Chef features and interviews
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Simon Rogan, L'Enclume, Cartmel
Simon first and foremost thank you very much as you know we've been wanting to come and see you for a long time so I really appreciate your time I know you're an immensely busy, Michelin starred restaurant here at L'Enclume, Rogan and Co in the village, obviously the rooms and the farm which I know you've had for two or three years now but that's really gaining momentum. What's the theory behind the farm? Why are you putting so much energy, emphasis into the farm? Why is that such a real driver in your business?Well obviously the ability to grow quality, tasty ingredients to our specification and being able to take them out of the ground when we need them and onto the plate, which is amazing. More often than not they don't even see the inside of a fridge as they are used that same day, sometimes from picking to plate can be as little as 1 hour! There is very little transport involved too, this is very important to our "˜Green' ethos and us.
Is your veg man still speaking to you?
We don't have major suppliers here at L'Enclume much to Penny's annoyance. Penny is my partner who does all the accounts, we have many, many artisan suppliers who specialise in their own fields i.e. we have a brilliant potato grower, not too far away from here and the Holker Estate is on our doorstep for our milk fed lamb at the moment, so it's the same for all our suppliers mostly here in Cumbria. But getting back to the farm, the taste of any produce is of paramount importance to us and that just picked flavour cannot be beaten. And not forgetting we are getting fully organic produces for the price of seed!
Is the farm organic at the moment?
It's organic at the moment.
Certified yes. It's been certified organic since we've started using it. We've always used produce from it at L'Enclume since we opened eight years ago but we never went totally organic at that stage because the quality wasn't equal to the price hike. Then, about three years ago the people that owned the farm sold their box scheme to another company on the understanding that produce would still be taken from the farm but it wasn't and the farm got very overgrown. We were still getting produce for us that were growing quite wildly and so I realised that this was such a wasted opportunity and put it to the owners that we'll take it over and get it back to how it used to be. Strip it back and install a professional operation that was going to create something really, really special. In our first year there were lots of mistakes. We were very greedy with the varieties that we wanted to grow and we grew lots of stuff but not much of it"¦
That must be exciting seeing it all grow as well?
Yes, well exciting for the customer because the menu was extremely turbulent, we were just getting a used to dish and it was being well received by the customers and all of a sudden boom it had to be removed. Certain vegetable lead dishes had to be stopped because after tasting the produce from the farm, I was not prepared to compromise on the taste that we got from regular vegetables from suppliers. We realised that we were cheating our customer out of taste and quality
Take a simple carrot, just a humble carrot but the difference in taste between our carrots and a bought in carrot was the size of the universe. So it was a very interesting first year for us so we've cut it right back on the varieties we're hoping to grow to get the right amounts that we need. Hopefully they'll last the life of the season at L'Enclume or at Rogan and company.
Do you honestly see the farm producing enough produce to sustain both of your businesses?
Yes, we've got two acres at the moment that we're using out of a total of 15. Field scale crops are going in to utilise more acreage this year and we've got 11 poly-tunnels and two of them are lit and heated. They provide us with lovely herbs and shoots and flowers throughout the winter, far superior to the mass-produced stuff that you now see on so many tables. I like to grow the shoots on a little further so that the roots and the stems are a little more developed as that is where the flavour is and they are more distinctive to us. So the stuff we get from our tunnels is amazing. We're modelling the farm at the moment and getting all the pathways pristine and precise so that our guests can go up there and wander around"¦
Fantastic do you use it as part of the guest experience?
Basically yes. We are very organised at L'Enclume and want to bring the same philosophy to the farm. I like a very Zen like environment and I know it's not always possible because we're going up there and raping the plants of their fruits, so it doesn't always look as good as it could. At the end of the day it is a commercial operation that is there to help us make money but we wanted to get it looking really nice, precise and professional. So we're concentrating hard on that at the moment.
And you're going to go bio now?
That's right we're just taking on some new gardeners so by the end of April we hope to have three full time gardeners.
Wow that's a commitment as well.
Yeah with the purpose that we are biodynamic by the end of the year and with all that with entails.
