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An audience with: Simon Rogan

20 April 2016 by
An audience with: Simon Rogan

Westminster Kingsway recently played host to accomplished chef and restaurateur Simon Rogan, who talked to young and aspiring chefs about trials with Chelsea FC, cooking kebabs, and why he was always destined to be his own boss. Amanda Afiya reports

It was probably inevitable that Simon Rogan, who boasts five restaurants with three Michelin stars and an incredible 18 rosettes between them, would end up working with food in some shape or form.

He fondly remembers coming across kiwi, papaya and star fruit for the first time which, even then, piqued his interest. This, coupled with the fact that his mum worked long hours, also meant that he slowly developed an interest in preparing the family meals - "nothing too extravagant, just the odd spag bol and curry" - and from there emerged the first hints of his forthcoming career.

But that wasn't to say cheffing was a done deal and, as Rogan moved into his teenage years, the possibility of a career in the kitchen was up against stiff competition - the chance to play professional football.

In this interview with Rogan, which was held recently in association with CCS at Westminster Kingsway College, we found out how this promising footballer transformed into one of the country's most talented chefs, why the sleepy village of Cartmel proved to be the ideal location for his two-Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms, and why he feels it's important to trust your instincts.

At 12 you were cooking the family meals. Wasn't that unusual for a boy of that age?

It was. Like most guys, I wanted to be a footballer, so I had to juggle my love of cookery around sport, but I was never disciplined enough to be a professional sportsman. And with the money I earned when I was in my part-time job at a Greek restaurant, I thought "this is great, who needs football?" I quite liked working there, smashing plates on the floor.

Your potential as a footballer was really quite promising though

I had trials with Chelsea from the age of 12 to 14 and my hometown club of Southampton as well as Portsmouth, but I broke my leg and so it just wasn't to be.

I took a full-time job [at the Greek restaurant] and went to college on day release in Southampton. I went there thinking I was going to be the bee's knees as I had two years on everyone else. But when I got there I was with all the young chefs who were employed at all the good hotels around the New Forest and I realised that I knew absolutely nothing.

I left my job in the Greek restaurant and went to Rhinefield House in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, and got an apprenticeship under chef Paul Norman, who had been at the Savoy for 12 years. He took me under his wing and gave me a classical grounding. Within four or five months he got me from the very bottom to the top of the class.

By then I was getting paid £60 a week and I think I gave my mum £25 of that. So all the reasons for taking the career in the first place - the money, the excitement - were turned on their head. But now I was totally in love with what I was doing. I wanted to make myself the best I could possibly be.

Once I had finished college, I stayed another year and then decided to apply for a job for a young chef called Jean-Christophe Novelli, who had just opened his first restaurant. I went as pastry chef, because I had specialised in pastry at Rhinefield. Within two months I was sous chef - typical JC fashion. I'd had the classical grounding, now we had this mad, flamboyant Frenchman with these techniques and new ingredients. And obviously he taught me the art of being a restaurateur as well.

I worked for JC on and off for about eight and a half years. I followed him around wherever he sprung up, including for Keith Floyd at the Maltsters Arms in Tuckenhay down in Devon. That was a pretty amazing experience - he kept us on our toes down there, did Keith. I also worked for Marco Pierre White and John Burton Race, and I did a stint in Paris as well.

Quite a long time in Paris

Yes, nearly two years - it was an incredible experience. I'd always planned on going to Paris one day. When I was training under Paul at Rhinefield my mum bought me this book called Great Chefs of France by Quentin Crewe [and Anthony Blake] and it blew my mind. It had all the old-school, three-star chefs: Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapelle, Roger Vergé, Louis Outhier. It was a massive, massive inspiration.

It was Louis Outhier that I wanted to work for because I loved a dish he did - a little foie gras parfait decorated with almonds and truffle 'eyes', so it looked like a hedgehog. In those days it was amazing and I had always wanted to work for him. But unfortunately, he retired before I had the chance, so I ended up in a restaurant in Paris called Lucas Carton, under an amazing chef, Alain Senderens. That was my finishing school before I decided to come back to England and seek out my first head chef job.

So you came back from Paris and then took on your first head chef position?

Yes, at Bailiffscourt in Sussex. I stayed there for three years and we got to quite a good standard… but I was very young, a bit naÁ¯ve, immature, and I probably ran the kitchen how some of the chefs I worked for did.

It was learned behaviour to a certain extent?

Yes, I worked for very hard chefs, probably John Burton Race being one of the toughest. You had to be on your toes all the time. Maybe I tried to act like them because I thought I could achieve the same results? But I hadn't earned anyone's respect yet - even when you do earn respect it's not the way. I learned pretty quickly that the way to get the best out of people is to encourage them.

There were a few things going on in my personal life at the time, so I left the job but stayed in the area. Chefs are like nomads - a job finishes and they are off to the next town or city, wherever it may be. But I had a group of friends and decided to look for jobs where I could commute. And among that group of friends was my partner of today, Penny, who I have been with for 20 years now. She really encouraged me to look outside the area. She said she would come with me and support me and so we moved to Hollington House, a very nice country house hotel with a lot of ambition.

