Establishing the UK’s top restaurant might be enough for some people, but not for Simon Rogan. Since launching L’Enclume in 2002, the internationally-renowned, perma-award-winning chef has not only turned a small Cumbrian village into a three Michelin-starred dining destination, but leveraged it to launch an international culinary empire (and even more Michelin stars).
Fairly impressive, considering said empire started with two in the kitchen, two in the restaurant, and one chambermaid – who doubled up as the pot washer.
“Even with that skeleton crew, I really don’t know how we survived,” says Rogan. “I mean I look back on those days thinking ‘jeeeeeesus’,” he says, raising his hands to his temples.
Even when L’Enclume earned its first Michelin star, in 2005, Rogan wasn’t convinced he could achieve much more. In his own estimations, he was just another young chef inspired by the Golden Age of British gastronomy.
“I was fortunate to come through my training at the most inspirational time – where you had the likes of the Roux brothers, Marco Pierre White, John Burton-Race, Pierre Kaufmann, Raymond Blanc,” he says, “these guys shaped our futures.”
Today, Rogan’s imprint on the industry is larger than almost all of the chefs he referenced.
A pioneer of the UK’s farm-to-table movement, he took over a local farm in 2011, Our Farm, and made the generation-defining vow to grow sustainable produce worthy of his Michelin-starred restaurant.
L’Enclume’s second star followed shortly thereafter and, after many years of telling people it was more important to grow food correctly than cook food correctly, its third, seemingly-impossible-to-get star was finally awarded on the restaurant’s 20th anniversary.
“As someone coming into the industry, three Michelin stars is the dream. That is the ultimate accolade,” he says. “Not saying that you’ll ever get there – and I never probably thought I’d never get there – but to actually achieve it was a major thing.
“It even amazes me how much we have achieved, how much it is loved, and how much is out there on the world’s stage. I’m extremely proud and humbled by it.”
Of course, L’Enclume was just the start. As our conversation turned to the extensive list of successful launches his restaurant group, UMBEL, has opened in the last decade (not least of which, fellow Michelin star-carrying Rogan & Co, Henrock, and Roganic Hong Kong), words like “humbled”, “shocked” and “grateful” pepper every sentence.
“I don’t think we had much vision, to be honest,” Rogan laughs. “I went into L’Enclume and didn’t really even think where the customers would come from, opening it in a middle of nowhere village in the North of England,” he admits. “The first objective was survival.”
Tricky as it is to survive in the food industry, a few of Rogan’s restaurants weren’t spared, either. In fact, even L’Enclume’s found itself in jeopardy from time to time.
“We’ve been through three or four big financial crises in our time,” he says. “In 2008, our bankers at the time told us to wind up. We’d just opened Rogan & Com but it was making a lot of money and losing a lot of money at the same time.”
A few bad hires and accounting issues were to blame, according to Rogan, but he hadn’t yet earned the experience to deal with it easily.
“I think I went into that meeting with our accountants thinking ‘this is just a regular meeting’, then they told us ‘this business is not viable’, and I was like ‘no f***ing way!’. It was the biggest shock of our lives,” he says.
Determined to hold onto his restaurants, he sold half of his home to pay his staff, and vowed never to repeat his mistakes. “That was the day we became business people.”
In the fifteen years since, Rogan and his team have kept eagle eyes on every cost the business incurs – particularly at restaurant level. “I don’t think there’s many three-star restaurants that probably do that,” he says. “At that level most restaurants have rich backers, rich investors, and they don’t really care about losing money. We have to make money, you know? We’re not a loss-making business. If we make money, we reinvest it back into the business.”
Our Farm, which has been of enormous value to the group over the last decade, has also been the recipient of most of the business’ reinvestment.
“It has been like throwing money into a bottomless pit over the years,” Rogan says with a comedy grimace. “Crop failures, manpower – the weather is very challenging in Cumbria and last year was probably the worst year ever. We had months of darkness and coldness and rain, and things don’t like to grow much in those conditions.”
And yet, it thrives under Rogan’s leadership, providing 80 percent of the produce used across his restaurants. “Honestly, it’s harder to run the farm than it is to win a Michelin star,” he laughs.
Challenges ushered in by the global pandemic prompted Rogan to innovate further, in another bid to save his restaurants, leading to the launch of Home by Simon Rogan in 2020—a delivery service that brought his culinary expertise into the homes of patrons. A success. Albeit another step away from the kitchen.
