The Caterer Interview – Simon Rogan

30 June 2011
The Caterer Interview – Simon Rogan

The pop-up restaurant scene is never short of surprises; it's the nature of the beast. But perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the news that established operator Simon Rogan, of Cumbria's Michelin-starred L'Enclume, is to join the party with a two-year tasting menu restaurant in London. He tells Hilary Armstrong about "extended pop-up" Roganic

How did the idea of doing a pop-up restaurant come about? It's all a bit of a blur now but about three months ago I got a call out of the blue from the estate agent [David Rawlinson of Restaurant Property, see box, page 24] asking if I'd be interested in a little Marylebone restaurant with only two years of the lease left.

At first I thought it was the barmiest proposition I'd ever had. But then I thought how well the quirky underground feel of it would fit with what we wanted to do. There's a really interesting movement going on right now with chefs setting up supper clubs and pop-ups. I'm a bit older than those guys but it's still something I can relate to. The other attractive thing was that we could do it ourselves. Everything we have in Cumbria is mine and my partner Penny's and we wanted to keep it that way.

Isn't two years quite a long time for a pop-up? In the restaurant game two years is like two weeks, so as far as I'm concerned, it's a pop-up. The two-year thing makes sense; it's a way of dipping our toes in the London water. If it doesn't work we walk away, job done. As long as we make the money back that we've spent on it, so what?

What will happen when the two years are up? It's a bit unclear at the moment whether the whole block is going to be redeveloped or not. I'm led to believe the Portman Estate wants to up the ante of the street and attract a few more names - there's already Trishna and L'Autre Pied. They're not giving me any promises. If we do a good job then hopefully we should get first refusal.

This is an investment for two years' time. We'll probably make a decision at the beginning of next year about where we're going but we will have somewhere to go, without a doubt.

You made your name in Cartmel in Cumbria [Rogan and his partner own L'Enclume, Rogan & Company, Howbarrow organic farm and Aulis research centre], so why the move to London? Penny had cabin fever in Cumbria and wanted a bit of our old London life back. We thought the way to have the best of both worlds would be to go into business somewhere here.

Is doing a pop-up an excuse to do it on the cheap? Yeah! [laughs]. We're a little family business doing this on a shoestring by London standards - though it's a lot of money to us country bumpkins. Hopefully people won't crucify us for having the tables too close together. It is going to have an industrial feel to it. It's not about drapery, expensive lighting or marble toilets; it's about what goes on the plate.

Is it a more relaxed approach to tackling the London market? Absolutely. There's no pressure. Our outgoings are quite low so we're not under pressure to be greedy. We'll do things with a smile on our face and hopefully that will reflect in the food and service.

How much have you invested? The majority of money we've spent has been on the building work, which required about £60,000. The rent is very low and most of it has been paid up front. Chairs and tables we're reusing from L'Enclume. In our figures, we planned for 30 covers at lunch and dinner - though we've just found out we can only do 24 - but we hope to claw back what money we are spending fairly quickly to save a little for the next thing. We're hoping it will lead to a bigger, better place still in our names and without major investment. Hopefully by then the banks will be lending to restaurants again.

How did you find Roganic's head chef, Ben Spalding? He'd heard on the grapevine that I was looking for a head chef and emailed me a few months ago after the funding on a restaurant he was setting up in Folkestone fell through. I'd obviously offered the job to Mark [Birchall, head chef of L'Enclume and the 2011 Roux Scholar] who ummed and aahed about it, but he's a northern lad and he's happy where he is. Ben came up to work at L'Enclume for a while and proved himself.

How much time will you spend in London? Well, Penny's going to be living down here so I would like to see her from time to time! L'Enclume will be my prime focus but I'll give as much time to London as it needs for it to succeed. When Ben's in his stride, everyone will be saying ‘Simon who?'

How will the food differ from L'Enclume? Roganic will have the same principles and philosophy as L'Enclume but Ben's parameters are a little wider to reflect London as a cosmopolitan city. It will be as British, local, seasonal and organic as possible. In Cartmel, everything has to be British but down here I'll be a bit more relaxed. We'll use a few suppliers from the North West because I believe their products are on a par with any others in the world. I'll probably travel with a cool box of flowers from the farm as well.

The way we're doing the menu, with no à la carte [as at L'Enclume], will probably cause a bit of controversy. Some people won't like it but hopefully those people won't come!

Do you think it will drive business to L'Enclume? I'm hoping that a little taster will push people north to L'Enclume, and vice versa. I hope the two places work well together.

Will you expect a visit from the guide books? Obviously I know the Michelin guide is out in October. That's not something that worries me here in London but I do worry about it for L'Enclume because I don't want Roganic to affect what that's got. Mark's been there for five-and-a-half years and the backbone of the kitchen remains at L'Enclume so - touch wood - everything is as it would be if I was there. We're still hungry up there so people had better not think we're taking our foot off the pedal. There are still things we haven't achieved.

A selection from the menu

â- Scarlet ball turnip baked in salt, smoked yolk, blite and wild mustard
â- Seawater-cured Kentish mackerel, sea beet, onions and honey
â- Shredded ox tongue, cucumber pickles and sourdough
â- Flaky crab and mallow cream, young squid and cucumber
â- Heritage potatoes in onion ashes, lovage and wood sorrel
â- Roasted brill, chicken salt, cockles and ruby chard
â- Cumbrian Herdwick hogget lamb, artichokes and chenopodiums
â- Sweet cicely with strawberry, buttermilk and verbena
â- Warm spiced bread with salted almonds, buckthorn curd and smoked clotted cream

Ten-course menu, £80
Five-course menu, £40 (lunch only)

Roganic 19 Blandford Street, London, W1U 3DH
020 7486 0380

The Roganic Team

Head chef
Ben Spalding Formerly of L'Autre Pied and Gary Rhodes W1, Spalding has also spent time at Per Se in New York, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Vue de Monde in Melbourne. He has done stages at the Fat Duck, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, the Capital and Bagatelle in Oslo

Sous chef
Andy Tomlinson Sous chef at L'Enclume for three years

Pastry chef
Glyn Gordon Pastry chef at L'Enclume for the last year-and-a-half

Restaurant manager
Jonathan Cannon Previously at Kensington Place

The dynamics of the Roganic deal

David Rawlinson is director of Restaurant Property, the agent that represented the Portman Estate on Roganic's Blandford Street deal. He explains why deals of this nature can work.

Deals like this are fairly rare because landlords usually want to maximise their rental income. The Portman Estate let the site to Simon at approximately half the market rent partly because he is an influential, opinion-forming tenant and partly because of the short lease.

There's nothing worse than having vacancies on your street. Far better, for the sake of some rental income, to have an influential tenant getting loads of PR for you than to have a void for two years.

It's a question of strategy. The smart estates think about long-term strategy whereas for an independent landlord, it's more about the finance. It's only going to suit those landlords who are happy to accept a low rent because they know there's a problem with the building or the length of lease.

For a building to be suitable, it has to be set up already as a restaurant because you can't spend half a million on fit-out and only have two years to recoup it.

An accessible site like this suits a destinational operator such as Simon. People will read about it and can easily get to it if they want to.

Landlords used to claim vacant rates relief but following legislation change in 2008, the onus is now on the landlord to pay the rates on an empty building. This puts pressure on landlords to get buildings let.

It wasn't uncommon during the depths of the recession for landlords to do nil rent deals purely because the tenant would cover their rate liabilities.

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