After almost three decades, chef Brian Turner has handed over the mantle of Bocuse d’Or UK president to Simon Rogan. Vincent Wood talks to the new president on his first year in the job
Simon Rogan is sitting in his sparsely decorated and newly one-starred Roganic in London – 450 miles from Lyon and a million miles from the starched white world of classic French cuisine.
Rogan has made his name by paying homage to ingredients with as little tampering as possible, and next month he will lead the charge mentoring the UK team as they compete in the world’s toughest culinary competition, where tradition stands above all. “I’m getting bombarded with videos and pictures of all these unbelievably elaborate concoctions – obviously, being a man of ‘less is more’ concept restaurants, this is an eye-opener to me.”
Bocuse d’Or began in 1987 as what is claimed to be the first international live cooking challenge and quickly gained a reputation as the most prestigious gastronomic competition in the world – albeit one that leans near-exclusively towards a French style of cooking. While there have been upsets – team USA are the current reigning champions – of the 16 competitions so far, seven have been won by France. The UK, meanwhile, has never picked up a medal.
Rogan may not be the first chef to come to mind when considering the classical techniques displayed in Bocuse d’Or, especially considering the modern, minimalist plates he has made his name with at L’Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, and Roganic. However, this year’s main dish, a chartreuse, took him right back to his teenage years, working as an apprentice at the Rhinefield House hotel in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, under a 12-year veteran of the Savoy in London. He says: “It hasn’t always been about modern cookery for me. I had a very thorough classical grounding, so all these little things – all these garnishes and intricate colourings and products – have sort of been thrust into my face again.”
The extravaganza, in the heart of the vast Sirha culinary trade exhibition in Lyon, is a flurry of stress and sound. Live bands have attended as a tradition that began when the Mexican delegation sent a mariachi group with foghorns in 1997; now the England World Cup band attend to support the British team.
Up until now, the UK has had another cheerleader in Brian Turner, the president of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and Roux Scholarship judge, who has carried the torch of Bocuse d’Or UK president for the past 29 years. In his own words, Rogan has “big shoes to fill”.
“What Brian’s done is legendary,” says Rogan. “He’s had a bloody good innings. He’s a loyal servant and a massive plus for the GB team. I look up to him when he’s talking and think ‘well Christ, how am I going to take all this in?’” Taking it all in is very much Rogan’s plan for his first competition in the job. “I’ve been before, and I sort of know what to expect, but now I’m involved… It’s going to be a massive learning curve. It is really a case of trying to experience it the best
I can this year.”
Rogan has form when it comes to mentoring competition chefs. In the last year alone, the Roux Scholarship 2018 saw half of the finalists come from his kitchens, while two of L’Enclume’s chefs reached the final of the Young National Chef of the Year (the only kitchen with double representation). Over the past decade, four Roux Scholars (Tom Barnes, Harry Guy, Mark Birchall and Daniel Cox) entered and won as Rogan’s chefs. Restaurant Story head chef Tom Phillips, this year’s Bocuse competitor, is another to have passed through his kitchen. “I have had a bit of luck with people that work for me that have gone on to win great competitions, so maybe that could rub off a little bit. Who knows?” he says.
Competition aside, Rogan is already having quite the year – in October, Michelin handed a star to Roganic and another for Rogan & Co in Cartmel to add to the two stars at L’Enclume, and just this month the chef announced two new restaurants in Hong Kong. With the Bocuse d’Or, however, he is looking to the future and his legacy within cuisine.
“I’m not that far off the end of my career now,” he says, “and I just wanted to do something that is really giving back, trying to help the UK throw off this image of having shit food and show that we can compete with anyone in the world. To get someone doing well in the Bocuse d’Or is a real goal.”
The challenge for British chefs looking to elevate the perception of the UK’s cuisine in the French style is that they start from a point of disadvantage. If you want to cook something traditionally ‘à la Anglaise’, then Le Répertoire de la Cuisine will probably recommend boiled meat served with boiled potatoes.
“It isn’t much we can be proud of, unfortunately,” he says, “but you know that’s just what we need to do, to change people’s perception of where we stand in the world now.”
It is a herculean challenge on an Olympic-style stage, but as Bocuse himself said – “classic or modern, there is only one kind of cuisine – the good”.
For the 2019 Bocuse d’Or, Tom Phillips (Restaurant Story, London) and commis chef Nathan Lane (the Ritz London) have been tasked with creating dishes that honour two legendary French chefs who have died – Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon.
For the award’s namesake, competitors must produce a platter of suckling veal to be served as 14 portions. And for the world’s most Michelin-starred chef, they must prepare two identical hot chartreuses – each big enough to be portioned into eight and stuffed with a shellfish stew containing 32 scallops, 60 mussels, 18 oysters and 60 cockles.