize assets. I fall in with Chef’s refusal to accept such bullshit.
For me, though, there most definitely is one more large pile of doodah in the book - and I don’t mean the pant-cacking moment on page 36. This is not just an homage to Midsummer House. Chef takes us into the verbally and physically violent kitchens of his formative years and admits that his own early management skills rested on being trained by ‘animals’. I know from personal experience that Michelin star food can be produced in kitchens which offer a constantly positive and nurturing environment. This is still a harsh, unremitting profession but I am convinced that the additional prospect of being bullied is one element which has strongly impacted the recruitment of a new generation. The crassness of abuse needs to be seriously addressed… maybe we can begin to eliminate it.
Providing food in one of the UK’s top ten restaurants (have a debate on that later!) has to rely on teamwork but, in the process of becoming a culinary star, Chef Clifford concedes and regrets that he has made bad mistakes in his treatment of other human beings. The arrival of chef Mark Abbott confirmed a sea change. It revealed how much Daniel Clifford had developed as a person. The realisation and acceptance that Mark’s unassuming exterior is no barrier to being a powerhouse of cooking skill, creativity and work ethic has meant that Daniel can adjust to a new era in which he trusts someone else to match and sustain his exacting standards. Which also means that he might step back, and exhale with a big burst of pride at what he has achieved, not just in a wonderful career, but as a human being. The book strongly suggests that he has now grown up more than enough to do just that.
Even if he has taken any sort of a step back, Midsummer House will always belong to Daniel Clifford. Even allowing for the help of so many others over the years it remains his creation. I am very grateful to him for producing such a fitting, thoughtful and rich book to share that creation with us.
It might be worth adding that we have not yet eaten at Midsummer House. You’ll gather that we will be correcting that mistake soon.
Right. Page 208 is open and I’m looking at the ‘Pear, Fennel and Black Olive’ dessert. And trying to work out ways to achieve it as far as possible without buying more kitchen equipment. You may leave me in peace now… I’m going to be busy.