Destination Roganville: Chef Simon Rogan has built a colony of restaurants in Cartmel
Lisa Markwell is the editor of The Independent on Sunday. She was previously executive editor of The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday and has edited the features pages, and both the Saturday and Sunday supplements. She writes comment pieces for the papers and restaurant reviews for the New Review. Lisa has worked across a variety of newspapers and magazines and can now tick off every publication cycle from daily to quarterly. She is an enthusiastic foodie, mother of two teenagers and drives an electric car. She is writing a book about adoption.
Saturday 04 May 2013
Picture a little boy, so fascinated by the exotic kiwis and star fruit that his market-trader dad brought home from the Southampton docks that they sat in the fridge not eaten, just gazed at, until they rotted and had to be thrown away. Then picture a superstar chef who won't use anything that's grown more than a few miles from his Cumbria headquarters; a man who has made such humble fare as potatoes, onions and rhubarb into superstars, too.
It's quite the transformation. Simon Rogan laughs at the memory. As well he might, because today his restaurant empire – L'Enclume, Rogan & Company and The Pig & Whistle in Cartmel, The French in Manchester, and Roganic in London – has made him fêted, Michelin-starred and TV-famous.
The boy who would dream of becoming a professional footballer, who only took cookery because he fancied the teacher, Mrs Humphries, is riding high. Most significantly, after years of battling, he has earnt the love and respect of his adopted hometown of Cartmel and created there a kind of 'Roganville', where from the farm to the village pub to the car park stuffed with Porsches, he is top dog.
Now 45, Rogan's journey encompassed stints with Jean-Christophe Novelli, Keith Floyd and Marco Pierre White but when he started L'Enclume, the first restaurant of his own, he'd been out of a kitchen for two years. What had happened? As is oft said about chefs, Rogan had had a few false starts. As a teenager, he parlayed a school-leaver's job in a Greek restaurant – "I was in charge of chips straight away," he boasts, displaying his life-long commitment to potatoes – into an apprenticeship in a nearby country-house hotel, while training part-time at catering college.
Despite being "terrible" compared to the other students because, Rogan says, "I only knew about chips and kebabs, and they were classically trained," he gritted his teeth, learnt everything going and ended up top of the class, and is still proud of his knowledge of the classic French techniques.f "It's no good just being a cheeky chappie, you need the basics." (His demeanour, it has to be said, is rather cheeky chappie-ish, as viewers of last year's Great British Menu will confirm.)
Soon, hoping to support his own young family in Southampton (he has two grown-up sons), Rogan was trying to juggle home and work. "Chefs are like nomads, really, once a job finishes, they move on," he says. And at some point, the combination of the long hours and excitement of working with Novelli at his peak, saw Rogan divorce and, by his own admission, enter a lengthy period of bad luck.
This had nothing to do with his skill, which was being honed with each passing kitchen but, he recounts ruefully, "I'll give you an example. I was set up with a hotel restaurant by the Crown Prince of Kuwait. I could have the staff, the kit, the menus… whatever I wanted. On my first morning in the kitchen, Iraq invaded Kuwait and all his assets were frozen!" He laughs now, but Rogan was clearly heartbroken.
That was followed by Addington Palace near Croydon, Surrey. Not heard of it? That might be because the then-owner installed a top team of chefs with Rogan at the head, then refused to spend any money on promotion. Again with his hopes of acclaim and fortune dashed, Rogan left. "That was it for me, I said I was wasting my time and I'd never work for anybody again."
True to his word, since then (temp jobs excepted) he hasn't. Everything in Rogan's empire is owned by him and his partner Penny Tapsell, who have an 11-year-old son together.
