An Interview with Chef Simon Rogan
By Victoria Gibson
Chef Simon Rogan took a gamble when he moved to Cumbria over 10 years ago and opened L’Enclume. But now he has an ever-expanding collection of successful projects across the UK and even more accolades to celebrate.
Nestling in the heart of Cumbria and surrounded by rolling green fields you’ll find L’Enclume, the two Michelin starred restaurant belonging to chef Simon Rogan.
Now, as a chef, if your passion is foraging then surely this is an ideal place to be. Especially since the menu is renowned for its use of natural ingredients. Upon arrival to meet the man behind it all I am ushered from the restaurant reception into Aulis. This is a space best described as a long corridor with a breakfast bar. It primarily functions as the research and development area for the magnificent dishes on offer at the restaurant and also plays host to private dining parties.
Before long, Simon arrives and, for now, it’s quite literally back to basics. “I met a French chef called Marc Veyrat, who is really famous for his use of alpine herbs and flowers in his cookery. But using them in an avant-garde manner. I found it really fascinating,” he explains.
“The whole menu here is a masterpiece to me”
“So I visited both of his restaurants and was hooked on natural food. I thought it was really cool and different and as a stroke of luck I ended up where I am. It was never my intention to become an expert, or to become renowned for using it. It was lucky that we ended up here where I could really take it a little further within L’Enclume.”
After originally saying ‘no’ to the location fearing it was a hindrance, Simon now has a change of heart since moving to Cartmel in 2002. He says: “It’s undoubtedly a massive part of who we are. As our reputation has grown, people are more willing to travel. It is part of the experience now, especially with our philosophy of trying to use everything around us from food and staff to furniture. What you’re looking at is the whole emphasis on our local area.”
Indeed. Between L’Enclume and his other projects – more on those later – Simon employs over 50 people from the area. But it’s the restaurant that is famous for its experimental and technical approach to cuisine that is always the main focus.
“The whole menu here is a masterpiece to me. Or I try to make it that way. The produce we’ve got gives us inspiration. The new things that we grow and some old things too. But the produce is the driving force and we’re tampering with it less. Four or five years ago we would’ve deconstructed it, reconstructed and served it in different ways. Now we’re taking an ingredient and cooking it simply to maximise the flavour.
“At 15 I decided I wasn’t going to college”
“I’ve been through that phase and look back and think it’s a bit testosterone fuelled, arrogant and pretentious maybe. It wasn’t intentional but I can see why people may have thought that. I’ve grown up and I’m a bit more serious. Someone people still say ‘Oh I wish you’d do it like before with the test tubes and all this stuff flying around’ but there’s something for everyone. Even what we do now doesn’t please everyone. For someone who says you’re the best restaurant in the world there’s going to be someone else who disagrees. But the way things are we seem to please a lot more than we don’t.”
The move to Cumbria also cemented a lifelong ambition for Simon, “Whether I was unemployable or it was just getting by, during my last employed job I thought this is it now, I’m never going to work for anyone again and I wanted to find my own restaurant,” he says sitting calmly and relaxed, “I was destined to work for myself. I was never going to achieve what I wanted unless I was self-employed.”
Like many great chefs, Simon always knew that cooking was his life from a very young age, “At 15 I decided I wasn’t going to college because I knew what I was going to do. I got involved quite early on in family meals and always wanted something a bit more exotic.”
Originally from Southampton, he went on to work in a local Greek restaurant, gaining a classical grounding at The Savoy, working with Marco Pierre White and then Jean-Christophe Novelli, who gave him a crash course in modern cookery, as well as spending time in restaurants in Paris.
“It was scary in the beginning”
Real foodies may recognise Simon from MasterChef, which he says: “Didn’t do as much for us as it normally would, unfortunately they used me as a forager, and if you missed the shot of me in my chef’s whites and with food, you wouldn’t know what I do.”
But it was winning the dessert course on the Great British Menu that really put him on the TV map. “It was scary in the beginning. When I first turned up I was against a couple of guys who had done it twice before and I was the rookie. On paper I should have walked it but I’m in a foreign environment. By the end of it I enjoyed the whole experience.”
