Simon Rogan: 'If you want to be the best... there will be casualties'
So says the double-Michelin chef and 'Restaurant Wars' star, who faces his biggest week as he steps into Gordon Ramsay's shoes at Claridge's. But he wants to be loved too
Susie Mesure writes interviews, news and features for the Independent on Sunday, Independent and i, and has done for the last ten years or so give or take two lengthy maternity leaves. She is interested in just about any topic, especially anything Scandinavian, food, or consumer-orientated, and used to be the Independent’s Retail Correspondent
Sunday 04 May 2014
alking into the kitchen of Fera at Claridge's feels as though I've just stepped into my TV set. There, amid a sea of chefs' whites, is Simon Rogan, his round, stubbled face oddly familiar after three episodes of the BBC's Restaurant Wars (quick, they're still on iPlayer). With just four "practice" service sessions left to go until the £3m-plus new restaurant opens to the public for the first time, it's like my very own live edition of the show; but this time the only person Rogan is battling with is himself.
"Tormented! Tormented!" Rogan laments. "Will people like this? Will people like that? Is anything good enough? I'm always my worst critic. Everyone's like: 'Shut up, will you!' But I'm always worried. It is good enough. I know it's good enough. But I never think it's good enough. I always want more. More, more, more! I want those killer things."
Rogan, already a double Michelin-starred chef, is facing the biggest week of his career. Fera, which replaces Gordon Ramsay's restaurant at the celebrated London hotel, opens on Tuesday. "Are we ready? How well is it going to be received? How will certain people like it? The people that I know won't like it, how will I impress them?" Rogan's internal monologue can't be silenced. "I'm confident but you can't help feeling a bit nervous; you wouldn't be human otherwise."
We take our pick from the many tables dotted around the vast Fera dining room and sit, Rogan clutching a triple-shot Starbucks coffee. He swears he slept last night for the first time in a while but his bloodshot eyes are telling. I gaze around the sumptuous, earthy paradise, Claridge's traditional Art Deco flourishes subdued against the by now familiar Rogan landscape: "exposed tables, what I was pushing for" and acres of green, more olive here than the hue used up at Rogan HQ, the town formerly known as Cartmel in Cumbria. "All our businesses there are finished with Green Smoke, Farrow & Ball. They love us because everyone always says: 'That's the colour of L'Enclume!'" L'Enclume, of course, being Rogan's "mothership", the restaurant he took such a punt on with his partner, Penny Tapsell, when they opened it 12 years ago. A farm, and two other sites followed – Rogan & Company, and the Pig & Whistle pub – plus a development kitchen, Aulis, all in the same town.
Fera (Latin for "wild") is all very Rogan, a chef who has turned foraging into a fine-dining sensation. In the kitchen (which cost north of £750,000), trays of Cumbria-imported micro-greens stand watch over the scores of chefs already hard at work at 9am, helping bring his farm-to-plate mentality to the capital. (Rogan bought the farm because he couldn't find a tasty enough radish anywhere in Britain.) "One thing I have learnt in the short time I've been in London [a two-year "pop-up", Roganic, shut last year] is there aren't any suppliers who can supply you with what we have, so we need to grow our own. Simple." A second farm will follow in Worcestershire's Vale of Evesham.
Although Rogan forged his reputation at L'Enclume, it isn't that restaurant that hangs over our conversation, but another: The French, at Manchester's Midland Hotel, and the site of the BBC's contrived battlefield. The skirmish, which pitted Rogan against another chef, Aiden Byrne, has left our man scarred. Today he's on the defensive, his rising inflection at the end of certain sentences inviting antagonism. The editing of a prime-time show that needed to cast a belligerent field marshal did him few favours and he's eager to put the record straight, especially given the contrast with the version viewers got from seeing him on Great British Menu.
