"You know he's one of the most terrifying chefs in Britain, right?" I look aghast as Irish Times food writer Marie-Claire Digby finishes briefing me on Daniel Clifford, the man with two Michelin stars over the door of his Midsummer House restaurant in Cambridge.
No, I did not know that. And had I known, I might not have been so quick to sign up to a day working in his kitchen. In truth, until she started speaking, the only thing I knew about Clifford was that he was one of two chefs replacing Dylan McGrath and Nick Munier as judges on Celebrity MasterChef at its new TV3 home – with Robin Gill, the Irish-born, London-based chef, being the other.
The news of his superlative fearsomeness has me on edge as I arrive for my shift early on a winter morning. I’m met by his no-nonsense PA and brought straight to the kitchen at the back of the unobtrusive Victorian villa which sits between the River Cam and Midsummer Common, on the outskirts of the university town.
She tells a passing chef, one who looks about 12, to give me something to do until Clifford is ready for me. “You can start on the cabbage,” he says, handing me a knife and a massive bowl of purple-tinged cabbages.
Chopping cabbage does not seem like a plum job, but he makes it clear it can be done wrong. “It has to be in nice long strips,” he says. “It’s a venison garnish, so don’t be shredding it. That could mess up the whole plate.”
He leaves me to my cabbage patch and returns to delicately deboning quail. Beside him, another chef pares tiny strips of fat off massive venison haunches, while a third fills chocolate cases with creams infused with lemon, bay, ginger and mint. A fourth is elbow deep in canapé-fixings.
All told, there are nine chefs working alongside me and for the guts of an hour no one says a word. Nothing at all. They just waltz around each other, moving through the tiny kitchen, utterly focussed on a seemingly endless list of tasks at hand. I just chop cabbage.
Clifford’s PA returns. “Daniel’s ready now,” she says and leads me upstairs. His office could double as a boardroom or a private dining room, with its long and highly polished wooden table. Clifford looks affable enough, so I go all in with my opening salvo. “I’m told you’re the most terrifying chef in the UK. Should I be scared?”
He pauses for a long and terrifying moment, sizing me up with what looks like rage in his eyes. Then he laughs – it’s a proper laugh from his belly. He tells me he used to be fierce once, but he has mellowed.
His head chef, Mark Abbott from Northern Ireland looks up from the other end of the table where he's doing some paperwork and coughs politely. I ask him if chef has mellowed. "You've changed an awful lot in the last three years," he responds, directing his answer to Clifford. "But there's still that element of ..." he pauses. "It's either fear, or maybe it's respect. I don't know if the chefs are afraid of you, but they definitely do respect you."
Clifford nods. “All that swearing and screaming, that was part of growing up,” he says. “I opened this place when I was 25 [he’s in his early 40s now]. I’d no idea about finances and no idea how to manage people. I knew how to cook, but no one teaches you man-management.”
He was nine years into the game when two of his best friends, both chefs, got in touch to tell him about an academic who was preparing a paper on aggression in the kitchen. “They asked if I’d talk to him. I told him to go f**k himself, obviously. But they persisted and eventually I agreed. A 30-minute conversation turned into eight or nine hours. We talked about everything, going all the way back to my childhood. It was a bit like therapy.”
One of the things that emerged was a realisation that “people don’t all work in the same way,” he recalls. “One of my problems was that I treated everyone exactly the same. We got accolades because the food would always go out perfectly, even if people were dying in the kitchen. Now I realise it doesn’t have to be like that. I came from an era where you were told you were shit all the time. And it’s really hard to break that cycle.”
He does seem relaxed and introspective, but that serenity is broken briefly when he starts talking about MasterChef. He loved making the programme and loved the contestants, but his face darkens when recalling someone who was only tangentially involved in one episode.
“There was this person who was a complete c**t,” he says. Why so? “They were just slagging someone’s dish off and I didn’t think it deserved to be slagged off. It was just so f**king ridiculous to hear this stupid criticism from a f**king know-nothing who hasn’t a f**ing clue about food. Stop criticising someone who is trying really hard, that’s what I think,” he fumes.
It’s easy to see how you could be scared of this man.
Then he is back to his happy place. “One thing I’ve always hated about MasterChef are judges who think they are there to decide who is the worst. When I was asked to do it, I said I wasn’t interested unless we could give something back. I wanted to be walking around the kitchen and tasting the food and helping people develop. I think this is the first time they have two chefs as judges.”
He admits to not having had a breeze who any of the celebrities in the Irish MasterChef were. "I was at the TV3 launch and Niamh Kavanagh was there. She had won Eurovision and I was thinking: 'Who the f**k watches Eurovision?' Then I saw Louis Walsh coming up to her and Brendan O'Carroll coming up to her and I realised she was kind of a big deal.
"I really enjoyed working with Simon [Delaney] and with Oisin [McConville]. And I loved Mundy. He cooks like a musician and is f**king hilarious. And then there was Samantha Mumba. She was absolutely a ..." He stops himself, suddenly. "I'm saying too much, I can't say anymore."
Then he does say more. But to repeat what he said would be to give away the outcome of the programme. And where’s the fun in that?
He spent weeks in Dublin filming the series and ate out a lot. “I loved Coppinger Row. I absolutely loved it. I went back twice. I had the best cocktails I have ever had there. It’s how a restaurant at that level should be. The lamb flatbread ...” he trails off wistfully. “I’m still thinking about that, and the crab salad, it was just f**king great. But what was really great was the atmosphere. You don’t get a place like that in London.