Simon had been asked to take part twice before about five years ago but business was booming and there was no need. Now was the time he says, “Not for the ego, but for the business.”
It was a success. And now as I sit opposite Simon, it’s hard to believe that he’s so calm with so much going on. “I always said when I first opened here, that I’d like to do three more things other than L’Enclume. One was to open a small simple affair, casual dining concept, which we’ve done. Then London, which we’ve done. The only one I haven’t done is in my own town in Southampton. Whether it happens or not…”
As well as remaining heavily involved with L’Enclume, he has a six-acre farm nearby, Aulis, which he describes as a “very theatrical affair with music, televisions, 13 to 15 courses over the counter and you can see things that you don’t normally see.”
“People do say we’re accolade driven but that’s not true”
Roganic – a pop-up restaurant in Marylebone, London, which was only intended to be open for two years and closed in June 2013, Rogan and Co, a smaller restaurant in Cartmel and The Pig & Whistle, a local pub Simon has managed since September 2012.
It doesn’t stop there. A new business venture with QHotels saw Simon take over management of The French in March 2013, a restaurant in the historic Midland Hotel in Manchester, offering such treats as artichoke broth with truffle dumplings, ox in coal oil, pumpkin seed, kohlrabi and sunflower shoots, studded Cumbrian rose veal, blewit mushrooms, split pea, sorrel and beetroot, and many more.
The partnership has been a hit and in September a second, larger restaurant called Mr Cooper’s House & Garden will open at the same hotel. L’Enclume also has five rosettes from the AA Restaurant Guide and to top it all off, the restaurant was recently awarded 10 out of 10 by the Good Food Guide and Simon is obviously pleased saying, “We are over the moon and never in my wildest dreams did I think we would get the maximum score. It’s brilliant for the team as now we are among a very elite company of people who have achieved this status, but we will continue to push forward with all the projects we have going on up here and try our best to make it even better.
“All accolades are great, they help with business and gets bums on seats but they’re not our main focus. Happy customers go away and talk about their experience which gets other people back. People do say we’re accolade driven but that’s not true. Perhaps my staff are. They get more disappointed when we come second – they’re younger and hungrier.”
“A chef can be a bit of a ‘no man'”
Extremely well demonstrated by Tom and Ed, two young chefs from L’Enclume who reached the finals in the prestigious cooking competition The Roux Scholarship 2013, no doubt by constantly impressing the judges with their skills and techniques.
While I’m at L’Enclume there’s a brief encounter with Penny, Simon’s long-term partner: “We’ve been together fifteen years and she came from a catering background. I was working in a place on the Sussex coast where I became quite close to a group of DJ friends that were totally away from the business,” he says.
“A chef can be a bit of a ‘no man’. I stayed in the area even though I had no job. Penny was part of that crowd who I still count as my best friends. I had to persuade Penny to come here. The first three months she stayed in the South because we had no idea how it was going to go. In fact it was a gamble. We sold everything – and thought ‘what have we done’.
“We did it and we’ve enjoyed it. But she misses her friends and family so that was another reason we did Roganic – to pay for London life. She can have a London hit when she wants and I’m so busy with work I don’t care where I am. You just get on with it.”
“It’s about education and working”
It may surprise some, but the man of the hour relaxes by listening to techno music. He often goes to see his DJ friends perform. Simon’s last supper would be a fish-finger sandwich with tomato sauce and mayonnaise and lots of butter on the bread. His favourite cooking ingredient, scallops, is a little more L’Enclume-ish and his favourite chef is Pierre Gagnaire. He says: “He’s a one off amazing chef that can conjure up a meal out of the most obscure ingredients. Him and Marc Veyrat are the two guys who I’d walk over hot coals to eat food from.”
So what does the future hold?
“It is inevitable I’ll be at L’Enclume less. But that’s not on the horizon yet with the farm project and increasing the number of bedrooms. We’ve also got programmes that we started with Cumbria Tourism, welcoming six people a week to spend time on the farm to cook and learn. It’s about education and working. We also team up with the local schools and colleges and give pupils the inspiration and desire to go off one day and do the same as us.”
No doubt another successful project to add to the list. Well, one thing is for sure – they will certainly have big boots to fill.