Food Stories with Florencia Clifford: ‘It can be weird to come here for a meal and then leave with a table and a painting’

Florencia Clifford holds a meditative air of zen as she floats around her café Partisan in a stylish long dress whilst overseeing a busy Tuesday brunch service and the cafés popular Instagram account. There is an abundance of delicious cakes and bakes that line the vintage countertop, and the neighbourhood café feels like the hub of the street as regulars stop and chat to Florencia, whilst catching up with friends over a coffee and Persian eggs. Partisan looks at home nestled on the recently regenerated Micklegate street in York, and the café proves to be an Instagram mecca for many millennials; you only have flick through the photos to see why. The tiled blue frontage mirrors any photo taken out of a hip London magazine, and with all the artwork and furniture up for grabs, the humble little café proves to be much more than just another high street chain. I sat with Florencia and her partner Hugo to talk about the story behind Partisan, and Florencia’s spiritual food journey from Argentina to York.

So Florencia, what is the story behind the creation of Partisan? 

I moved to the UK from Argentina in 1994 and when I moved here, I thought oh my god there is nowhere to go and eat! There were a few restaurants, but it was very much a tourist trap and it was always just a little soulless with nowhere that did good coffee. There was always that excitement of getting out of York to find somewhere to eat, and I’ve always had an inkling of opening something in York, mostly to satisfy myself. A café in York was not on the plans, but it came at the right time. 

We were offered this building on Micklegate around three years ago and Hugo and I both thought it was amazing. The offer of this building was almost serendipitous because I had come to the end of a chapter, and my job cooking at retreats which I had done for 10 years had started to become a chore. My life had changed quickly, and one night we got drunk with the owner of the building over a meal and shook hands on a deal we made. He had already offered a lease to a big company but at the end of the meal he agreed to tear up the lease if we agreed to take the building on, so we did.

That is quite a leap. What inspired you to furnish the café with antiques? 

Well, it just so happened that the owner Stephen Hazell turned out to be the biggest antiques dealer of French antiques in England. As part of the deal, I said that I wanted him to furnish the place with antiques and that we would put everything from the tables and chairs to the artwork up for sale. It has been very advantageous because the place changes all the time and we always have new artists displaying their artwork. However, it can be quite weird for some people to come here for a meal and then leave with a table and painting!

I can imagine! How did you learn to run a café without any previous experience? 

We learnt through just getting stuck in. I was in the kitchen quite a lot to begin with, and we started with a kitchen of non-professionals. My head chef Jim is actually a self-taught artist who set up kiosk, and he has clearly got raw talent. We have only one part-time professional chef and everybody else here is just passionate about food. That is how we hire people, it’s not seen a job, they just love it. And with our food there is technique, but it’s not as controlled as fine dining.

How would you describe the menu at Partisan? 

Our menu is very eclectic, and I would call it modern-british but whilst celebrating multi-cultural Britain with hearty depth of flavour in our food. We had someone in yesterday who works for one of the top fine dining restaurants In York, and she said that this food is fantastic and if she is looking for somewhere to eat she will come to Partisan as it is food that really fills the soul. 

That is a big compliment. What type of food do you like to cook?

Yes, so we are a café/restaurant and we do an all-day brunch which is very popular, and then we have a lunch and evening menu. All our food is very fresh as we don’t have freezers or microwaves, so everything is always cooked from scratch. The seasons are reflected greatly on the menu so products such as blood oranges and rhubarb that are in season at the moment are in a few of our dishes. We also tend to be quite popular with vegans because although we are not a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, we do quite creative and inventive vegan dishes. 

When did you start to open in the evening?

When Hugo and I first held a dinner party together, everyone said we should do this for a living as we were good at entertaining. When we first opened the café around 2 years ago, people kept asking when we were open in the evening, so I started telling them to bring a group and that we could create a set menu. It was around 18 months ago we started to open an evening service from a Thursday through to Saturday night. In the evening, it’s like coming to our house as it is casual, but the food is amazing!

The cakes look delicious. Do you bake them at the café? 