In his slow-burned shift from chef to CEO, Rogan has now handed the majority of his restaurant leadership over to chefs who’ve trained under him. Chefs, he tells me, who are younger and hungrier. Simon Rogan 2.0s.
I ask if he misses it. It’s the first audible breath he takes in an hour.
“I’m probably approaching the sort of end of my career now at my age,” he says, “and, you know, when I look back over the years it’s been a long, long winding road.”
The last three years have been the biggest for Rogan, and UMBEL, yet. As well as earning his first three-Michelin star accreditation at L’Enclume, he opened The Simon Rogan Academy, which offers 18-month apprenticeships providing hands-on learning across the restaurant group, won Roganic Hong Kong first Michelin Green Star (to complement its ‘normal’ star), launched Aulis Phuket (the group’s first Thai outpost), and opened a bakery-cum-natural wine bar, The Baker & The Bottleman, in Hong Kong.
“The UK is in very tough conditions, so driving that market from around the world – and obviously keeping winning things – is hopefully going to see through,” he says. “Thankfully, there are places where we’re operating that seem to be a lot more fruitful than the UK, so these help with our UK business.
“I say to the guys when I’m back in Cartmel, ‘you know I have been working for you’,” he laughs. “Not, sort of, galavanting.”
He actually hates the travel, he tells me, but relishes in the rewards it reaps for his chefs. Not least of which, the ability to now invest in their own restaurants.
Tom Barnes confirms he will open his first restaurant, Skof, in Manchester in spring 2024, with a vision to create an unpretentious yet ambitious dining experience in the North.
Skof, the restaurant baby of Rogan alumni Tom Barnes (Rogan & Co, L’Enclume), will be UMBEL’s first big investment of the sort, set to open this spring.
“He’s given me 12 years of his life and he’s been a massive part of our success,” says Rogan, referring to Barnes’ Michelin star-award-winning tenure at both restaurants. “Our reward to him is backing him in his own restaurant, because he’s super ambitious and he wants to make his own name. He’s going to absolutely smash it. He’s going to be absolutely huge.”
While he knows hes hired a number of capable chefs who would be able to create beautiful restaurants with impeccable menus, his own business hiccups – and lessons learned – have motivated him to move into mentorship. “I see us as a group, a lot more, helping them go into business. They have the passion, they have the talent, but they don’t know about the financials, HR, and stuff like that. With this, they’ve got the full power of our group behind them so they go off and just create.”
Naturally, this also means Rogan won’t ever ‘lose’ talent. “You know, we’ll always maintain part of Tom’s business because…well, we hope it’s gonna make us money,” he laughs. “Obviously that’s at the top of the tree, but it’s important he’s still connected. We don’t want to lose people completely. We put a lot of time and effort into people as well as investing in them, so it’s nice to get a little bit back. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
As we talk through the number of chefs Rogan has found himself fortunate enough to work with over the years, both Barnes and Oli Marlow (The Fat Duck, Eleven Madison Park, et al-turned-UMBEL veteran) come up repeatedly. If Barnes is his left-hand man, he tells me, Oli Marlow is his right. “I would walk over hot coals for them.”
“I think Oli is a company man,” Rogan continues. “You know, I could be wrong, but at the end of the day I think Oli will be the man that steps into my shoes. Be the person that becomes the new me,” he says.
What this sounds like to me, I tell him, is that he seems much further away from hanging up the apron that he keeps suggesting.
Rogan laughs. “No, not quite yet. Of course not. There’s this amazing team around me – wanting to push even more boundaries — so I’m just along for the ride, to be honest. I’m not quite on the Zimmer Frame yet but they give me energy I didn’t think I had.”
For now, that energy is focused on entering more international markets. Arguably, to feed back into the UK.
“I’ve got unfinished business in London,” he smirks, referencing Roganic London’s surprise closure just before COVID, after a location fell through, “and New York and Hong Kong are obviously high on our shopping list. They’re amazing tick boxes.”
As are more Michelin stars, I suggest, noting Aulis London’s permanently-booked chef’s table restaurant has yet to receive its first.
“I’m very, very, very proud,” Rogan says, with a hopeful nod. “Let’s see what happens on February 5th [The Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland announcement date], eh?”