Simon Rogan recently announced that he will be launching his first restaurant in Thailand later this year, Aulis Phuket inside Iniala Beach House. Savour’s founding editor, Georga Spottiswood, chats with the entrepreneur about his 20-year-plus career and the empire he has built from the grassroots.
He’s a man who’s built an empire from the grassroots starting with L’Enclume, in Cartmel, Cumbria – which now has three Michelin stars.
From this “little northern restaurant in the middle of nowhere which was set up on a shoestring” back in 2002, Simon Rogan has grown his businesses to a considerable scale – and he now owns a total of 10 restaurants around the world, with his tenth opening in Thailand this December.
Along with his restaurants in Cumbria, London, Hong Kong, Malta and now Thailand, Simon also owns Our Farm, in Cartmel Valley where his team of chefs select what’s grown and harvested for his UK venues. He owns Our Rooms, a number of bedrooms and suites dotted around Cartmel and within walking distance of L’Enclume and Rogan &Co – his one Michelin-starred restaurant.
There’s Our Shop by Simon Rogan which can be found in the Medieval Priory Gatehouse in Cartmel, offering Simon’s own range of produce and kitchen equipment – and all the items can be found on his online store, too. Plus, The Academy by Simon Rogan – a culinary course in collaboration with Kendal College.
As well as achieving the highest rating of three Michelin stars at L’Enclume, Simon is also the holder of a Michelin Green Stars – which highlights restaurants at the forefront of the industry when it comes to their sustainable practices.
No investors. No one else’s “millions to take any shortcuts”, just one man – surrounded by a dedicated and passionate team – on a mission to “make a difference’.
How would you describe the real Simon Rogan and can you explain why you love what you do so much?
I suppose I’m sort of one of those people who is never satisfied. I’m very determined to get what I want. I’m always pushing, always trying to make things better every single day. Searching for that perfection I know will never be reached because you can never be perfect, in my opinion.
I just love creating things, I love the buzz of doing something new, something different and being at the forefront. A bit of a show-off I suppose.
When I set off on the L’Enclume journey, and when I was going through the ranks, I worked or was around some of the top guys. It was the generation of Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc, the Roux brothers, Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann – these guys were legends. These guys spawned a whole generation of chefs, they’re responsible for where the UK culinary scene is at the moment.
I always thought, ‘if I could achieve half as much as what they have in their careers when I hang up my apron and be remembered as someone who really made a difference that would make me happy,’ and that’s always been my main inspiration. That’s what I want. It’s what drives me on really. Other than the fact I’ve got an amazing team. If I didn’t have an amazing team, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now. I’d be retired around a pool in Santa Fe somewhere. But I’ve got a big team, a young team, a hungry team, and they’re hungry for more. I’m just going along for the ride now. They’re invigorating me. Yes, I’m the Chairman if you like, I’m at the forefront and I’m the face but these guys push me.
You’ve got the restaurants in Cumbria, London, Hong Kong, and Malta. Plus, Simon Rogan Academy, e-commerce platforms and Our Farm – which provides 75% of the produce to the UK restaurants. You’ve got an established accommodation arm to the business, and you’ve got lots of other collaborations with other brands going on. How have you managed to scale businesses to this empire you have today?
We have a lot of long-timers and we look at the strength and depth of projects when we are presented with them. We turn down a lot more projects than we take on, I’ll tell you that. We get a lot of invitations to open in different places as well. We look at the ones we’re really interested in, we look at the strength and depth at that time; who can be promoted into the senior positions in that project and who can shuffle up behind them when we remove them from a restaurant. All the senior managers in all our restaurants around the world have come through L’Enclume. They’ve got the business running through their veins.
For instance, Ash [Ashley Salmon], who’s the executive chef in Hong Kong, has worked for me for 10 years. He started off as a commis chef at L’Enclume, worked his way through to sous chef and then went to Rogan and Company, before getting promoted to head chef in Hong Kong.
What better way for people to be inspired than to see our team move through the ranks to a position like that? That’s how we manage to retain the team – and we have young, hungry people coming up behind them.
