We speak to the top chef as he prepares to celebrate 20 years of L'Enclume
Ox in coal oil, potatoes in onion ash, birch sap, hen of the woods, lovage, ramsons - if you’re a frequenter of fancy-pants restaurants, these may be a familiar fixture of your dinner plate. There’s a good chance that Simon Rogan inspired or even trained the chef responsible.
When I hang up my apron, I want to be known as someone that made a difference
Rogan’s culinary palette has bled out onto the plates of top restaurants across the UK and his alumni reads like a who’s who of cutting edge chefs.
A trendsetter who is always way ahead in the sustainability game, a risk-taker, a maverick and an empire builder who now has eight restaurants in Cumbria, London, Hong Kong - and counting. Rogan’s whitewashed flagship Cartmel restaurant L’Enclume turns 20 years old in 2022. Despite his dreams of retirement, things are far from slowing down for the Rogan brand.
We sat down at L’Enclume with the chef, restaurateur and educator to discuss his big plans for the future.
The roots of Rogan
Frustrated with the limitations of cooking kebabs and chips in a Greek restaurant, the young Rogan began an apprenticeship with Stockport-born Savoy-trained Paul Norman at Rhinefield House.
“There was no better person to teach me,” Rogan says. “He taught me the basics. The classical thing that I think is so missing in the generations of today. No one knows that shit anymore. They don't even bother teaching it.”
He then went on to work for John Christophe Novelli with whom he recalls winning “best out of town restaurant” from Times critic Jonathan Meades.
“In those days, no one really knew about the Michelin Guide, AA or anything like that.” Says Rogan, “Jonathan Meades, Fay Maschler, you got a good review from them and it was amazing - even more amazing because you're outside London. Everything was London centric at the time. It was like there was no food outside London - like we were all on bread and water.”
Rogan worked for Novelli at various restaurants including Floyd’s in Devon and Gordleton Mill in Hampshire before landing jobs with Marco Pierre White and John Burton Race who he says urged him to go to France.
Novelli taught him the ropes of running a kitchen but also the importance of marketing. He regales us with (mostly unprintable) tales of Novelli’s famous philandering.
“I went on many a night out with JC. He used to get us into terrible trouble. He didn't discriminate who he chatted up. Many a time we were chased by irate boyfriends. Such a great guy. I love him to death.”
But soon, Rogan wanted his own place. He and his wife Penny sold “everything: our house, my car, my stereo, the cat” to fund his first restaurant, L’Enclume and made “shitloads” of mistakes along the way. But the opportunity to open in the Lakes in a ready-to-go space was exactly what he needed to get things off the ground - and independently.
“We've never had people's millions to bail us out. We've almost gone to the wall three or four times over the years. We've come through all that without any investors or massive borrowings.”
When L’Enclume opened almost 20 years ago, molecular gastronomy was huge - popularised by the likes of El Bulli’s Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. I remember having my mind blown at L’Enclume by a "hot pot" of multicoloured globules floating in a clear broth, it seemed extraterrestrial. Rogan says he felt alien in Cartmel at first too.
“In the beginning we just sort of arrived like some sort of UFO. Like, what the hell is this place doing here? This should be a tea shop or serving sticky toffee pudding or something. Really connecting the business to its surroundings is what's made [L’Enclume] the success it's been.”
"You look back on those days when [you were] trying to make a name for yourself. You’ve got to go through the cycle of creativity and try and stamp your mark on it.” Says Rogan, “We started off [with] that polished ‘Franglais’ menu a la Marco or John Christoph. Somewhere along the line I got sidetracked and influenced by other countries and chefs, Japan, Spain, just about everything. It was a bit of a hotchpotch. You come out of that or you don't and luckily I came out of that. We kept the good things and threw away the bad and that's where we are today.
"Something that has changed for me over the years is respecting the ingredients more. If you've got pristine amazing ingredients you try to do as little as possible with them. I've always said not to deconstruct the carrot and reconstruct it in half a dozen ways and say, ‘Wow, look at me, aren't I clever?’ How about cooking that carrot perfectly in some way which enhances flavour but elevates it?”
The six degrees of Simon Rogan
You’re never more than a few steps away from the man wherever you go fine dining, particularly north of London. Mark Birchall, Kevin Tickle, Rafael Cagali, John Duffin, Danielle Barry, Sam Buckley - just a few big names that have come via the Rogan stable. Though he’s humble about it, Rogan admits there are probably more successes than he knows about that have sprouted from his seed, as it were, as he tends to avoid social media. He says his focus is on the farm, his restaurants and his staff and not worrying about what other people are doing or saying about him.
Rogan’s restaurants are heaped with Michelin stars and other accolades but while great for business, this isn’t something that preoccupies him either.
“We've got to be thankful but I've always said that when I hang up my apron, I want to be known as someone that made a difference, that did something good and spawned a whole new generation of chefs. Marco, the Roux brothers, Nico Ladenis and all that generation of chefs, if I could be a person of my generation that did half of what they did, I'd be really, really happy.”
