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Out Of The Frying Pan: Simon Rogan Interviewed

David Blake talks breakups, Iraqi invasions and Michelin stars with the North West’s most lauded chef

Written by . Published on October 8th 2013.


Out Of The Frying Pan: Simon Rogan Interviewed
 

All in all, Simon Rogan has had a pretty nifty year. His spiritual home at L’Enclume in Cumbria knocked Heston’s Fat Duck off its sturdy perch for the first time in six years to be crowned the Good Food Guide’s finest restaurant in all the land for 2014. In addition to that, Rogan’s The French in The Midland Hotel, reimagined but six months ago, took number twelve in the Top 50 restaurants list making it the ‘Best New Entry’. It's also just scooped both 'Restaurant of the Year' and 'Newcomer of the Year' at the Manchester Food and Drink awards.

I’d just started at a fairly prominent five star in London and had been promised all the investment I wanted. But the hotel was owned by the Crown Prince of Kuwait, the day I started Iraq invaded Kuwait and all his assets were frozen. Pretty unlucky.

He also oversees a rapidly expanding and fully functioning farm in Cumbria, a mysterious food research and development kitchen, another restaurant in Cartmel, a pub in Cartmel, has just opened another restaurant, Mr Cooper’s, in The Midland and is currently lining up a new project in the Old Smoke all whilst filming a BBC documentary – Unsurprising then that he doesn’t get a day off, rather more surprisingly that he’s still got a partner. This is Rogan.

Firstly, glad to see the back of the Tory conference?

Yeah it’s not been great fun. It’s been chaos and obviously we’re used to having things under control. These events are always difficult. It’s like the races near L’Enclume in Cartmel although with a totally different clientele. It’s funny thinking of the steps we had to go through with conservation areas and listed buildings, and then four times a year they let 20,000 to 30,000 people, mostly drunk riff-raff, loose in the village. But it’s tradition.

The Midland HotelThe Midland Hotel

So your first solo move into the Lake District wasn’t easy?

At first it was like a UFO had landed. We took a massive risk with moving there and the product we were offering. The project was quite infamous by the time I’d arrived; it had been going on awhile and causing various disruptions. When we first opened they were thinking ‘who is this southern upstart coming here?’ We only remained in business because our London PR dragged people up from the south to eat. Up until two or three years ago local trade was quite non-existent. But now there’s places in Cartmel that have sprung up off the back of us, a cheese shop, a wine shop, a bakery, the pubs have upped their game. It’s buzzing. I’m still nearly a year from being considered a local though, and we’ve been there eleven years.

So you’re a hero now?

I wouldn’t go that far. But there’s no doubt Cartmel’s economy has significantly improved because of us. We’ve got three successful businesses there all doing really well and providing sixty jobs in the process. I’m proud of what we’ve done there.

Where did the journey to the upper echelons of chefery begin?

For me it took a marriage break up to realise that there was a world out there to grasp. I didn’t have to be bogged down. Jean Christophe opened a restaurant in Southampton, my home town, before then I’d never had the ambition to go to France, London, anywhere really. But when I started working for him I saw this avant-garde style of food, heard about what Marco Pierre White was doing, how exciting the lifestyle could be. So I worked for Marco and for John Burton-Race then spent eighteen months in Paris. Chefs are a bit nomadic, finish a project and off we go.

The French peeking through the columnsThe French peeking through the columns

You say you’re a nomadic bunch, but would you say you're now settled in the North West?

We are going to return to London at some point. It’s inevitable. Not necessarily because I want to, because you have to. London is the centre, whether you like it or not, from a business perspective you need a presence there. For Manchester and Cartmel it’s important because it drives that national and international foodie traffic North West.

Why the move to Manchester?

Over the years I’d always fancied doing something in Manchester. There were always developers or investors asking me whether I’d come to the city. I always thought I wouldn’t mind but wasn’t sure it was a risk I needed to take.

