He’s the UK’s chef of the moment whose award-winning restaurants in northern England are tempting foodies to venture out of London and sample some of the north’s finest. Simon Rogan fills us in on being a restaurateur, growing turnips and the vibrant dining scene outside of the British capital.
By the time I’ve finished chatting with Simon Rogan, I’m feeling exhausted just at the thought of his hectic schedule. Since opening his second restaurant outside of the Cumbrian village of Cartmel, England, where he has resided for the last 11 years, the Michelin star chef admits he’s hardly had a day off.
But as he puts it, this isn’t the time for relaxing. “I don’t care about days off at the moment,” he says. “I feel it’s my time and I’m going to embrace it while I can.”
Rogan’s culinary career began at just 17 when he was taken on as an apprentice under Paul Norman at Rhinefield House Hotel in the New Forest and gained classical grounding, before going on to work with some of the world’s greatest chefs, including Jean Christophe Novelli, Marco Pierre White and John Burton Race.
Just last month the highly accomplished chef opened a second restaurant at upmarket Manchester hotel The Midland, called Mr Cooper’s House & Garden, adding to his fine dining restaurant The French, which has already made it to number 12 in the Waitrose Good Food Guide 2014 within six months of opening.
Back in Cartmel, a place Rogan says he’ll “never walk away from”, the Southampton-born chef’s operations are buzzing behind the scenes.
A new kitchen section has just been installed at two Michelin star restaurant L’Enclume, while food research and development kitchen Aulis, which puts dishes through their paces before they appear at restaurants, is almost doubling in size. “We’ve got a constant stream of ideas and dishes coming through [Aulis] before they go out to the restaurants because we don’t like our restaurants to serve the same food,” he adds.
Since L’Enclume in Cartmel was named as the best restaurant in the Good Food Guide, Rogan has been applauded for the gastronomic revival in the region. However, he modestly disputes that’s he’s been responsible for putting restaurants in the north on the culinary map.
“There have always been great restaurants – we just maybe made people sit up and notice,” he says. “I think we’ve added a new style to an already vibrant restaurant scene.”
Although London came out on top in the latest Michelin guide, other restaurants in the north have been recognized for their culinary excellence, including The Samling in Ambleside, Cumbria, which was awarded its first Michelin star. “That place is on the up,” Rogan says, adding that he thinks Aiden Byrne at The Manchester House and Adam Smith at the Burlington restaurant at the Devonshire Arms Country House Hotel are destined for good things, too. “There’s lots happening up here – definitely,” he says.
When it comes to Rogan’s food philosophy – the majority of the ingredients used in his restaurants are from his six-acre farm in Cartmel Valley, which is set to triple in size over the winter – he is leading the way with his unique cooking style that is dedicated to the Cumbrian landscape he resides in.
When he “built the farm from scratch” three years ago, it signaled the rise of his passion for British produce – which has progressed so much since that he no longer uses any overseas products at his restaurants.
Though, as the restaurateur admits, it didn’t happen overnight. “It’s been a long-winded process,” he says. “There’s nothing better in a chef’s armoury than squeezing some lemon juice into something when you want to heighten the flavor.
“We needed to find alternatives to that before we could start omitting the produce that’s really important, so we had to find ways of implementing that without using lemons and other citrus fruits.”
Rogan explains that preservation has been key to gradually getting to the stage where overseas products have been completely omitted from the menu, adding that carrying on the philosophy in the winter is the real challenge.
“Because of the self-preservation techniques we use in the summer, we’re inundated – we’ve got too much stuff to put on the menu – and that’s when you’re clever, you save those things for the winter when produce isn’t so plentiful,” he says, before adding that the farm manages to grow turnips and leeks even in the cold months thanks to heated and fleeced tunnels.
On being named one of the most influential chefs of the next decade by restaurant critic Andy Hayler, Rogan says: “We want to show people how they can grow their own and how they can supply their own restaurants.
“It’s something that we were really attracted to and I think if other places were to do the same I’d be very proud of that. Andy appreciated that and what we stand for.”
With his brood of restaurants in the north doing extremely well, Rogan hints that a return to London, a place where he has spent most of his life, is on the cards for next year. “I make no secret of the fact we will return – it’s just a case of when.”
Rogan’s first restaurant in London – and also his first outside of Cartmel – Roganic, enjoyed great success for two years but closing in June this year (and sticking to its two-year lease) was, as the chef puts it, “the right thing to do”.
“We did look at [other premises] to move to straight away, but with the French and the arrival of Mr Cooper’s as well I just thought it was too much for me at that time,” he says. “It’s easy to just set them up and not spend enough time on them, but I’m not like that. My name is above the door so I put as much effort into each and every one of them as I can.
“One day I’d like a crack at achieving all of the things we’ve achieved at L’Enclume in London, which would obviously take a bit more of my time,” he adds, “but at the moment there’s still unfinished business in Cartmel and it’s still my home. It’s still the mothership and that’s the way it will remain for the time being.”
Although Rogan’s hectic schedule keeps him extremely busy, he says he finds being a chef as well as a restaurateur “really stimulating”.
“It’s not just about grafting away in the kitchen and crafting your dishes,” he adds, “it’s about actually creating the produce and the development and the interior design. The whole thing really interests me and keeps my life quite exciting.”