If Simon Rogan had any inkling that he was about to finally achieve his dream of running a three-star restaurant then he should consider a second career as a poker player.
Michelin came to L’Enclume last month under the (entirely plausible) pretence of celebrating 20 years of the then two-starred Lake District restaurant. Rogan was busy plating up dishes for the video when Michelin’s international director Gwendal Poullennec approached him bearing the three-star jacket.
Caught on camera, Rogan’s reaction was one of complete surprise swiftly followed by an uncharacteristic display of emotion as two-decades of toil finally paid off. “We got there boys. We got there,” he says.
It was an especially poignant moment given that a big part of Rogan thought he’d never get there. Just weeks before Michelin’s visit Rogan was celebrating L’Enclume’s 20th birthday in the Lake District; when asked whether his flagship – which had been stuck on two stars for over a decade - would ever achieve a third he appeared resigned to the fact that it would not, although he was clear he thought it was good enough.
Standing out from the crowd
It is difficult to overstate how much of a moment the restaurant’s ascension to three-star status is. L’Enclume is the first restaurant that’s not in London or Bray to get full marks in Michelin’s UK and Ireland Guide and Rogan is only the fourteenth chef ever to wear the three-star jacket for a UK restaurant, following in the footsteps of such culinary luminaries as Michel and Albert Roux, Pierre Koffmann and Marco Pierre White.
“These people are my heroes. I was training when they were at their peak,” says Rogan, reflecting on the news. “To have equalled their achievement is an amazing thing and I also feel honoured to join the current three-stars."
He is probably being a bit too modest. While Rogan keeps a fairly low-profile, the 55-year-old chef has had a marked and far-reaching influence on the UK’s restaurant scene with his naturalistic cooking and plating style having been replicated up and down the country with varying degrees of success.
What’s perhaps even more significant about L’Enclume’s promotion is that it doesn’t have the feel of a typical three-star restaurant. While some have undone their metaphorical top button in recent years, three-star restaurants are clean-cut, regimented affairs. L’Enclume, with its whitewashed walls, tiled flooring, open fires and absence of tablecloths is, by contrast, verging on the rustic.
The restaurant also takes a much more freeform approach to its front of house. Yes, the service at Rogan’s flagship is polished with the team able to organise themselves to put dishes down at the table at the same moment but the overall experience is friendly and down-to-earth with the front of house team made up of young, smiley and largely local staff.
All this results in an experience that is far more relaxed: people might not quite swing from L'Enclume's exposed rafters, but the atmosphere is more akin to a buzzy gastropub than a hushed temple of gastronomy.
“I’d even say it can get a bit rowdy,” says Rogan, when this is pointed out to him. “People relax and enjoy themselves. A few of our more recent Michelin inspections happened on nights where people were really letting their hair down. After all the lockdowns people want to enjoy themselves. They don’t want to have to mind their airs and graces.”
Not speaking French
So why now, after 20 years in business, has the red book finally decided to bestow its highest accolade on L’Enclume? Like Rene Redzepi’s Noma, another restaurant known for its trail-blazing naturalistic approach and which routinely missed out on three stars for years until finally achieving them almost 20 years in, many in the industry believe L’Enclume should have been given the full set years before.
“The past two years have been awful. But if there was one positive to come from it for me it was that I was able to be in The Lakes almost constantly"
Has Michelin finally fully woken up to Rogan’s, and indeed Redzepi’s, style of cooking? Rogan has his own thoughts on this. He believes L’Enclume’s focused and settled team led by Tom Barnes and Paul Burgalières as well as his own near constant presence in the kitchen over the past two years due to the pandemic has played a significant role in finally getting it over the line.
“The past two years have been awful. But if there was one positive to come from it for me it was that I was able to be in The Lakes almost constantly,” he says. “We knew we’d had a great couple of years and were just keeping our heads down.”
With the possible exception of The Fat Duck, L’Enclume is the first restaurant in the UK and Ireland to have been awarded three stars serving a menu that does not have its roots in French cooking.
Although initially influenced by the French three-star chef Marc Veyrat, Rogan has forged his own culinary identity at L’Enclume by combining a restrained use of modern technique with a naturalistic approach.
He also has far more control over the produce the kitchen uses than most chefs, with the majority of L’Enclume’s vegetables, herbs and fruits grown at his nearby 12-acre Our Farm.
