Simon Rogan, one of the country’s most revered chefs, has found a permanent location in Marylebone for his Roganic restaurant. He talks to the Journal about sustainable farming, getting the most out of simple ingredients, and why growing carrots is such a struggle
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Lisa Linder
It says a lot about Simon Rogan that, in his mind, one of the greatest things he has ever been involved in is installing his farm’s closed-loop waste management system. This is a chef who, at the time of writing, owns three restaurants, and two Michelin stars. L’Enclume, his flagship restaurant up in the rugged wilds of the Lake District, has become a destination, globally renowned both for its culinary creativity and because 95 per cent of its ingredients hail from the pristine farm on which it’s located.
“We’ve achieved a lot and we’re very thankful, but we’ve worked our butts off,” Simon tells me over a builder’s brew at the back of Roganic, his Marylebone outpost. His wife and business partner Penny, working at a nearby table, pricks up her ears. “We still do,” she exclaims, and Simon grins.
Roganic “mark two”, as Simon calls it—mark one being the pop-up restaurant that appeared on Blandford Street in 2011—is just one example of the Rogans’ recent exertions. The permanent Roganic sequel opened here back in January, “one of the worst months for a restaurant to open,” Simon sighs. “The completion took a lot longer to come to fruition than we’d hoped.”
It made for a turbulent beginning: “There is even more competition in London these days, and ‘dry veganuary’ is tough on restaurants.” Meanwhile, up north, the Beast from the East, Brexit and elections were creating a perfect storm both for the farm, and for L’Enclume’s reservations. Yet after eight years of hoping for his return to the area, food-lovers of Marylebone greeted Simon Rogan’s new venture with open arms.
Rogan food, the Rogan way
“It was amazing to be at Fera”—in Claridge’s, where Simon went after the Roganic pop-up popped down—“but a five-star hotel in Mayfair didn’t really match with the Rogan ethos. We needed somewhere a bit more exciting, with a bit more life to it,” he continues. “Marylebone has that.” He’s looking forward to serving Rogan food, the Rogan way, in a Rogan space. “In a hotel you have to provide so many different menus, including an à la carte, which we don’t do normally. We didn’t know what we were when we were there.”
For L’Enclume, a high-class restaurant operating far out of London, up a “terrible” motorway, or “vaguely better” railway line, having a presence in the city is vital: “It’s a shop window. London has the lion’s share of tourists and media attention.”
This chef’s enterprises are all underpinned by a shared ethos: produce-led, flavour driven, and rooted in nature. “Of course, we had that ethos at Fera. But we can be more confident here in saying, this is what we do: you either like it or lump it—and we can return to our core market, many of whom wouldn’t step foot in a five-star Mayfair hotel.”
Which brings us back, rather circuitously, to the closed-loop waste management system. Simon Rogan is more than a chef—or, rather, he is the ultimate chef. He’s a farmer. For Simon, the process of creating the perfect 21-day dry aged Cumbrian pork belly with carrot puree and glossy pork jus starts in the ground. “The farm is central to everything we do. Everything revolves around what it gives us and what’s coming.”
Like many chefs in their salad days, Simon spent the first part of his career dressing plates with weird and wonderful foraged plants—“which have their place,” he observes, “and we still use them occasionally, but it’s become a bit of an overused medium and as we’ve grown up, we have phased out that thinking. It might sound bizarre to say this, as a chef,” he continues, “but you’d be surprised how many chefs don’t follow the adage of only using ingredients that taste really good.” The farm is the focus; what little they still forage for comes from within its grounds, or areas they know well just outside it. “A lot of people use foraged ingredients because they sound and look clever, without tasting nice.”
Stepping away from this smokescreen has focused Simon’s attention on the farm and creating, from scratch, the finest, most flavoursome ingredients around. His are not vegetarian restaurants, but they do want to serve the sort of vegetable dishes that don’t leave you asking where the meat is—and when they do meat, they want it to be organically reared in the most ethical, sustainable way possible.
“It’s not vegetarianism or veganism, but it’s the next best thing,” says Simon of his waste management system, which sees everything bar glass and plastic recycled within the farm and restaurants. “Everything depends on each other. We grow fruits, herbs and vegetables alongside the pigs, ducks and geese, and any wasted green produce comes from the restaurants to the animals, which convert it to compost, which goes onto the crops. And so the cycle begins again.”
Simon is acutely aware of the problems posed by industrial livestock farming. He even lectures on it around the world. “I gave a talk in Manilla recently about the dangers of this sort of agriculture. Beef is being mass produced for fast food chains and cheap meat, on grain that could otherwise solve the world’s hunger problems. Then of course there’s the climatic impact—the greenhouse emissions from cattle farming is huge.”