When you arrive in Cartmel, with its majestic priory and pretty grey-stone shops and houses, it feels designed around L'Enclume. But if the village is proud now of its Michelin-starred jewel, it wasn't always that way. When he took on the old forge, he says, "everyone was waiting to see us fall flat on our faces". Not least, perhaps, Rogan's partner Penny…
By 2000, the pair was living in Littlehampton, looking for a space to open a restaurant somewhere between Brighton and the New Forest. Eternal southerner Rogan wanted to be near his extended family but nothing was working when, he recalls, "I got a call from a recruitment consultant friend. He'd been contacted by the owners of a space in Cartmel and they were looking for a chef." Rogan's first response – "Where's that? Scotland? No way!" – was quickly tempered after an early morning drive north.
"I instantly fell in love with the building and their vision. Obviously, it was an amazing place, and despite it being covered in scaffolding, it had some good points," although, he concedes, being on the south coast wasn't one of them. He signed on that day, but Penny stayed in Littlehampton for three long months, waiting to be convinced that it would work.
L'Enclume opened in 2002 and was, its chef claims, "quite similar to what we're doing now, although more classical". Dead during the week, it came alive at weekends thanks to well-heeled visitors from London and the south-east. That's the thing about a restaurant surrounded by fields for miles, there's not much passing trade. "Yes," agrees Rogan, "it was a massive hindrance in the beginning, although now we're full, the location is everything."
So, despite disgruntled locals and sporadic bookings, L'Enclume soon started getting acclaim. But then, disaster. "Six or seven years ago, I fell out of love with it all," says Rogan. "I suppose what I didn't like was the type of food that we did." The chef had been influenced by technology, and what was happening in cutting-edge restaurants in Spain, and further afield. "I thought what we were doing was great, and we were having really good fun, but we were getting criticised. I was despondent."
Luckily, through his peripatetic career, Rogan had formed some important friendships with his mentors. "I got a word in my ear from three or four people whose opinions I really trusted – they told me to concentrate on what I was good at, and use what was around me. And I took that on board."
The rest, you might say, is history. Around the same time, Rogan had the opportunity to buy the run-down farm that had been supplying L'Enclume with its produce. "Those two things made me focus. I decided to keep it British, celebrate the north-west and eliminate all foreign stuff." It wasn't, he admits, easy. "You can't just say, 'Right, that's it, we're never going to use a lemon again'. You need to identify alternatives otherwise your food is going to be crap."
The restaurant won its first Michelin star in 2008 and a second last year. Its no-choice, determinedly seasonal, ferociously local tasting menu is fabled, not least for a starring role in Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's brilliant culinary adventures on film, The Trip. Early in the year, meltingly soft oyster macarons and creamy cheese dumplings in a fragrant mushroom broth were among the 17 servings. Whatever is perfectly ready is prepped and on a plate that day, so the menu changes daily.
But that's only part of the story. Today, Cartmel houses Rogan & Company, a 40-seater à la carte restaurant, which after a few different incarnations (too posh, too pie-heavy), today offers a more relaxed, yet still exemplary menu. Then there's Aulis, a research kitchen with a private 'chef's table' and cupboards packed with micro herbs and odd machinery, and the newly revamped pub The Pig & Whistle. The Pig, says Rogan, "was on its knees when the brewery asked us to take it over. It's my local and all the village uses it, so it was a great little project". As you might expect, the fare is several notches above standard pub grub. "Yeah, we realised that we needed to offer a Hinds Head kind of operation." The reference is to Heston Blumenthal's Michelin-starred Bray inn.
Then there's an extensive farm, where Rogan plans to renovate an ancient barn and open a visitors' centre to fully explain the farm-to-plate ethos. Two years ago, after winning five rosettes and being placed number two in the Good Food Guide, Rogan threw a party for all of Cartmel. He'd started winning over the local community with his change of direction when, he explains, "I was quite vocal about how lucky I was to be there, how special the area is and my love of the local ingredients".
The entire village turned out for the party (not least for the food, I'd hazard) and since then, the chef smiles, "it's 'Hello Simon'" every morning round the lanes. He does, after all, employ a large number of staff and draw visitors (and their wallets) to Cartmel.