It was a chance connection with Michael Magrane (GM at the Midland) that brought me to The Midland, he originally approached me about Mr Cooper’s, The French wasn’t even in the conversation. At the time we were talking to the BBC about a programme (the BBC are filming both Simon and Aiden Byrne at the newly opened Manchester House as part of a new three-part documentary due to air in the new year) and we got into the history of The French and who’s been through the doors. So myself and Mike decided to take the restaurant back to its best before Mr Cooper’s.

Where’s the best place you’ve worked?

I’ve only worked in one three-star restaurant so it has to be the Lucas Carton in Paris during the 90s. 60 covers with 65 chefs, the standard was incredible. And the way of life there was great, the eating, the drinking.

Lucas CartonLucas Carton

Is it difficult being a British chef in Paris?

Of course, I was the only one there. They call us the roast beefs and assume that’s the limit of our abilities. I think they were quite shocked with what I could do.

And the worst place you’ve worked?

I’d just started at a fairly prominent five star in London and had been promised all the investment I wanted. But the hotel was owned by the Crown Prince of Kuwait, the day I started Iraq invaded Kuwait and all his assets were frozen. Pretty unlucky.

So we’ve heard you’ve got quite into your farming…

It’s become a monster we can’t turn back. We started growing because we couldn’t get a good radish and it snowballed, carrots, turnips, leeks, beetroots. But as you get bigger you encounter more problems, vermin, wind, rain, deer, drainage, so invest more. We’re about to triple in size.

During this season we’ve pretty much supplied everything on the plates at L’Enclume, the French, Rogan and Co. and the Pig and Whistle. We honestly believe we’re dishing out the best produce in the country. The farm was designed and is run by chefs, not growers, and we think it’s better because of that. People are emulating us now and that's great. The only way to solve a food crisis is to grow your own.

Did L’Enclume start out like that?

No we started properly about three and a half years ago. I admired a chef called Marc Veyrat in France, he was using a lot of the natural flora of the Alps in his cooking. I’d been side-tracked by technology and a few friends steered me back on course.

Was it hard to make the transition to entirely home-grown and local produce?

It was gradual. You can’t just say I’m never going to use a lemon again because you may need that acidity. But we’ve only got apples and pears so it makes you a better chef. It makes you plan and think more. It’s hard work but the customers appreciate what you’re trying.

What’s your favourite meat/dessert/fruit/veg/takeway/equipment?

Pork, lemon tart if pushed, apples and potatoes. Chinese because it’s the only choice we’ve got and the Thermoblender. You can cook nearly anything with that.

The FrenchThe French

Favourite thing on any of your menus?

The ox in coal oil. I just love it and Marina O’Loughlin (The Guardian) hated it so she can go… I dare anyone not to like it (at this point Rogan demanded that I try some. It’s fantastic). It’s raw rib of Dexter beef and it tricks you because it tastes as though it’s been chargrilled, like a Whopper, but it’s raw. I’ve been shouting about it ever since she said she hated it. I think she was just trying to be different and the only person in the world not to like it. Giles Coren said he’d walk barefoot from London just for another bite. It’s even turned veggies. But anyway, she doesn’t matter.

Why did you become a chef?

I fancied my home economics teacher, Ms Humphries. My dad worked on the fruit and veg markets at Southampton docks so I was always surrounded by produce. I’d go down, watch the crates being loaded onto the ships and wait for him to finish. I’d always liked cooking at home but Ms Humphries was the nudge.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I now enjoy being a restaurateur rather than just a chef. Being able to create and not getting too involved with the nitty gritty. Although I had to at The French because in the beginning we were going through chefs like nobody’s business. They couldn’t handle it. But now I enjoy choosing a table as much as the food. My life is very interesting now, it’s not just about the cooking, it’s about the growing, the design, even wallpaper.

Ox in Coal OilOx in Coal Oil

And least?

The hours. I don’t get a day off. But at the moment, this is my time to go for it. One day people will stop asking you to do these things so you’ve got to grab it while you can. No time for days off. Time to relax later.