Simon, I'm not an expert in biodynamic but it's driven by the moon, driven by the tides is that right?
Yeah it's an interesting concept where you treat the farm as a living organism so it's completely self sustainable and we've already got our own spring providing the water. The owners of the farm have got a wind turbine going up to provide electricity for the tunnels which have light and heat in them. So we're getting there! The next step is to get the cows and pigs to initiate the manure process.
Would you ever have livestock there for the restaurants as well?
Yeah, we've got ambitions of providing chickens, sheep and beef so we will see it as an investment for slaughter later on but initially it's for their manure and to create all the fertilisers and manures that we need to use for that operation but yeah"¦
It's like the Good Life isn't it?
Yeah another reason why the bio ethos is really good is because it's hard to predict and to create a timetable of when to plant and when to pick and how much to grow for a certain yield. A biodynamic operation dictates this process as it's all controlled by the moon's cycle and the time of year. So it's like a bus timetable for vegetables and it helps you to get to where you want to be. Some people might say the concept is a load of rubbish but it is something that I believe in and I see that as a real plus for us. Maybe it'll be a blueprint for the future for many other provincial restaurants.
That sounds really exciting. Simon tell us about the food style here. It's changed quite dramatically I think over the sort of period of time you've been here where would you say you were at now and how would you describe your food style?
Very contented where we are now. I think the food isn't anywhere near as technically led as it once was, which I think is a good thing. Things are a lot more natural and manipulation is minimal. We're obviously dictated to by the seasons, very violently changing with the seasons. Obviously our rule to only use British produce is quite a tall order but the farm and foraging operation together does OK for us.
Yeah I can imagine especially this time of year.
We've done all right throughout the winter. In the summer it's the opposite where we have too many choices but these are all ingredients that don't need too much attention. We still use the latest technology and we still strive for innovation, but it's very subtle and it's all in the background. We're now trying to make that carrot the best possible carrot you can eat rather than in the past we might have dissected it, deconstructed it and served it in lots different ways.
Bastardised it basically.
Yeah, basically. So I can understand in the past where some people haven't quite got what we were doing. So we have come full circle I suppose and now I'm very excited with what we're doing. I think the food now is the best it's ever been. We have a great team; the set up is getting to where I wanted it to be when we opened eight years ago. We also have Aulis, our research facility, which we opened about the same time as the farm, that's beginning to bear fruit and it's great for the organisation of the whole business. Everything comes through Aulis whether it's new recipes for L'Enclume, or for Rogan and Company, and procedures for the farm or foraging, everything comes through it. So, I think that now reflects in what we do on the plate. Very natural, letting the ingredients to do the talking.
You mentioned there that you don't use anything out of the British Isles and in all fairness from what I understand about your cuisine you've regionalised down to almost Cumbrian focused, to be as local as possible and almost restricted to the North West.
Our prime objective is to use the abundance of ingredients that are around us and when I first brought this rule into practice everyone was saying, " you won't be able to do that, you'll find it really difficult," but"¦
But is it challenging to go out and find things?
Absolutely. Clearly there are obvious problems when you employ those sorts of rules such as the lack of citrus and the lack of acidity because we don't use lemons, we don't use limes that can lift the dish to a whole"¦
What did you put in the gin and tonic? ((laughs))
Okay we relax it for gin and tonic but in the kitchen we don't use any citrus fruit so we have to rely on other ways, So we use a lot of vinegars and pickling which, looking at the historical background of food in Cumbria was a traditional cooking technique, so there are always ways around the problems.
Does that interest you doing the research behind all that? Does that motivate you?
Absolutely, we've done a little bit of work with Ivan Day, the food historian, he's Cumbrian based and an hour with him, is an hour of information overload from where the last recorded wild boar was killed to another way of producing shoots from a lemon pip to create some more acidity. So yes, it does interest me a lot and it's a big part of what we do. Not only are we looking at the food from a Cumbrian perspective we're also looking at the way it's served, on what it's served on, hence the close association with a couple of ceramic artists, one makes some of our plates, one does a lot of the artwork for us. New Cumbrian tables are on the way.