You’ve been in business for quite some time. What key lessons have you learned along the way?
Millions of things. Never take anything for granted. That’s the key thing. No matter how good you think you are. I mean, we’ve been in all sorts of muddles over the years, whether it’s called arrogance or be it complacency, but you take each day that comes. I know that’s an old cliche, but we look at each day and say, we’re going to make our business better every single day. Once you start losing that, then you might as well give up.
The team building is really important. You have to really look after the people around you, because you’re only as good as the team that surrounds you. I think when I started L’Enclume maybe I was a little bit of a fiery character. I worked for the guys that I mentioned before and in the regimental kitchens and maybe I wasn’t as nice as I should have been because I was a new business owner, ambitious, and impatient.
I wanted things to be perfect straight away. I think you’ve got to really start acting with humility and some honesty fairly early on. As I grew older and wiser, I realised you get further and better by being that way.
I think it’s very important for a rural restaurant like ours to be really connected to its surroundings. Embracing the people that are in that area as much as possible and bringing them into the fold. When I first arrived in Cartmel it wasn’t all moonlight and roses, but I threw a party for everyone and then everything was amazing after that.
You mentioned that you’ve been in a few muddles. Has there ever been a time throughout your career when you’ve thought, “I just want to give up?
Never but there have been times where it could have been taken away from us. No doubt about that. We have had a few financial crises where things have got really hairy. I think it was the one in 2008, the really bad one, and our bank at the time told us to wind things up. That was where it could have all gone. It wasn’t L’Enclume that was the problem it was Rogan and Company, we had overspent and it was dragging L’Enclume down. I remember saying to the bank manager, “There’s no ‘effing way we are ever going to do that.”
Luckily, we had an asset to sell to keep the business going. We sold it and then changed our bank – and we never looked back since. That’s when it all changed for me, I kept my costs and financials in order. Before that, I was the eternal optimist and I’d throw money at things. I’d buy stuff and not worry about it too much because I thought quality would breed numbers. Numbers would always come no matter how much money you spent – but that’s a stupid idea. I became a realist at that moment and that’s why the company has gone from strength to strength.
It’s not all me, we’ve got a good financial team as well. Sam Ward, the managing director, he’s really on things, big time. As a company, we’re quite tight.
From a personal perspective, have I ever wanted to give up? You see your mates out on a Saturday night out and you’re working, you miss your children, you miss your family. I mean, it resulted in pretty much the failure of my first marriage.
I don’t think I’ve ever sort of not wanted it because of the conditions or the pay or anything like that. I’ve always craved adversity, to be honest, but in the early part of your career, you’re always questioning whether you really want to do this. But I don’t know how to quit. It doesn’t make sense to me. So, I keep going.
What does success mean to you?
Having a sound financial footing is obviously very, very important. Especially when you start with very little, it’s quite an achievement. I think it’s successful to build something like we have. Being able to grow is very important to me. I like to create a lot of excitement by going to other places and doing new things. Accolades are very important too, they’re great. I think I’ve achieved pretty much every accolade I set out to achieve, but it always goes back to ‘making a difference’.
I’m content with where I am after all these years. If someone said, “You’ve got to give up tomorrow,” I’d be content.
Do you have any regrets from over the years?
No, I don’t think so. I think things happen for a reason. You take them on the chin, if it makes you a better person or if it makes your business better.
Penny, my wife, might say I’ve wasted quite a lot of money over the years, that I’m buying rubbish. Maybe I’d like some of that money back now, but no real big regrets.
What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
I would have to say opening the doors at L’Enclume. That’s what’s made all the rest of my life possible. It’s been a long, hard slog and it probably would have happened quicker if I was in the South, to be quite honest.
When I came to Cartmel the guys that owned the freehold told me: “It’s all right being in the South. It’s all boom and bust. You’re there one minute. You’ve gone the next. But if you come up here, you can build, it’ll be slower, but you’ll build a solid footing and a much stronger business being in the North.” I didn’t really know whether to believe them, but it’s still got an element of truth in it. I thank them for that.