L’Enclume’s £195 tasting menu (a smaller £100 tasting menu is available at lunch) is accessible - at least from a culinary If not a financial perspective. “I like to please everyone these days” says Rogan. “We remain a progressive restaurant and we like to try new things but we don’t do it in a risky way where it is potentially at the expense of the customer. I don’t ever want anyone to leave L’Enclume having had a bad experience.”
The long road to three stars
With its relaxed, relatively informal approach and distinctive, non-Francophile cooking L’Enclume has won three stars on its own terms, with Rogan having never consciously done anything to placate the people behind the little red book.
“There’s no arrogance in the kitchen but we cook how we cook,” he insists. “I’ve always been a chef that is constantly trying to make things better. This coupled with us being a very seasonal kitchen means that things change constantly here, which is not necessarily a good thing from a guidebook’s perspective.”
The Southampton-born chef has never been one to conform. Having come up under the likes of Jean Christophe Novelli and Paris-based three-star chef Alain Senderens, he hit a wall when he came to the point in his career he was running restaurants for other people.
“I worked for a number of owners and it never worked out because we did not share the same vision or have the same goals. Maybe I’ve been unlucky with my employers, maybe they would say that they were unlucky to employ me.”
Rogan therefore struck out on his own relatively early on his career, launching L’Enclume in 2002 at the age of 35 with his partner Penny Tapsell.
Things were tough at first. The build overran angering many of the locals who were already nonplussed about a southern interloper showing up in their village. The remote location didn’t help either, but Rogan persisted – often with a worryingly empty dining room - winning L’Enclume’s first star in 2005.
He found his own style early but strayed from the naturalistic approach that is now his hallmark around the end of the noughties. “We got a bit side-tracked by technique and what was going on with Spain in Japan. There was also a bit of a ‘I’ll cook what I like, and if you don’t like it sod off’ attitude,” says Rogan, rather bashfully. “We got a bit molecular and experimental. We opened ourselves up to criticism because it wasn’t for everyone. Fortunately we came out the other side.”
L’Enclume’s return to its naturalistic roots coincided roughly with the appointment of Sam Ward as maître d’. Born and raised a few miles from Cartmel, Ward had worked at Rogan & Co – the group’s more casual restaurant just down the road from L’Enclume – in his early twenties but had moved to London restaurants including The Ritz before returning to Cumbria as a high-flying young front of house professional.
“We got a bit molecular and experimental. We opened ourselves up to criticism because it wasn’t for everyone. Fortunately we came out the other side”
Initially brought in to lighten up the service style at L’Enclume, Ward proved invaluable to the operation as a whole and is now managing director and a partner in the business along with Rogan and Tapsell.
“The service wasn’t excessively formal because Simon is not a very formal person,” says Ward, who likes to tease Rogan that the restaurant’s second star arrived a few months after he rejoined the business. “He just wanted me to soften it a bit. We took away the tablecloths, which was a much bigger deal in 2012 than it is now.”
L’Enclume’s promotion to two stars was a catalyst for growth, with Umbel Restaurant Group delivering two high-profile hotel restaurant projects in the space of just a few years: The Midland in Manchester in 2013 and Fera at Claridge’s in 2014.
Neither of the partnerships were great successes. Rogan pulled out of his The French by Simon Rogan and Mr Cooper’s House & Garden restaurants at The Midland three years into a five-year contract. Fera fared a little better, winning a star just a few months after opening. However, after receiving mixed reviews and failing to make much of an impact on the capital’s restaurant scene it closed four years after launch.
“We were so excited about the prospect of opening in those cities and a bit too young as a business to be taking on those sorts of projects. We probably didn’t ask enough questions,” Ward admits.
“The common denominator for those two projects were that we weren’t in charge,” adds Rogan. “We were at the mercy of the owners. And it turned out that we did not feel that comfortable in that sort of environment."
The pair have applied these learnings to their current crop of partnerships, namely the group’s trio of restaurants in Hong Kong - Aulis, Roganic and The Baker & The Bottleman - and his Linthwaite House restaurant Henrock that opened in October 2019.
“We’re more confident now,” says Ward. “We ask the right questions. But the biggest lesson we have learnt is that if you’re clashing with your partner at the heads of terms stage it’s probably not a good start. It can’t be an us and them situation. We need to do it together.”
Rogan and Ward are tight-lipped about their expansion plans but say there are at least a couple of things in their pipeline. But they can’t resist teasing the possibility of the group backing some house-grown talent - both existing staff members and alumni - in creating their own restaurants.
