Meet the Former Navy Cook Building a Food Empire

Daniel Heffy is head chef at Liverpool’s Buyers Club restaurant, as well as co-founder of a successful supper club and new Cuban-inspired street food business. “I think my Sea Cadet experience played a big part,” he says. “You had to be disciplined and...

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Oct 31 2016, 12:00pm

What does the life of an average 23-year-old look like? Maybe living with parents, working a poorly paid job, or under the existential pressure of a student debt so humongous that the only hope of paying it off is either a lottery win or patenting a miracle cure for mortality. There's probably a lot of boozing involved, too.

Daniel Heffy, aged 23, isn't doing any of these things. Instead, he's head chef and co-owner of Buyers Club restaurant in Liverpool, co-founder of the city's cult supper club Secret Diners Club, and driving force behind new street food venture FINCA.

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Chef Daniel Heffy plates up at Buyers Club restaurant in Liverpool. All photos courtesy Daniel Heffy.

I know what you're thinking: "He must be a real bastard to have achieved so much so young." But you'd be wrong. Heffy is one of those indecently nice people that make you feel a bit better about the world (and by comparison, a bit worse about yourself). So, where did it all go right for Daniel Heffy? "I started cooking when I was in the Sea Cadets," says Heffy, when I meet with him at FINCA. "I went there when I was 12 and stayed on until I was 18." While most of his fellow Cadets wanted nothing more than to play football, Heffy was a bit more ambitious.

"I signed up for everything: I went to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, took my first steps towards a flying license, and learned everything I could." It looked like Heffy was heading for a career in the Navy but then the great spatula of fate flipped things forever.

"At 16, I got the chance to go away and work on two ships—HMS Mounts Bay and HMS Iron Duke—and purely by chance, I was put to work in the kitchen both times. I loved it and I've never looked back."

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Back on dry land, Heffy signed up to a culinary course at college, before being hired by Wirral chef Paul Askew. "I learned so much from Paul and I really like his style—he uses local produce and raw ingredients. With him, cooking is an art not a science, there's no need to give a dish a gimmick. He lets the food speak for itself." Soon, Heffy and his friend Michael Harrison—also a chef—had the chance to try this approach out for themselves.

"Michael's dad had this pub that was being revamped. He asked us what we thought we could do with the space, and we came up with Secret Diners Club."

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Secret Diners Club, a Liverpool supper club that sets up at different locations around the city.

The concept of the Diners Club is simple. You buy a ticket for a meal but have no idea what you'll be served.

"Choice isn't always such a good thing," reflects Heffy. "For us, it was a chance to get exposure and show what we can do. We had confidence in our cooking." That first night was four years ago and since then, Secret Diners Club has been held in pubs, art galleries, and outdoor spaces across Liverpool. However, like many innovative ideas, it took a while to find its audience.

"The early ones went well but to be honest, it was only our family and friends turning up," Heffy admits. "We nearly stopped several times because it felt like it wasn't going anywhere." Then, Heffy and Harrison met Joe Earnshaw. "He was at an awards dinner and we got talking about the problems we were having. He'd done PR for Liverpool Food and Drink Festival and said he'd be interested in helping us out," he remembers. "I told him, 'I can't offer you any money but I can offer you an opportunity.' As soon as he joined, it started to succeed. We were already doing something worthwhile, but he gave it a voice."

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Part of the reason for Secret Diners Club's subsequent success is that the nights aren't just about good food: they're also a place where strangers and friends can come together to talk. "That's something I got from my upbringing. My mum is an amazing cook, and every night as a kid, I'd come home from school to a three-course meal," Heffy says. "Whenever anyone came over to ours the first thing they'd do is ask, 'What's cooking tonight?' There was always good food around, and it brought us together. I think that is why I like Italian food: it isn't so much the food itself but the style of eating."

I'm suitably impressed: when I was in my late teens, I couldn't even organise my own socks so they matched, let alone run a successful restaurant that changed location every week. How did Heffy do it?

"I think my Cadet experience played a big part," he says. "You had to be disciplined and driven. I used to organise our annual celebration of the Battle of Trafalgar, which was a really big dinner. I just took that knowledge and applied it to these events." In September last year Heffy, Harrison, and Earnshaw got the chance to put their ideas into a permanent home.

"The owners of Buyers Club—which is a bar up by the universities in Liverpool—asked if we'd like to take the kitchen on. We said we'd rather be part of the whole project, so we went into partnership. We only do snacks and small plates, which creates a sharing style. You can sit down, relax, and pick at your food for a few hours if you want to." The food is also seasonal, with a constantly rotating menu that allows Heffy and Harrison to use local produce.

"Everything is British and the best quality," he adds.

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FINCA, Heffy's new Cuban street food venture.

But opening a successful restaurant isn't where it stops for Heffy. He and his friends are now intent on becoming street food tycoons. "The idea originally was for a Cuban bar," says the chef, when I ask about FINCA. "It felt like the bar scene here was stale. Michael had been to Cuba and was inspired by the food and drink culture he came across there, but before we could find a location the guys at The Merchant [a bar not far from the city centre] offered us a space. It's perfect for what we want to do: simple and stripped back."

Heffy, Harrison, and Earnshaw were joined in the venture another local chef Oli Smith. So, how do four lads from Liverpool, which, aside from being by the sea, has almost nothing in common with Havana, go about creating authentic-tasting Cuban food?

Heffy laughs before answering: "By reading books—lots of books. We did our research and spoke to people who have spent time there. We've had quite a few Cubans come in already and they've said it's brilliant, just like what they have at home."

With that, I have to try a FINCA dish myself. Heffy explains the flavours used in Cuban cuisine. "They use sugar and citrus to bring out flavours," answers Heffy. "Like in the Cubano sandwich: the gammon is marinated in agave, the pork shoulder in a mojo citrus sauce. Then we add Gouda cheese, which melts and is so subtle, before adding our own pickles and mustard." Heffy is keen to emphasise that while the food comes fast, FINCA isn't fast food.

"It still has the same creativity and the same principles behind everything we do. Local ingredients, carefully researched recipes and effort—all that is still there."

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Of course, the problem with success is that sometimes it takes you away from the thing you fell in love with in the first place. For Heffy, that would mean spending more time on the business and less in the kitchen. But he's already got a plan to prevent that from happening. "I think in six months or so, I'll be able to step back from Buyers Club and work at another establishment—learn from someone with Michelin star experience. Then I can bring that back to Liverpool and we can set up something here. The city is still missing a place like that and I think, with the team we have right now, we could make something amazing." A Michelin star before he's 25? If anyone can, it's Daniel Heffy.

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