The three stars are probably the pinnacle of a chef’s achievement. There aren’t that many. There aren’t that many in the UK. There aren’t many in the world, so to join that club is pretty special, finally after many disappointments – but we got them. Any chef that says that isn’t important is a lie. The Good Food Guide as well, and the AA, and all the other accolades, we’re thankful for them all.
Farm to Table Dining is one of the core things that you deliver, and Our Farm launched in 2011 to strengthen the link between growing, developing and cooking. Why is sustainability important to you?
It’s the right thing to do and I like doing the right things. I mean, it’s essential and one of the biggest reasons for where we are today. It’s an ethos that people really relate to; connecting to your surroundings and creating that sense of place, which people come to this area for.
We’re not importing our vegetables and fruit. It’s all from just around the corner. It’s something that’s been instilled in me from a very young age, and I don’t like to waste anything. I love creating, I love growing. I love the thought of – and I don’t really get to do it much these days because of my busy schedule – pottering around on the farm in the morning, doing a bit of watering and maybe a bit of weeding and picking. It is the best place to be in the whole world. I absolutely love it and now we’re picking those ingredients fresh out of the ground and then literally an hour later they’re being served from someone’s plate.
I’ve got fruit and vegetables in my blood as my dad was a fruit and vegetable salesman, and he got me really interested in ingredients. He used to come home with goody bags, sometimes I didn’t even know the items that were in them. That ignited my curiosity and I became really interested in cooking because of that.
How do the overseas businesses differ from the UK and how are the businesses doing over there?
Apartments in Hong Kong are very, very expensive and they have tiny kitchens – purely for the fact everybody eats out. That’s why there are millions of restaurants in Hong Kong.
We’ve deliberately placed Roganic and Aulis [Simon’s 12-seater chef’s table that sits alongside Roganic] in a very competitive price bracket. It’s not in a fashionable area, but all the main Michelin-star restaurants are in Central Hong Kong, and we’re in Causeway Bay. It’s very well priced, aggressively priced for a Michelin-star restaurant and probably the cheapest Michelin-star restaurant in Hong Kong. It’s been amazing and I’m humbled by how it’s done and how it’s been embraced and how much people love it.
I love our products there. When we went there, we said people were asking what the food style was. Were we going to fuse our style with an Asian style and rubbish like that? We unashamedly doing what we do here in the UK. We’re using British produce only and try to do things in the right way. People said it couldn’t be done, you’re in Hong Kong, where you’re going to get your produce from. But if you look hard enough and you’re determined, you will find what you’re looking for. And sure enough, we found lots of organic farms. We buy cabbages from them and beetroot from them. I’m glad to say that really started in something in Hong Kong, we were the first restaurant to get a Green Star there.
Do you ever get time to relax?
At the moment, no. I don’t have any time to relax. That is the honest answer. I’ve really stitched myself up this year. Over the new restaurants, the pop-ups. I’ve done lots of conferences, it’s been back-to-back stuff. I suppose that’s probably because of the three stars. The world is really interested in this little restaurant in the North of England – and I think we’ve got a pretty big story to tell, so I’ve been going around the world to tell it. If I do get a couple of days off, I’m normally just sitting in the garden or just chilling or on a bike.
Finally, if you could offer a bit of advice to anyone working in the hospitality sector, what would it be?
I think the main thing that we’ve shown here [L’Enclume] is that anything is possible. There’s this little northern restaurant in the middle of nowhere which was set up on a shoestring, gone through many financial crises, and it’s all independently owned. We’ve never had any outside investment; I’ve not had other people’s millions to take any shortcuts. It’s all been gradual, it’s sustainable. To finally achieve three Michelin Stars shows dreams can really happen. If you’re determined and passionate about what you do, you don’t give up.
To achieve those dreams, you need to have the right people around you – and I think I’ve got the best team in the whole world. Everyone’s 100% in love with what they do, just as much as I am and it runs right through the group, from the bottom right to the top.
For more information about any of Simon’s businesses, visit www.simonrogan.co.uk