Next to Bono “I went to Delahunt too and I was sat next to Bono and I was like f**king hell! I didn’t say hello, but I was trying to take a picture of him on the sly. I bet no-one has ever done that before. And Chapter One blew me away. It is probably the best restaurant I’ve eaten in in the last five years. I tried to go back there but I couldn’t get a table.”
It is time for me to return to the kitchen. I watch as massive scallops are shelled. I can feel them pulsing in my hands, they are that fresh. “We can’t use them straight away,” Abbott tells me. “We have to wait until the rigor mortis passes. They have to be shelled carefully. They are very expensive and we don’t waste anything.”
Arran, one of the youngest chefs on the team, wanders past looking for his new knife. When he finds it, he and another young chef huddle over it. “It’s Japanese,” he whispers. Abbott looms over them and asks how much it cost. When he hears a price of £250, he whistles and shakes his head.
“I think he thinks I’ve spent too much on it,” Arran says, clearly crestfallen. Then he returns to his job. He is on “staff tea”, a task rotated among all the chefs. Tonight is lasagne night, but it’s not like Arran is going to whack some Dolmio-infused mince between some sheets of dried pasta. Everything is made from scratch. It smells amazing as he cooks it and I look on like Pavlov’s dog.
“I kind of get worried when I’m making staff tea and chef or Mark are there,” Arran whispers as I drool at his shoulder. “A couple of weeks back I made a carbonara and I did it without cream. That’s how I thought you made carbonara. I was given a right bollocking by Mark for not using white sauce.”
You only use egg in carbonara, surely, I say to Abbott. “Yeah, that is how you make it alright,” he says from his station. “But that is not how we make it here.”
He takes me on a walk through the kitchen areas. In a prep area a ceiling tile has come loose. He tells a chef who is busy prepping vegetables to fix it. There is a moment’s pause. “Now, please,” Abbott adds quietly.
I ask why the roof tile needs to be fixed so quickly? It is out of sight of diners and not in the way of staff, so what was the rush. Abbott says, simply, that he “couldn’t be having that. Everything has to be right and everything has to be tidy. It’s all about mental discipline. It’s all about making that extra effort. And you have to train your staff to think like that. That is the only way you get to the standards that we have to get to every single day.”
He points to a senior chef walking into the kitchen with a hammer. “That has nothing to do with his cheffing business, it’s just something in there needs fixing. Everybody here does everything. I would never ask anyone to do something I wasn’t prepared to do. Chef is the same. We scrub floors, clean drains, whatever needs to be done. It is all about leading by example,” he says.
Abbott is not yet 30, but refers to himself as old and his staff as young. Whatever about his age, he is certainly one of the best chefs in Britain. Last year he was one of four chefs that made it through to the final of the BBC television series Great British Menu, his starter of potatoes prepared in a variety of ways being served at the winners' banquet at the Palace of Westminster. He plays it down. "I wouldn't call myself talented at all," he says. "I would say it is practice. I have just been stubborn and I wouldn't let anything beat me."
Ahead of service, there is a briefing for the (mostly French) front of house staff. Abbott talks them through the menu. It quickly turns into an exam. He says there is kumquat in one dish and asks if everyone knows exactly what it is. Everyone nods. He doesn’t take their word for it and picks on one poor unfortunate who gets the answer half right.
It’s a citrus fruit, in case you’re wondering.
He moves on to the tamarind. Again he asks if everyone knows what tamarind is. Everyone nods again. Again he doesn’t take their word for it and he picks on another poor unfortunate. “Is it a seed?” she guesses. No. It’s a fruit (with seeeds).
It is all rather stressful.
Then it is time for service. I am horrified to realise I have missed staff tea. The lasagne is gone. It is a quiet night, but the kitchen still buzzes . Everyone knows their place and they are always in it. “Because we’re quiet tonight there’s probably no need for chef to be in the kitchen. It can be tricky when we’re quiet. If he’s not busy, he has more time to look for problems,” Abbott says.
As he speaks, Clifford comes in and he is straight down to business. He preps the quail as he repeatedly reminds the chefs to taste everything. He oversees the plating up and the canapés and the fish and meat courses ... pretty much everything.
I am starving and still sad about staff tea, until Clifford springs a surprise. I am to have the eight-course tasting menu.
In the kitchen. This makes me hugely popular among the chefs I have been working alongside for the hours ahead of service. My popularity reaches its climax when the celeriac baked on open coals served with a hazelnut hollandaise arrives. To create the effect the dish has on regular diners, Clifford has insisted that a wooden trolley be brought into the kitchen. There are coals and dry ice and hay (obviously) and blackened celeriac.
But what I remember most about the dish are eight chefs swearing under their breath as they squeezed past me and the trolley to do their jobs. I practically choke on the dish such is my haste to eat it and get the trolley out of the kitchen and their way.
Along with the inconvenient celeriac, I eat a sea scallop, served with a Granny Smith apple, roast quail with a shallot purée, monkfish served with confit pork belly and onion and bay purée, venison with a chervil root fondant served with cabbage. Dessert is passion fruit, yoghurt sorbet served with dark chocolate and there is also a white chocolate ball filled with an aerated pear mousse.
Clifford has frequently been compared to trailblazing chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, although he is moving towards a more traditional style as he gets older. Whatever about that, he deserves to be ranked alongside the very best of chefs cooking anywhere in the world today. All the food is, it probably goes without saying, amazing.
Especially the cabbage. It was so beautifully chopped.