Unfortunately, I didn't hit it off with the owner, so I found a job in London in a five-star hotel owned by the Crown Prince of Kuwait. The day I joined Iraq invaded Kuwait, so all his assets were frozen and we had no money to do all the things we had planned. And there was one more disaster on the horizon - Addington Palace, near Croydon.

We built an amazing restaurant there. There was myself, Freddy Forster, who won the Roux Scholarship in 2000 and came through Westminster Kingsway; a chef de partie there who was runner-up in the Roux Scholarship, and a pastry chef who had come from Marc Veyrat.

We had an incredible team and we came close to achieving something special. All we needed was a bit of PR, but the owner decided to advertise on the side of a Croydon tram. This was not going to provide us with a lot of customers, so I decided that was it and that I needed to be in control of my own destiny. I decided I would never work for anyone else ever again. I did a lot of temping and a lot of crap jobs that I didn't really want to do, but I needed to keep the money coming in and protect my savings because that was my way out. I knew there was always going to be something amazing at the end of it.

So you decided that you and Penny were going to do something on your own. How did that pan out?

I wanted to go to Hampshire, while Penny is from Littlehampton, so she saw herself in West Sussex. We actually found some premises in Brighton. We had money, but not really enough to do what we wanted to do, so we were always haggling. The deal started to go wrong and around that time two guys who owned the shell of a restaurant in the Lake District were looking for someone to create one. So they looked in The Caterer and found a recruitment consultant - a guy called Gary Peck - who just happened to be a mate of mine. He said, "I've got just the guy". He got in touch and I said: "Where's Cumbria?" Then I looked it up and said, "No. It's too far from London, too far from the South East, too far from friends and family."

So there was another six months of renovations to bring the restaurant up to scratch and then we finally opened, but with Penny and our then seven-month-old still down in our house in Littlehampton. I opened on my own with one other chef, two waiters and a chambermaid who doubled up as a kitchen porter. Penny would wait to see if the restaurant took off before she made the gamble and we then sold everything we had and she joined me.

Right from the outset were you determined that it would be covered in accolades?

When you open, you're full of ambition. But when the customers don't roll in, it's the last thing on your mind - you just want customers and you want people spending money that will pay the wages. It's got to be a successful enterprise that makes money, pays debts and enables you to re-invest. Obviously accolades help future expansions, so they are important. Everybody talks about Michelin stars a lot, but actually there's only 120-odd Michelin-starred restaurants in the country. It's a very difficult thing to get - at the French in Manchester I've been trying for the last two years and haven't achieved one yet. No one knows how to get them - all you can do is your best. After one star I want two, and after two I want three. With any accolade, you always want to be better.

In those early days, people said that you were influenced by the avant-garde cuisine of Marc Veyrat, and then you took your food in a different direction. Talk us through the actual food style of the restaurant.

Before I opened L'Enclume I was interested in foraging - the sous chef at Rhinefield House used to take me out to pick wild mushrooms in the New Forest.

When I was working at Addington Palace, Freddy Forster had just come back from [Pierre] Gagnaire, having done his three-month stage there for winning the Roux Scholarship. When he was in Paris he would ring me, telling me about new techniques, and it got me interested in the avant garde. At the same time, I had a pastry chef from Veyrat who had been there for three years and he told me about his style of cookery and that really struck a chord because of the use of alpine herbs and flowers.

Since we ended up in the Lake District, which is probably as close to the Alps as we can get, we had those sorts of ingredients around us. So we opened L'Enclume very much on that tip. Not straight away - the first eight months was the food I was cooking in London. I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn't just go in there and open with all this new-found knowledge. So it was a gradual thing.

Eight months later, we were at our first tasting menu with the sort of ingredients that I'm talking about. Somewhere along the way, I got a bit side-tracked. I probably relied too much on technology and technique. People would read the menu and have no idea what they were going to eat, because it didn't mention much about food. I suppose I became more commercial, more grown-up, and a little bit more business-minded.

People within the industry were saying, "Look, do you understand what you could have here if you concentrate on what you're good at and what your strengths are? The surroundings, the ingredients and the livestock are second to none. Concentrate on all that."

Then I decided we're going to stop using all foreign ingredients completely. Obviously, it didn't happen overnight, but that's what we embarked on. Our foraging operation was very, very strong, but we needed the raw materials to carry this through. So that's when we looked at our first farm, so we could be in control of what we grew, when we grew and what we picked.

Cod ‘yolk' with pea shoot, salt and vinegar

A lemon is the greatest thing in your toolbox. For a chef to squeeze some lemon juice here or there to heighten flavour is the most amazing thing. So all of a sudden, we didn't have that ability. We gradually had to find substitutes for all the things we held dear. But I can confidently say that at L'Enclume [which boasts two Michelin stars], we don't use any foreign ingredients whatsoever. We do at Fera at Claridge's a little bit, but L'Enclume is what it is today because of that decision to get connected to our surroundings. One of the greatest achievements for me is where Cartmel is now. It's a thriving, busy place 12 months of the year and that's because we were the catalyst for all the new businesses that are there now. I'm so very, very happy about that.