Smells like team spirit
Unlike many restaurants, Rogan has not lost any staff due to the pandemic. This is down to an attitude that others could learn from.
“When COVID hit we didn't go on a redundancy frenzy like every other fucker did.” Says Rogan, “Sam the MD said, ‘Let's all take a pay cut at the top end of the company and make sure we pay all the people at the bottom end.’
“Thankfully furlough came about - I don't know how long we could have done that. We kept the whole team together right throughout the whole crisis and have maintained them. But it’s still not enough. We’ve had to reduce things because we are so busy. We can't keep up with prep and maintain standards. Seats are a premium at the moment. We've got probably 50 people on the waiting list to dine in here tonight. Even the offices are rammed. There needs to be a team behind the team now because we employ 170 people in Cumbria alone.”
Rogan was in something of a pandemic time machine back at the start of 2020 as he was spending much of his time over in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong handled it amazingly well. It's so brutal there. I'm a resident but I can't get back there - you’ve got to do three weeks quarantine. Even before the crisis, from the time you’d landed at the gate to when you picked your baggage up your temperature had been measured about half a dozen times. They're ready to pull anyone out that looks remotely ill.”
While the pandemic has set back a few of the world domination plans: a proposed move to larger premises for Roganic in London, new restaurants in Asia and New York, it led to a successful rollout of his cook at home kits:
“We sold out of the Christmas [Rogan At Home boxes] in two hours. We've got a new unit down in Flookburgh with its own team that come from the kitchens up here. It's the same standard. We haven't shipped our meals out to another company. If you’d told me we would be doing that a year or two ago I’d have laughed in your face. The only time Jay Rayner and Marina O’Loughlin have ever said anything positive about me was for my takeaway.”
L'Enclume turns 20
There are also big plans for 2022. There will be 20 “major events” to celebrate L’Enclume’s big two-oh as well as developments including restaurant expansion and a “more involved” guest experience. Rogan and Co., L’Enclume’s laid back sibling (and locals’ favourite) will double in size to provide a relaxed bar area, bigger kitchen and a few more covers. Rogan also plans to set up a casual dining chain in Hong Kong: “bakery by day, wine bar, snacky place by night. Very Hong Kong.”
At his newest UK restaurant, Henrock, Rogan is bringing a bit of Hong Kong back to Cumbria. He has taken his favourite flavours from his time there and his travels in Singapore, The Philippines, Japan and Thailand and pummelled them up in a pestle and mortar before slathering them all over local produce. It’s his favourite among his restaurants to eat at these days.
But is he ever going to come back to Manchester?
“We're always keeping an eye on the Manchester market. All due respect to The Midland, we had a great time there and we enjoyed it but it wasn't the right place. We always said we'd go back. In fact, we almost did, immediately, but we had a stipulation that we weren't allowed to operate within 13 miles of the Midland for a certain amount of time. Manchester is a real proposition at the moment.”
A little bird tells us Rogan was in town very recently looking at properties. So this could be more imminent than you might think.
You've got to be nice
During our conversation, Rogan comes back again and again to how proud he is of his staff and how much he wants them to flourish. All of his restaurants are headed by a management team that has been through L’Enclume and possess what Rogan calls the “DNA”.
A grounding at L’Enclume can open up a literal world of opportunity for hungry hospitality professionals. Take Sous Chef Scott Braithwaite who is leaving to go to Eleven Madison in New York - a move that came via an NYC Rogan restaurant project that unfortunately fell through due to the pandemic. Scott will spend some time there but Rogan is confident he will return.
“We put a lot of effort, money, time into these guys. They’re the guys of the future. We try to nurture them.
This nurturing and investing in his people has paid dividends but it’s been a learning curve.
“You've got to be nice.” Says Rogan, but he adds, “It hasn't always been like that. In the beginning, I was probably a right monster because I was so focused. Marco and John Burton Race are the two most fearsome guys that I've ever met. It was a battle just to get through the day. I saw some right things going on. When you start on your own, you think that's acceptable. There was never any violence with me because I didn't agree with that sort of thing but I was a bit of a mean fucker really. You quickly realise that there is another way. To treat people right and compliment them and make them feel special is a much better way than an iron rod - which unfortunately is still present in our industry.”
He says he is “blessed” to work with “incredible talent” including Executive Chef Tom Barnes, L’Enclume's Head chef Paul Burgalieres and Managing Director Sam Ward who started as a bartender in 2008 and is now “the figurehead and driving force” of the company, and “proper Manc lad” Ashley Salmon, Head Chef at Roganic HK which has the only Green Star in the whole of Hong Kong. His team, he says, give him “that zest to push on”.
But will he ever abandon multiple course tasting menus? That’s up to the punters.
“When we start hearing: we don't want to go to L'Enclume anymore. We don't want to eat a tasting menu," he says, "We'll look at it. We're not gonna stick our nose up in the air and be stubborn. You've got to cook for your customers, not yourself.”
L'Enclume Cavendish St, Cartmel, Grange-over-Sands LA11 6QA
Follow Mark Garner on Twitter @GordoManchester
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