“I would not say I’m scared of growth but I am aware of the flaws it can bring,” says Ward. “I’ve seen groups crumble. You look behind a lot of these groups and they’re not actually groups but brands that have lots of different companies behind them. There is nothing wrong with that model whatsoever, but we are different. We have no investors. There are three owners - Simon, Penny and myself.”
The group’s most recent opening – Hong Kong bakery and natural wine bar The Baker & The Bottleman – has been conceived as something that can scale fairly easily. “It’s something we could see growing in a different way to our other projects,” Wards adds. It’s the only thing in our portfolio that does not have the By Simon Rogan tag.”
And what of Roganic? Launched in Marylebone in 2017 following a successful pop-up of the same name, the concept has since proved to be a tale of two cities. While the permanent iteration in London closed during the first lockdown and is yet to reopen (the group has come close to exiting it twice but deals have fallen though at the last minute and thus still pays rent on it even though it is not trading) the second outpost in Hong Kong has fared much better (see boxout).
“I would not say I’m scared of growth but I am aware of the flaws it can bring. I’ve seen groups crumble"
“We got it badly wrong,” Rogan admits of the London Roganic. “Customers have a different attitude to permanent restaurants than they do to pop-ups.”
That said, Rogan isn’t ready to pull the plug on it quite yet, and it might make a return in the capital at some point.
More promising for the business during lockdown was the success of its at home meal kits. While a lot of restaurants and restaurant groups have quietly ditched their pandemic-born meal kits, Umbel Restaurant Group is keeping it going. Indeed, Home by Simon Rogan has been so successful that Ward is about to move the entire operation to a 22,000sq ft industrial unit a few miles away from Cartmel that will also house the group’s head office, e-commerce business and preservation operation.
“A typical week is between 250 and 350 meals. It’s significant,” says Ward. “The demographic is interesting. We get a lot of young parents ordering who want to put the kids to bed and have a date night without the hassle and expense of a babysitter. And we also have a lot of orders from single diners that don’t feel comfortable eating out.”
Home by Simon Rogan is highly complementary to Umbel Restaurant Group’s wider business in The Lakes because it allows the group to offer staff that struggle to work regular restaurant hours an alternative option. Having a network of other businesses nearby also at least partly solves one of the biggest issues with the mealkits model.
“There are obviously big peaks and troughs,” Ward explains. “We did 1,200 six-course meals at Christmas but a typical week is 250-350 meals. Home by Simon Rogan and the preservation operation are run by a team of around 10 but because it’s just one part of a much larger machine we can get staff from the other restaurants to help out at key times.”
This approach, with staff able to swarm to where they are most needed, is also employed within the Umbel Restaurant Group’s growing external catering arm.
Reflecting on 20 years
Has the 20-year anniversary and now the three stars caused Rogan to reflect? Sort of, but one gets the sense that he just wants to get on with the next 20 years.
“We’ve got big plans. I don’t want to get distracted,” he says, as if the Michelin accolade was a mere diversion rather than marking a seminal point in his career.
"I’m probably approaching the end of my career as a cook. But I’m surrounded by talented people that are totally capable of keeping things going, not least Tom and Paul"
“Everyone keeps telling me that we should celebrate it and we should, it’s a massive achievement. Especially as Penny and I created this business using only our own means. We don’t have a rich benefactor. It’s been a long journey. We’ve nearly gone down a few times. But since Sam has been at the helm things have really taken off.”
Does Rogan want L’Enclume to go on when he eventually hangs up his whites? “Absolutely. I’m probably approaching the end of my career as a cook. But I’m surrounded by talented people that are totally capable of keeping things going, not least Tom and Paul. Hopefully Penny and I will be able to sit back and reap the benefits of our struggle at some point.”
But before that, he’s got to get on with the running of a three Michelin star restaurant. Though he was not confident about getting the third star, having now achieved it he is confident about holding onto it.
“We were good enough to get three stars doing what we do now. For that reason I don’t feel pressure. We just keep moving. Hopefully the changes we will make over the coming years to what we offer will further strengthen our position.”
A not so Umbel empire
With his Umbel Restaurant Group Simon Rogan has built a collection of restaurants that spans The Lake District and Hong Kong.