Obviously things started to turn around - we got accepted by the locals, started winning loads of accolades and then expanded, initially in Cartmel and then beyond.

We started with Rogan & Company, also in Cartmel, because we felt we needed to do a bigger restaurant. We wanted it to create more money to drive the product on L'Enclume further - we had a lot of ambition in Cartmel and we needed more cash. So we opened Rogan & Company, which was great at first. We did the covers, but we never really got the formula right, so that made us look at other areas.

Then Manchester came. We got a call from Mike Magrane at the Midland hotel, asking if we would be interested in talking to him about a big space. I've always wanted to do something in Manchester. I quite liked the idea and the concept, but they had another restaurant called the French which was already pretty much dying with very few customers. I put it to Mike that we should take over the French as well and do that first.

The French was one of the first restaurants in the UK to have a Michelin star, and I quite liked the idea of being able to bring it back to life. It's done well in the Good Food Guide and the AA Guide, but not quite in the Michelin Guide at the moment. But we're trying very hard. And then, shortly after that, Mr Cooper's opened and it has been a phenomenal success.

Grilled salad at Fera at Claridge's

And then, of course, London

With Manchester I was coming out of the sanctuary of my two-star kitchen. I was under pressure, and it didn't go quite the way I wanted - obviously highlighted in Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester. At that time we also had a pop-up restaurant, Roganic in Marylebone, which was there for two years and was coming to an end. After the opening of the French, I just thought, sod this, I don't want to go through all that in London, it would just be too much hassle. Until I got the call from Claridge's. When you get a call like that, you've got to go there straight away.

What's your impression of young chefs today?

I think they're a little bit impatient, and I think that, for me, when I trained it was a very different world to what it is now. There were very long hours, and we were shouted at for very little pay. Things have improved no end since those days, but even under those conditions I still stuck it out because I knew it was worth it. Just don't try and be a chef de partie at 21 - it takes a bit longer than that.

When we recruit, we're looking for someone with passion and someone with a brain. If you've got a love of food, you're semi-intelligent and you've got that passion, we're confident of making you into a great chef, because those are the three ingredients that I think are essential.

In the kitchen at Fera at Claridge's

Simon Rogan on…

Television

It's a massive influence. I've done MasterChef and Great British Menu. It probably put 35%-40% of revenue on our bottom line, which is pretty incredible.

But it's always in the edit, that's what I've found. The edit has always favoured me and I've always been this happy-go-lucky fella who forgets to turn things on and stuff like that. Then on the other side there was Restaurant Wars and some of that was me screaming at people. They showed me hot and bothered, but that was because I was under pressure, I was out of my comfort zone, and I was with a new team, some of whom weren't up to it. What it didn't show was the before and after - those moments where I put my arm round them and say, "Look, do you understand?" So for a while it put me off TV quite a lot. I'm quite a private person actually, and I just thought, sod that. It's only now I've started to do a few things again.

Technology

It's not the be all and end all, and yes, we have water baths and things like that, but we very rarely use them for anything on the menu. We might use them in preparation, but we've gone back to basics really. We roast on the bone and we use a lot of barbecues and fire. There's no better way to cook is there?

Food style

Our menu is dominated by vegetables these days so we try not to do too much to them because of the quality of our ingredients. Our desire for having things perfect now goes way beyond cooking - it goes to actually growing the ingredients in the first place. That is a massive obsession of ours, and growing the perfect carrot is everything to us. So over the years, the last four or five in particular, the style of cuisine has got a lot, lot simpler, because we are relying on our perfect ingredients - that's not to say the technology's not there, it's just that you can't see it.

His favourite kit

We've got seven rotary evaporators which, at £10,000 a pop, are probably my most favourite piece of kit. They allow us to distil any flavour.

Being humble

In the early days it was all about cooking and trying to be the best, or one of the best. You can never be the best, that's what I keep telling myself. I'll always be humble.

On Fera at Claridge's

It has been a privilege working at Claridge's. Obviously when Gordon Ramsay was there it was a huge success, so they were big boots to fill. Getting a Michelin star for Fera within four months was pretty amazing, and the general acclaim we have achieved has made me very proud. It has been a huge learning curve, in a very competitive and different market from the Lake District and Manchester. I am enjoying the challenge, and we have a terrific, solid team with huge ambitions to achieve even more.

A word from CCS

Antony Ward, marketing manager at CCS, says: "As the world's foremost suppliers of the finest quality catering equipment and professional clothing, we are extremely pleased to support the series of An Audience With… interviews. It was fascinating to listen to Simon and hear his advice for aspiring chefs. It's a wonderful opportunity to see leading chefs interact with the audiences and talk about issues about which they are passionate."

Watch our interview with Simon Rogan

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