From Cartmel with lovage - Cover Interviews

Rogan started cooking in a Greek restaurant in Southampton aged 14. After football trials with both Chelsea and Fulham, he turned his hand to cheffing full time. His first formal job was at Rhinefield House Hotel aged 17, before a pastry chef role at Geddes Restaurant in Southampton, under Jean- Christophe Novelli, a man who he worked for on and off for eight years. He teamed up with him at The Maltsters Arms in Devon (owned by Keith Floyd) and Nansidwell House Hotel in Falmouth, as well as taking placements under Marco Pierre White and John Burton-Race. In the 1990s he worked at the three-star Lucas Carton in Paris for two years, before his first head chef role at Addington Palace in Croydon. In 2002 he launched L’Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, which won its first Michelin star in 2005 and second in 2013. He took over a nearby farm in 2009. In 2011 he opened a two-year pop up, Roganic, in London, before a three-year stint at Fera at Claridge’s, where he won a star. In late 2017, he opened Soho test kitchen, Aulis. He reopened Roganic as a permanent site in January this year.

From Cartmel with lovage -  Photo

Bold moves seem to follow Simon Rogan around. In 2002, he bought a crumbling Cumbrian smithy and turned it into one of the country’s best restaurants. Late last year, he opened an eight-cover test kitchen in Soho serving some of the most experimental food in the UK. Last month, he opened a tasting-menu-only fine diner in the Manolo-heeled heart of Marylebone. It’s been a busy few months, to say the least.

We’ll start at the beginning. L’Enclume, Rogan’s two-star temple to local produce was a site no restaurateur wanted. Many of the big names came up to Cumbria, looked at it, and swiftly set the sat nav back to W1. Despite having never been to Cartmel – some 300 miles by road from his native Southampton – he saw in it something nobody else did.

‘From the first moment, I just knew,’ says Rogan. ‘The drive back I couldn’t stop thinking about its potential. I did the journey in a couple of hours and I’m still yet to beat that time.’ Rogan is one of the few modern restaurateurs who have no investors. He took on all manner of cooking jobs between 1997 and 2002 to get enough money in the kitty to be ready to make a move when the moment seemed right. On the same journey south, he put in an offer. It just happened to be before he told his partner. ‘Penny wasn’t best pleased. The first couple of times she came up to look at it she wasn’t convinced.

She took four or five months to come around. We had to sell everything. I couldn’t afford for it not to pay off.’

‘I was lucky to develop an amazing relationship with the guys we bought the site from. They sold me the building and the idea of what the restaurant could become. Whether I believed them at the time, I’m not so sure,’ he says with a grin. ‘They were instrumental in making it an attractive enough prospect to take a punt. If we had had to fit out a restaurant from scratch to that kind of standard in London, our budget would never have stretched far enough.’

It wasn’t all plain sailing. While the first consignment of critics who made the trip to Cartmel recounted sterling reviews, many came back detailing mixed success. They knew Rogan’s ability from his time with Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton in Paris, his eight-year tenure alongside Jean-Christophe Novelli and a stint with Marco Pierre White at Harvey’s, but it didn’t quite click in the early years.

‘When we opened, it was a London-style menu with too many modern influences. I got side-tracked by techniques from other countries: Spain, Japan, France,’ Rogan admits. ‘People coming to eat weren’t sure which L’Enclume they were going to turn up at. I’m restless by nature and I had all these ideas going round in my head I wanted to try out.’ You can see this internal monologue in early menus. El Bulli-style gastronomic modernism sat alongside ingredients from Japan paired with produce from all across Europe. The restaurant lacked ideology but showed exceptional promise.

CULTIVATING CONTROL

‘I guess in the early years I was thinking “I’ve worked hard for this and I’m going to cook what the hell I want. If you don’t like it, that’s not my problem”. Though deep down the negativity made me unhappy. I just wanted everyone to love what I was doing.’ Did Rogan doubt his own ability at this point? ‘I doubted the path we were taking,’ he responds confidently. ‘It was a word in my ear from a food critic I trusted who said, “Do you know what you’ve got here? Look out of the window”. Basically, he told me to stop messing around.’

In spring 2005 Rogan shut the door on international produce. If it wasn’t grown, fished or reared in Britain’s shores, it wouldn’t make the plate. And from that moment forward, the stars aligned. L’Enclume was awarded its first Michelin star that year, and the second in 2013. ‘I began seeing everything so much more clearly,’ he remembers. Locality was the strand that tied everything together.

‘We started working with an organic farm and used local suppliers, but the supply was terrible,’ he says. ‘Deliveries just wouldn’t turn up and the quality would vary but the thing that really pissed us off was not being able to get the perfect radish – they should be one of the simplest things to grow.’ It was at this point that Rogan took it upon himself to grow the radishes.

‘We didn’t have the first idea what we were doing. We rented land adjacent to L’Enclume and offered to run the farm. My chef Dan Cox and I must have been the world’s first Google Farmers,’ Rogan laughs. ‘If something went wrong, we Googled it and tried not to do it again.’

‘Being in control of your supply lines is invaluable as a chef. Not only can we grow to the quality, quantity and size we require, but our farm is designed by chefs, run by chefs with the produce picked by chefs. Chefs are very weird, OCD people. They make very chefs started doing it, they were dusting off the mud without being asked and giving real care and attention. It was amazing to see.’

Six years on, and the smallholding has quintupled in size with a £20,000 investment going in this year. Rogan now rears chickens, pigs, ducks and lambs. The only thing on his menus that isn’t farmed in Cumbria is fish. ‘It’s grown naturally,’ says Rogan with a hint of irony. ‘The waste goes into animal feed and we enzyme-treat waste and turn it to compost. We’re nearly in a position where we can call it a zero-waste operation. But before I do I want to be sure – I can just see them now digging through our bins.’

A zero-waste motif is hot on the lips of restaurateurs all over the world. No London site has laid claim yet, but Rogan wants Roganic to be first. ‘Lots of produce comes from the farm. A company called Eagle collects our organic matter. They take it to allotments all over London and grow veg for the restaurants. We’re going to take it as far as we can, but in London it’s a lot harder.’

Aulis, Rogan’s other new London restaurant, is a different beast entirely. With only eight seats and a £250 price tag, it’s a new concept for the capital. Diners sit facing chefs, asking questions, picking up tips and watching how a two-star grade meal comes together. To launch this on its own is one thing, to open it a couple of months apart from Roganic could be construed as sadomasochism. ‘I can only do it because of the team I’ve built,’ says Rogan. ‘Most of my guys have been with me for a decade, or have gone and come back again. Because we offer such a holistic cheffing experience, from farming, to butchery to technical cookery, it’s a great place to learn and be a part of. We’re developing as a group.’

Perhaps the greatest development of all would be a third star at L’Enclume. Does Rogan think it possible? ‘I’ve been around enough three stars to know that we are good enough. We just need a little bit of luck. I’m spending the majority of time up there now, so there’s no excuses. It’s every chef’s dream and I’m no different.’ Dreams, they can come true. Particularly when you’re as prepared to take a punt as Simon Rogan.

From Cartmel with lovage -  Photo

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