The only thing we don’t make here is the bread. When we met Phil from Haxby Bakehouse, it seemed really silly to make our own bread when we have the best baker in York living just around the corner! I used to have home bakers who brought cakes in, but my demand for cakes just grew and we couldn’t keep up. Then Steph joined us who was quite shy at first after just finishing uni, but she wanted to bake and so now she creates all of our cakes. I have let her experiment and develop her own style in the kitchen and it’s really great. 

What would you say is the most popular dish on the menu?

I would say the most Instagrammed dish is probably the vegan breakfast, and the one where we get reviews saying that eating it is a spiritual experience is the Persian eggs!

The Persian eggs look great. How does Partisan stand apart from other high street cafés?

Partisan means to take a side, and we took the side of standing against mass-produced and processed food. I remember the first chef I hired told us where we could get all of the products we wanted from the same place, and I thought ‘but that is not how I want to do this’. We had a vision of how we wanted food to be, we wanted food that was nurturing and about the whole experience of getting together.

About a year ago we had a really good review in the Yorkshire Post for our evening service and they gave us 5/5. We also were a new entry in the Good Food Guide this year and got the same cooking score as Skosh and Le Cochon Aveugle even though we do a very different type of food. I think this shows that our ethos is paying off as we pride ourselves on quality. 

That is a real achievement. Can you tell me a little bit more about your suppliers?

We tend to use smaller artisan suppliers and people who specialise in certain areas such as smoking salmon or roasting coffee for example. We try and find the best. Our coffee is Monmouth and what I like the most is their ethos and how they work with coffee farmers around the world and how they have a relationship with the farmers and I really like that. How I source for me is how I shop for the café, there is nothing on the menu that I wouldn’t eat myself. 

Where did your interest in global cuisine come from?

I’ve always been interested in food since I was very little. My mum’s side of the family were half French, half Italian and they were very good cooks. When I moved to America I was doing catering in New York and I learnt a lot about cooking which really opened up a new world for me in terms of food. It was the beginning of the artisan revolution and there was a change in mentality during that time where people were moving away from the supermarkets towards the farmers market.

Do you think that York has developed in terms of food over the last few years? 

I had a few attempts at opening something similar to Partisan with a friend back in 2006/2007 in York, but I wasn’t ready as my kids were quite young and York was very different back then. I think we opened Partisan at the right time actually. I think the city has changed, and it has grown. The food has flourished, but I think it is the population that may have changed. So many people have moved here, particularly from London and the millennials are more into their food now. 

What has been your biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome so far with Partisan?

I think the biggest challenge is getting the best staff and keeping hold of them. We have done incredibly well at keeping our staff as they seem to really like working here. Keeping customers happy is always quite difficult as you can’t please everyone. Every single day we get rave reviews from customer’s coming into the café, and yet you get people on Trip Advisor who will always find faults. 

What would you say has been your biggest inspiration behind Partisan?

For me, it has been little restaurants that I like in London. I like La Bouche for brunch and Chriskitch which is a neighbourhood restaurant in North London. What also inspires us is restaurants from across the world from when we went travelling. You can never become complacent with a restaurant, and I like food to be vibrant so for that you need to change it regularly. I am always looking for new ingredients and if I could have a dream job It would be definitely be sourcing and buying ingredients. 

And I hear you have written a book. What is it about?

It is a memoir called Feeding Orchids to the Slugs: Tales of the Zen Kitchen. I was approached to write it, and someone who came on the retreat told me that she was setting up as a publisher, so I told her that I write. She said she would get in touch, and she liked my writing, so I was asked to write this book which is mainly about food, my life and my spiritual journey.

That sounds an interesting read. Where do you see yourself and Partisan this time next year?

I don’t know, sometimes we think we will open more branches or expand, and other times we think that we will just enjoy the ride. 

Florencia, 29/1/19

York Talks would like to thank Hugo and Florencia for taking the time to share their Food Story. If you would like to find out more follow Partisan on Twitter @YorkPartisan or check out their website

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