Producing meat in a more sustainable fashion is just one part of the equation: in the past, farm animals would have been fed kitchen scraps and trimmings, not crops eligible for human consumption. The other, of course, is to produce less meat—a lot less—and elevate vegetables from their current role as support acts, to main events.
“That is what I think makes our restaurant so special: you don’t miss meat or fish in our vegetarian dishes. You don’t even think about it.” If his team were to finish planning a menu and find it offered not a scrap of animal protein, “it wouldn’t bother us. Our aim is to create a beautiful, tasty menu which is fulfilling, and one you’ll remember for a long time.”
Indeed, I can recall each and every Roganic mouthful now, though I ate there almost two months ago: a preserved raspberry tart, dainty and dazzling with sharp, pink sweetness; an onion broth poured from a glass teapot over cheddar dumplings, which melded lovingly into the dark, caramelised juices; a jewel-like juice of fermented beetroot and apple. Each one was presented with as much care as any rose veal cutlet. “We’re not a vegetarian restaurant,” Simon says again, “but vegetables are the stars here.”
He’s proud of his waste management system, of the farm, and of the vision that led to him abandoning his soft southerner roots and embracing a northern climate. “I’m from Hampshire. I wanted the New Forest, you know, somewhere like that, and my wife is from West Sussex,” he says, shooting her an amused glance. But when they came to start their own restaurant and saw the building they could get—“something we could never have got down south without borrowing horrendous amounts of money or relying on an investor”—in a beautiful Cumbrian village, he loved it. “And after some protesting, Penny came.”
They found an organic farm up the road and asked them to grow “forgotten herbs: hyssop, sweet cicely, woodruff and good king henry. I found them in old seed catalogues and looked up how to grow them,” he tells me. The farming proper didn’t commence until some years later, when the farm came up for sale. Frustrated by the quality of vegetables in the area, Simon looked into growing radishes there—“the simplest things, and yet we couldn’t find a decent one to buy.” The rest is history—and a pioneering model for the future of farming and chefing.
Simon talks a lot about “simple” food; about the innate value of good produce and having no more than three ingredients on a plate. His dishes belie this. Not that they’re complex—plump, verdant asparagus basted in bone marrow, nestled alongside a dipping pool of homemade hollandaise and leek ash is hardly Heston—but there is, he explains, “a lot that goes into those three ingredients. Often a simple plate of food has a long story.” The sauce might have been made on a rotary evaporator. The oil could have been spun on a centrifuge. He might be green-fingered in the garden, but Simon is no ingénue when it comes to cooking gadgets: his development kitchen, located next to L’Enclume, is home to some of the world’s most cutting-edge equipment.
“There’s a huge amount of work that goes into the preparation, but we do things to help the flavour along rather than change it—using low temperatures, avoiding unhealthy techniques, and keeping things as natural as possible.” So, the carrot puree quenelle served alongside the aged Cumbrian pork, so deeply orange and so profoundly, well, carroty was…? “Carrot cooked in carrot juice,” he smiles. “That’s a bit of an obvious one. Of course, a carrot cooked in carrot juice will have more flavour.” Yet when you’ve carrots as good as the carrots L’Enclume and Roganic have at their disposal, runs the argument, why do anything else?
Somewhat ironically, given the intensity of both their flavour and my memory of them, carrots are the hardest things to grow on Simon’s farm: “They always seem to be eaten by something—carrot fly, usually.” Saffron, wineberries, elkhorn fern, atsina cress snow and buckshorn plantain? No problem. Carrots? Absolute nightmare. Fortunately, Simon’s a patient man.
Deep forests, rustling hedgerows
He cut his teeth in the finest restaurants of Hampshire—the deep forests and rustling hedgerows that first drew him to foraging—before a stint under chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, which made him hungry for the bright lights of London and Paris. “London scared me at first,” he explains. “I had always been in the home counties. Then JC showed me there was more to life than plodding along, married with two kids, in a kitchen in Hampshire. He was a flamboyant, colourful character, and he opened my eyes as a restaurateur—even more than as a chef.”
From that moment, the world was his native oyster, delicately crowned with shivering trout roe and piquant pink leaves—another treat on the 17-strong tasting menu. He’s travelled thirstily ever since: the past six months have seen him popping up, cooking and lecturing in Manilla, Greece, Singapore and Hong Kong. With each country he visits, he brings back new seed varieties for his polytunnels. “I’ll try anything. We’re looking at moringa, vanilla and hemp seeds, and we’ve started growing wasabi.” While his trips abroad and to London continue to sow seeds in his mind as well as his farm, he is “always ready to get back among the sheep and the cows”—to the place where his “simple is beautiful” ethos entirely surrounds him.
As I leave Simon preparing to set off back to Cumbria, his first weekend off in a month, I get the same impression as I did weeks previously, rolling out of Roganic after 17 courses, complete with paper bags of scones and tea for the morning: that with his return to Marylebone, Simon has closed the circle, and come of age.