Simon Rogan’s flagship opened in 2002 in an 800-year-old former blacksmiths (L’Enclume is French for ‘the anvil’). It is unquestionably one of the UK’s most influential places to eat. Located in the centre of Cartmel, the restaurant won its first star in 2005 and a second in 2013. It received a third star from Michelin’s UK and Ireland guide earlier this year, making history as the first ever restaurant outside London or the Berkshire village of Bray to do so. The restaurant is now close to being self-sufficient with the bulk of its produce grown on Rogan’s 12-acre nearby Our Farm (there are also plans afoot for the restaurant to keep once again its own livestock). On top of recently receiving full marks from Michelin, the iconic Cartmel restaurant has received a rare 10/10 from The Good Food Guide no less than five times and has been a constant presence on BigHospitality’s list of the top 100 places to eat in the UK since the award’s launched in 2007 (it’s currently ranked 5th).
Rogan & Co
Pitched as a more relaxed ‘neighbourhood’ restaurant, Rogan & Co launched a few minutes down the road from L’Enclume in 2008 and was awarded a Michelin star in 2018. Overseen by Liam Fitzpatrick, the menu has a similar culinary philosophy to Rogan’s flagship but is heartier and more approachable. As of next month, Rogan & Co will switch from a la carte to offering a three-course set menu with extras for £79. The space is also used as the breakfast room for Rogan’s 16 bedrooms and suites, which are dotted throughout the village.
Roganic began life as a two-year pop-up on Marylebone’s Blandford Street in 2011. Rogan relaunched the concept a few doors down from the original in 2017 shortly after leaving Fera at Claridge’s. The second iteration of Roganic wasn’t as well-received as the original (although it did win a star), taking flack for its high prices and relatively basic décor. The pandemic saw the site close permanently with Rogan at the time saying there were plans ‘in the pipeline’ to bring Roganic to a new London location. Launched in 2019 following a sellout pop-up, Roganic Hong Kong has been a hit, attracting the city’s first ever Green star as well as a regular star.
Rogan’s chef’s table and development kitchen concept started life in the same building that houses L’Enclume in 2010 and has now been exported to London (2017) and Hong Kong (2018). The food style is similar to L’Enclume but – due to the kitchen counter setup – the experience is more personal, giving diner front row seats to the group’s development process. Umbel Restaurant group is considering increasing the size of Aulis London to bring it more in line with Hong Kong, which has a dozen covers.
Rogan’s restaurant at Linthwaite House hotel – which overlooks Lake Windermere – launched just ahead of the pandemic and therefore had a bumpy start. But things are now looking up with a new head chef at the helm and the restaurant having benefited greatly from The Lakes’ increased visitor numbers (the luxurious yet relatively down-to-earth hotel is ideally located for walkers). The a la carte menu is a significant departure for the group because it looks beyond its immediate surrounds for inspiration and – in some cases – its ingredients. Umbel Restaurant Group oversees the whole of the F&B at the hotel, which is part of the Leeu Collection.
The Baker & The Bottleman
The most recent restaurant in Umbel Restaurant Group’s is a bakery by day and a natural wine bar by night. Launched at the tail end of last year in Hong Kong, the restaurant has been a smash hit even with the city’s rather extreme Covid-19 measures. The Baker & The Bottleman has been designed as something that could scale and is the first site in the group not to use the By Simon Rogan tagline in its branding.
People power: Rogan's answer to recruitment
Umbel Restaurant Group's partnership with Kendal College is set to make a big impact in The Lakes
When it comes to recruitment Umbel Restaurant Group has an ace up its sleeve in the form of its The Academy By Simon Rogan. Developed in collaboration with nearby Kendal College, the initiative has so far trained two cohorts, one made up of around 15 fledgling chefs and another smaller group of front of house. Both groups have worked across Umbel Restaurant Group while obtaining standard industry qualifications with the experience culminating with an all expenses-paid placement at the group’s two Hong Kong restaurants.
The next step is for the group to reach out to young people earlier in their educational journey. “There’s a secondary school right here in Cartmel that offers food technology as one of its GCSEs,” says Umbel managing director Simon Ward. “That’s the point you want to get them, but we weren’t talking to them. The kids were being asked to pay up to £100 a year for ingredients. We’re now funding that and sending our head chefs in regularly. The aim is for secondary schools to feed the academy and the academy to feed our restaurants.”
If it works as Ward and Simon Rogan hope, the project will produce far more trainees than Umbel Restaurant Group can take on. The plan is for those people to be put forward for entry-level roles at other restaurants In The Lakes. “In general staffing is tough up here. If we can provide other restaurants and hotels in the area with a steady supply of good staff that's massive.”