His head chefs (Mark Birchall at L'Enclume and Danielle Barry at Rogan & Company) work with Rogan onf dishes which they then implement while the boss goes about his business. These days that includes Roganic, his two-year pop-up in London, and the newly opened The French, a fabulously opulent room in Manchester's historic Midland Hotel (for a review, go to tiny.cc/zgb3vw).
Isn't Rogan in danger of overreaching himself, of becoming as burnt-out as those early bosses Novelli and Marco? "I am in all my places all the time, in spirit." How does that work, then? "I am always thinking about dishes. And it's not believable for anyone that I can be connected with L'Enclume if I'm jetting around the country. That's why I fancied Manchester – I can be back in either place in an hour."
And why, presumably, he has taken the difficult decision not to rehouse Roganic and keep it going after it closes on 20 June, despite it being a big success in the capital. It's too far from Roganville. "I've still got the dedication to keep moving forward, but it kills my body." Once he has established a second restaurant in the Midland – the jaw-dropping-sounding Mr Cooper's House & Garden, which will replicate a 19th-century landmark, complete with trees, scullery, library and so on, which will open in September – he will, he says with a hearty sigh, settle back into Cartmel.
"It's apparent to me that my role now is in Aulis, working on devising new recipes, a growing programme, all that stuff." He has worked assiduously to create a 'family' of chefs. "I've got my generals, and to do anything amazing you need an amazing team. Mind you," he quips, "they don't come cheap."
Does he really believe that he's four or five years away from stepping back from the stoves? "Well," he muses, "I always say 'That's it', but I think if the opportunity arose to do something in my home town, Southampton, that would be the icing on the cake."
You can take the boy out of the seaside – and as far as the Lakes, even – but you can never take the seaside out of the boy.
FOUR MORE TO VISIT…
Not just home to Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck – regularly touted as the best restaurant in Britain – this Berkshire village positively twinkles with Michelin stars. Also in possession of a Michelin triple is The Waterside Inn, under chef-patron Michel Roux. Nonetheless, the charming village risks becoming Hestonville; the molecular gastronomy whizz runs two further eating establishments here: The Hinds Head is a superior gastropub, with its own Michelin star and an endless supply of triple-cooked chips, while in 2010 the 16th-century inn The Crown was turned – to the chagrin of some locals – from normal village boozer into the latest Heston eatery.
Two names have helped put the Cornish port of Padstow on the map: Paul Ainsworth and Rick Stein. The former garnered a Michelin star last year for his unpretentious, restaurant No6, which puts a local, Cornish twist on many a modern classic. But the big daddy of the Padstow food scene is undoubtedly Rick Stein, who rules over an empire of 12 businesses in the town. The Seafood Restaurant brings a fusion, Asian-inspired approach to the catch of the day, and Rick Stein's Café is a less formal, fishy affair. St Petroc's Bistro offers steaks and more Mediterranean-style grub, while you can probably guess the menu at Stein's Fish & Chips.
This Shropshire destination, on the Welsh border, became famous for hosting several Michelin-starred restaurants, turning a pretty market town into a foodie hotspot in the Nineties. Several chefs have since moved on, but its reputation rightly remains. Mr Underhill's still has its star; nestled at the foot of Ludlow castle, and run by husband-and-wife team Chris and Judy Bradley, it has a daily changing market menu. La Becasse – sister restaurant to Alan Murchison's L'ortolan in Reading – also prioritises local ingredients, led by head chef Will Holland. Other Ludlow institutions include the triple AA rosetted Forelles at Fishmore Hall and The Clive restaurant-with-rooms just outside town.
It may be a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, but foodie culture defines Lochinver, and gastro-tourists visiting the cluster of top-flight restaurants now swell the 600-person population. The Inver Lodge hotel boasts the Chez Roux restaurant, with Albert Roux at the helm; it specialises in seafood, in a rustic style. There's The Albannach, a boutique hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant (the most northerly star awarded in the UK) while the most recent opening is The Mission.
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