"That was edited to make me look like this guy where butter wouldn't melt in my mouth. And that is not me. That made me too nice. So when this came out and I was shouting and swearing at people for not doing their job right, I think it was a shock, but that isn't me either. I consider myself to be the slightly nicer side of a chef rather than the nasty side. But I'm just normal! If someone doesn't do something that I want them to do, more than once, I go mental like any other guy. I'm sorry if people found that offensive, but that's life. If you want something to be the best it can be, there are going to be casualties."
Rogan, who has three sons, the eldest two with his ex-wife, took particular flak for junior chefs at The French working 18-hour days: "But I was working 18-hour days alongside them, I might add!" If it sounds horrific, it's been the same at Fera. "The same," he semi-barks. "And we're all doing it; we're all doing it. We don't force people to do it. They all love what they do."
His Twitter critics weren't convinced. "I did get a hell of a lot of abuse from people who really don't know me and who'd got me all wrong." But Rogan, who has been burnt before by lashing out on Twitter, held his tongue; once bitten and all that.
The trouble is, he really cares. Guardianistas landed some particularly heavy blows, hammering him online after he told an Observer journalist that "the eyes of the world will be on me here". He sighs: "You know what I mean. The eyes of the cooking world. The eyes of fine dining … It just hurts me. It does hurt me when people say nasty things. I'm not thick-skinned like some of the guys I know who say 'Just brush it off'. I want to be loved!"
He can take solace that last Sunday there was love aplenty in Fera from some of the toughest critics in the business: his arch rivals, whom he'd invited to a private party on the eve of the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards. Le tout chefdom was there: René Redzepi, Massimo Bottura, Jason Atherton, although no Gordon Ramsay, perhaps not surprisingly (although he did send champagne and flowers). If this goes against received wisdom, well, "the days of over egotistical chefs are long gone. There is a massive camaraderie between chefs". That said, bottom lines dictate that competition is fierce and as much as Rogan might insist he doesn't care about missing out on a 50 Best spot for L'Enclume, he concedes: "Unfortunately it's very, very good to be on that list because, business-wise, people do take it very, very seriously and make a point of going round the world [notching up posh meals]." Despite the pressure he's under at Claridge's, he can't help adding: "It would probably bother me if Fera got on the list. Why should Fera get on and L'Enclume not?"
He winds down giving me a tour of the masterpiece, the "semi-open" kitchen, which diners can see through a big door. "I didn't want an 'open-open' kitchen because I think they can be quite gimmicky. But we want to remove the boundaries. There are no secrets. People can come in before, during, or after the meal, chat with chefs, eat some courses in the kitchen."
That way diners will, at least, be able to form their own opinion of Rogan, assuming they catch him on a night he's there rather than manning one of his other forts. Victory, then, would truly be his; assuming it comes garnished with a Michelin star or three.
L'Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria Curriculum vitae
1967 Born in Southampton; educated at Southampton Technical College.
1984 Gets first serious job, aged 17, at Rhinefield House Hotel, Hampshire, where he throws himself into foraging – picking wild mushrooms and wild herbs.
1988 Starts as pastry chef under Jean-Christophe Novelli at Southampton's Geddes Restaurant. Stays with Novelli for eight years, including stints with Marco Pierre White and John Burton-Race.
1994 Spends two years in Paris at Lucas Carton, under chef Alain Senderens.
2002 Takes a punt by opening L'Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, with his partner, Penny Tapsell.
2008 Rogan & Co, an informal restaurant, follows, as does a 12-acre farm – as Cartmel slowly becomes Roganville.
2011 Opens "pop-up" restaurant Roganic, on a two-year lease in London.
2012 Takes over Pig & Whistle pub, Cartmel.
2013 Takes over The French restaurant at Manchester's Midland Hotel. A second at the same hotel, Mr Cooper's House & Garden, follows. L'Enclume wins second Michelin star.
April 2014 Stars in BBC's Restaurant Wars.
May 2014 Opens Fera at Claridge's.
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