Ever fancied packing it all in?

Yeah loads of times. But that was during the phase before working for myself. I couldn’t find the right job.

So what would you do instead?

I’ve always been a keen DJ. I suppose music and cooking are similar in ways, the precision, the timing, the way it’s constructed. Kicking off my shoes and putting on my headphones is sometimes the only way I can relax.

Not a farmer then?

I think I could. When we started the farm I was at my happiest in the mornings watering or weeding. No better place to be. But I’d have to get the restaurants to a certain level first, achieve all that I want to. Unfortunately, with all that’s been happening my time on the farm has dwindled, I only get to whip round a couple of times a week. But it’s great there, my phone doesn't work.

L'EnclumeL'Enclume

The craziest moment of your career?

There’s been loads. One night at L’Enclume there was torrential rain and it started pouring through the front door. Customers had feet on seats, the servers had to take shoes and socks off and wade through it. We had no electric but we kept going on gas. It was chaos but the customers took it well.

You’ve had spots on TV. Does TV work appeal to you?

Not really, obviously I understand the power of television. Our business went up 60% alone when I won the Great British Menu, plus we’d just achieved a second star and a 10/10 in the Good Food Guide. So from a business perspective it appeals to me, but personally not so much.

Favourite places to eat?

Probably at my mates places. Tom Kerridge at the Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, Daniel Clifford in Cambridge.

And in Manchester?

I’m into Thai so I’ve been to Koh Samui a fair few times. I’ve had a couple of good meals in Albert’s Chop House actually.

Is it true chefs don’t like to cook at home?

Very true. I let my other half do that.

Mr Cooper's House And GardenMr Cooper's House And Garden

If you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life?

I’d be quite happy eating sunday roast for the rest of my life.

Most complex dish you’ve ever made?

There have been a lot. We once deconstructed a whole sticky toffee pudding into five globules that you’d eat left to right. You’d pop them in your mouth and by the last it’d taste as though you’d just ate a sticky toffee pudding.

Do you have a lab for these things?

I prefer to not call it a lab. We’re just doubling our research and development building next to L’Enclume in size. We’ve taken on a new head of research and development, he’s a double PhD from Oxford. Astro physics and something else. No relevance to food but he’s a keen foodie, and probably the most intelligent guy you’ll ever meet.

Rogan's Jedi mind trick didn't work on plantsRogan's Jedi mind trick didn't work on plants

What’s been your proudest achievement?

It has to be the whole business in Cartmel, what we’ve put together there. But also here at the French, to get 8/10 in the Good Food Guide in six months and reach number twelve in the rankings. It took us seven years to achieve 8/10 at L’Enclume. Yeah the Michelin stuff last week was a bit annoying (Michelin overlooked The French last month)... 

Were you pissed off?

I was mostly shocked to be honest. I’m annoyed for the guys who’ve worked so hard because it’s so obviously worth a star. I’ve eaten in a few of the new one stars and we’re on a different planet compared to them. So I have no idea how they’ve come to that decision.

But does it matter? Aren’t people overly obsessed by stars?

Oh God yeah. Since day one I’ve never said this was about stars, it’s about creating a great restaurant for Manchester and that’s exactly what we’ve done. We don’t need a star to prove that. Since we’ve opened there’s been a massive thing about bringing a star back to Manchester, but who cares? As long as you’re busy, you’ve got a good following, making great food and people love it, then who really cares about stars?

Aspirations for the future?

To leave a legacy is my biggest aspiration. To be remembered as a Marco or a Nico Ladenis of my time. I think with what I’ve achieved I’m well on my way but there’s more to be done. There always will be.

Follow @David8Blake on twitter

The French and Mr Cooper's House and Garden are both located in The Midland Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester, M60 2DS

L'Enclume, Rogan and Co. and The Pig and Whistle are located in Cartmel, Cumbria.

Set menus at The French are £29, £55 and £79.

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