And you're expanding as well, are we allowed to say that now or not?
We are doing a lot at the moment; we've got new tables coming in two weeks time that are really interesting in the way they are not artificially stained. They're developed to the dark colour which is synonymous with L'Enclume by using natural ammonias to discolour the wood that are made by Cumbrian craftsmen out of Cumbrian oak and they've also designed a new chair for us which is based on a 17th century Cumbrian furniture maker's design.
I'm not being funny Simon and all these things cost money so are you getting a return on this?
Yes L'Enclume is very busy and it does well but obviously our overheads are very high from the staffing ratios to the investment in making the product better. So, everything's ploughed back into the business. There's nothing wrong with the Italian chairs and tables we have, it's they're just Italian and it doesn't fit in with the"¦.
You've got the concept.
It's got to be a consistent story right throughout the business and I enjoy the challenge of delivering it. And then we're having the kitchen extension done that will hopefully start in November. It was meant to start in January but there were builder delays, so when its done, it will make the kitchen a lot bigger and obviously better.
Are you extending cover-wise or just the kitchen?
No just the kitchen. To be fair on busy nights 50 covers is enough ((laughs)) it is enough.
Especially with 15 courses that's a lot of plates.
Yeah it's 15 courses at the moment that it's advertised as a 13-course menu but we do a couple of extras as well. Pretty much everyone has that menu and we sell very little of the smaller one. So that's a lot of plates that come out of the kitchen on one night. That's enough for us.
Now there's been talk about you opening in London.
I can tell you about it but you might not be able to use it at the moment it's been accepted and we're going ahead but as you know anything can happen.
So you're going to open in London?
As a fine dining?
Yeah it's a pretty amazing how its come about as we had been looking for a long time. We were approached the beginning of last year by a major five star hotel in London to open a dining room in the hotel. It was, going along and all of a sudden, as all good things do, hit a snag and the project just sort of folded but rather than letting it go, we decided to look for another project. Although we love it here Penny wants a return to London in some form so the best way to achieve that was to look for a restaurant to pay for a life in London and L'Enclume and Rogan and co pays for our life up here so we can get the best of both worlds. Perfect! A slice of the London action also, so we had been looking ever since, really unsuccessfully, and then completely out of the blue two weeks ago someone approached us about doing a pop up restaurant for two years only in Marylebone so it looks like we're going to go for it.
No, no it's a standalone restaurant. The actual restaurant went tits up two weeks a go
Oh that's a shame.
There was only two years left for the lease and it's all through the Portman Estate so obviously we see this as a big opportunity to go in there for two years, two years only,
How are you going to find the time?
I'm not going to be there. We're going to employ a head chef"¦
Is Mark going to stay here?
Well Mark's chewing it over at the moment. It's going to be a little pop up L'Enclume. It's tiny and only 30 covers, toilets are tiny, the kitchen"¦it's just, you know, totally different to what people would perceive me to do and I quite like that. I quite like the underground feel to it. We're just going to strip it back to the bricks, paint them, put in a nice oak floor, accessorise, that's it. It's all about the food, it's nothing about ultimate luxury or design, and it's nothing about"¦
Chintzy, poncey, it's just"¦
Yeah, the air conditioning's going to be hanging off the ceiling, industrial lights, a lick of paint here and there, fantastic. At the end of the day it's open for two years, so it would be unwise to spend pots of money on it. So it's all going ahead, exchange should be in two weeks time, completion in three weeks time, we'd be open by the beginning of May. ((laughs)) So it's going to happen very quickly.
In two years time we get the option either to renew it on that premises after a complete refurbishment or we'll move on to another bigger and grander project that will be on the table. So that's what we're doing but I'm going to be remaining here at L'Enclume. As I mentioned before I can't walk away from this now I've put so much into it. It's my life and it would feel completely wrong to walk away and do something else.
Well listen I wish you every success for that it sounds a massively exciting project. It sounds like you're going to fly by the seat of your pants to get that open for April but you know.
Thanks, it's going to be a great year hopefully, for all our restaurants.