Mark Birchall, Head Chef, L'Enclume, Cartmel, Cumbria

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 5th January 2011
Simon Rogan is one of the UK's most exciting chefs, his food is anything but traditional with L'Enclume regarded as one the countries finest restaurants, something reflected by the Good Food Guide which in 2010 saw L'Enclume achieve 8/10 and be ranked forth best Resturant in the UK. Simon leads a dedicated and passionate team of chefs who strive for perfection at every point exceeding customer expectation had become part of his daily mantle. Mark Birchall has been with Simon for over 5 years and now operates as his head chef.Simon Rogan
If you could start by talking us through your daily role, your responsibilities here at L'enclume, tell us a little bit about the operation, how long you've been here, the length of service and what position you started as? 
Well basically I've been here five years. I started as sous chef, then promoted two years later to head chef.
What's your role here, what are you responsible for as head chef at L'Enclume? Well basically I'm responsible as far as maintaining the standards, keeping everything consistently high. We've just got the fifth rosette and fourth in the Good Food Guide which is a reflection on our consistency.
So in your role are you writing menus? Are you and Simon writing menus together?
Well fundamentally L'enclume is Simon's restaurant and he comes up with the dishes and I have very good input in that and if I don't feel that something will work or something is not quite there or not quite right he respects my input and takes on board everything I say. We do collaborate on a lot of the dishes together.
And how many do you have in the team at the moment?
Seven at the moment.
So you're responsible for them on a daily basis?
Yeah but there's no trouble with that it's quite an easy job to manage, in that respect we've got a really good bunch of guys and the core of the team have been here at L'enclume on average three and a half, four years.
How many covers do you do and is that dinner only or lunch and dinner?
Maximum 50 and that is a maximum. Seven days for dinner, Wednesday to Sunday for lunch.
How do you feel, in the five years you've been here, you've improved as a person, a manager and a chef whilst working under Simon?
I think with it being a slightly smaller brigade there's a little less pressure there and so you can kind of control people a lot better and give them a lot more of your time one to one; there's a lot more one to one element. When we change a dish the whole brigade is involved, all of them are very seasonal and obviously with the farm the seasons can be quite dramatic.  
What do you feel has been your single biggest challenge since you started at L'enclume?
Probably just pushing towards the fifth rosette really and obviously I wouldn't say it's been a challenge as such, and that might sound a bit arrogant. But it's just keeping that standard there, just keeping it consistent, keeping people happy.
Which is what the accreditation's about isn't it? It's about hitting the standard every single night, every single day.
Consistency is the key, that we don't serve shit one day and three star food the next day it's just the same every day.
And what are you guys working towards now, I mean obviously you've achieved five rosettes, you mentioned two stars is that the sort of Holy Grail is that what you're driving for?
I don't think it's the Holy Grail, we just want to be the best we can and we feel that we deserve, the two star status but we don't want to stop there we're going to keep pushing and keep developing. You know we want to progress in the Good Food Guide as well.
Yeah, which you did incredibly well in this year guide also.
Yeah it was good.
Do you take a lot of satisfaction from that yourself Mark?
Oh yeah of course. I know how much and the part I play here and it's a big thing for me.
How do you think the food style has evolved in the five years that you've been here?
In the five years, when I first started we were quite whacky if you will, a lot of the focus was on technique and now it's kind of calmed down quite a lot. We're very seasonal, everything's grown within the British Isles.
Is that a conscious decision you guys made? Weren't the customers getting it? Why the change from the "whacky"?
It was more unconscious sort of thing. It wasn't really anything to do with the customers as such we just felt like we wanted to get everything locally and producing the best meat
Cumbria's a phenomenal area for produce isn't it?
Yes, the best in the world you know and the lamb up here is just amazing, the fish is pretty good, but we get a lot of fish from the south as well, Cornwall etc.
So this has been an evolution really - the change of food style?
Yes and with getting the farm you've got to be very seasonal as well.
You mentioned in your role that there's a lot of one to one training and it's quite a small team that you look after, how important, if you're striving to improve in the Good Food Guide, if you're striving to get two stars how important is training to you and the team?
Well it's important not just for the team, it's important for the development and the evolution of the restaurant if you like. If you're not training, you're not developing, you're not trying to work on new things, you become stagnant and you're never going to get anywhere, you're just going to turn into one of these places that don't push on and are happy with the same old shit.
But you want to be continually evolving do you?
Yeah I'm not saying we want to be doing something new, something different all the time but we want to be something better all the time.
Is that an important part of the business and for the development?
Yeah absolutely and it's nice to have a little space out of the kitchen where you can try new things and it kind of doubles up as a nice little dry stores and it's an office and bookshelves as well.
So is this where all the sort of ideas are formulated and this is where all the trial and error takes place as opposed to trying it and putting it on the menu and maybe it doesn't work, you kind of get it all out of the system in here first?
We try to yeah. It doesn't always work like that but we do try to try things out. We just try and mess around with things and some things work, some things don't. You can do something here and you think, "This is great" but then it can get on the menu and it's just not slotting in the way it should do with the rest of the dishes.
Do you listen a lot to what your customers tell you? 
Yes absolutely and we'll get every reply that comes back. So if something's not finished we like to know why.
Yes absolutely and we'll get every reply that comes back. So if something's not finished we like to know why.
Yes absolutely and we'll get every reply that comes back. So if something's not finished we like to know why.
What are you looking to gain from your operation next in terms of personal development and then future career opportunities? You've been here five years, like every head chef there must be a burning ambition inside to maybe have your own star, your own place, your own gastro pub, where do you see yourself in the next five years?
The next five years? Definitely running my own kitchen obviously to a suitable standard, you know, I don't want to cook anything less than I'm cooking now, I'm not going to backtrack and nothing will change personally. I'd like to win my own star for myself and something that's excellent and have a decent figure in the Good Food Guide would be nice.
Do you see that as the next goal?
That is the next goal, I'm 29 now and obviously I've learnt, I saw the other day The Roux Scholarship's out as well so I'll probably have another crack at that because it's my last go and if I don't do that I'll probably I'll regret it for the rest of my life.
And if you look at all the people that have gone on nearly all of them I think have a star now don't they?
Yes, a lot of them do. It's just great, you know, you meet a lot of nice people and get your name out there a little bit and it all helps.
And what about with Simon, we've just been round Cartmel and it's becoming almost like another Bray or another Padstow, is there an opportunity within the business for maybe you to head up something independently?
Possibly, Simon gets occasional to do other sites offers and you can't really say what will happen or what's round the corner and it would be nice obviously I'm not a millionaire, I cant just start a restaurant you've got to have backing but ideally a nice little kitchen and I'd obviously make something of myself.
>>> Related: The Roux Scholarship winners: where are they now? (part 3)

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 5th January 2011

Mark Birchall, Head Chef, L'Enclume, Cartmel, Cumbria