Nine months ago, the chef Simon Rogan, a leading British disciple of the post-Noma, locavore way, reopened his first London restaurant — Roganic — on Blandford Street, a moneyed restaurant-and-residential stretch of Marylebone. Roganic first opened as a two-year pop-up on the same street, a few doors down, in 2011. Pre-Dabbous, pre-Clove Club, it introduced a new kind of heavily plant-based, ultra-minimal, fine-dining. The chef was subsequently invited to take over the restaurant at Claridge’s, the five-star Mayfair hotel whose dining room had been vacated by Gordon Ramsay. Then, last year, Rogan left Fera at Claridge’s much earlier than had been planned. After showing Eater London around his new permanent premises, he talked about leaving Fera, Roganics 1.0 and 2.0, and his hopes for the future. As of October 2018, that future includes a Michelin star at the first time of asking.
On Rogan’s return to the capital
Why have you come back to London?
“It actually wasn’t about coming back. We should have moved [straight] from Fera to here. It shouldn’t have taken so long,” Rogan said, telling the familiar story of the delays associated with site acquisitions, planning applications, and building works. “It looked like we’ve gone and come back,” he added. “But we weren’t really going anywhere.”
Rogan is perhaps most well-known for his two Michelin-starred flagship site, L’Enclume, in the Lake District, but over the past few years has taken on a number of projects across the country. As well as Fera, he also opened Manchester House, in, yes, Manchester. He’s pulled out of that too.
“People say, ‘You left Fera, you’ve got L’Enclume, why bother in London?’” he says, rhetorically. “The simple answer is: London’s shop window is invaluable. It’s the biggest tourist destination in the UK — the sort of tourists that come to London are the ones that we want at L’Enclume.”
He then goes on to say that although he’s lived in Lakes for 16 years and spent time growing up in the New Forest in Hampshire — “I’ve been put in a bracket as a beacon or disciple of the countryside” — he’s “Still a city boy at heart. I was born in Southampton but spent most time in and around London and Paris.” And although he won’t be running Roganic day-to-day, there’s a definite sense that he feels glad, and relieved to back among the bright lights and big-spenders.
Roganic 2.0 — on independence and permanence
“Every thing we do is self-financed. We don’t have any rich sugar daddies. We [together with his wife and business partner, Penny Rogan] do it all in a sensible manner.” He calls it a “total achievement” and finds relief in not having to answer to others. “We don’t rely on other people’s money, which is great.” But he also recognises the downsides: “It’s not great in London — we’re over budget and behind time, and it’s never good to open a restaurant in January,” he says, laughing.
“But we’ll get there. I’m confident with the team, the product. Hopefully it will be a great success.”
The new Roganic, which has taken what was L’Autre Pied — “a site that I would have liked to get my hands on” — is approximately 40 covers, though he confesses to thinking that it was more like 50 when he took on the lease. In the kitchen he says he has “12 guys; same front-of-house.” Leading the kitchen is the long-serving Oli Marlow, who worked at both the original Roganic and L’Enclume. Harry Guy — a chef — is in charge of all London operations. “We have the makings of a good little team,” he said.
It leaves him to focus on his principal interest: L’Enclume, which now not only has rooms, (Rogan’s presence in Cartmel, the village, is sometimes compared to Rick Stein’s friendly colonisation of Padstow, in Cornwall), but a growing farm that produces fruit and vegetables for the restaurants, and a shop.
“L’Enclume — my main focus,” he says. Is he gunning for that third Michelin star? “Every chef who sets out in their career sets out wanting to win three stars. But you never try and get a third star; you try and make your product the best it can be. Of course that’s an ambition. But I’ve got a lot of ambitions,” before adding that he plans to add more accommodation to the properties in Cartmel, as well as investing in the infrastructure of the farm.
“I’m very much in charge and in control in Cartmel. And I have full confidence in the team here. It’s probably better when I’m not here. I surround myself with the most talented people. So I can do bugger all,” he jests.
Pivoting back to seriousness, he said: “I’m the first one in, last one out. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do what I wouldn’t do. You have to lead by example.”
Blandford Street and the old L’Autre Pied site, he said was the “perfect place for Roganic. We always wanted to be back in Marylebone. I really enjoyed the village-y feel. It’s still a wealthy area. Mayfair [where Claridge’s was] is a different world. Here, it’s a busy, bustling area.”
On Roganic 1.0, 2011—2013
Given that it was a two year pop-up, did the chef feel that he could more afford to throw caution to the wind?
“It was different. What we were doing was different. It was obviously very plant-based food, organic. Hence, Roganic. Ha, I got quite a lot of criticism for that name, but I thought it was quite funny. So what? Roganic, or calling it Restaurant Simon Rogan, which is the most creative? It’s easy to name a restaurant after yourself. But I’m not like that, I wanted to do something a bit different. It was really sort of out there, proper rock ‘n’ roll, we really experimented with flavours, used ingredients that no one had ever heard of. I think it was a really creative restaurant — it was only 30 covers as well, so wasn’t difficult to fill and we could really take some risks.”
Back then, he says, “it wasn’t about fine drapery or lighting; everything was quite primitive — the kitchen was a nightmare. I’m sure it was illegal. But it was about food, service, and vibe.” The restaurant spawned a diaspora of chefs, influenced as they were by Rogan’s British interpretation of the then-voguish New Nordic style, who have gone on to work at Kitchen Table, Anglo, and The Clove Club.
He agrees that it had a big impact: “It was number one or two on Tripadvisor for a year after it left! It was incredibly followed and we didn’t realise.”
On leaving Fera at Claridge’s
Rogan chooses to tell a story about when he joined Blue Hill at Stone Barns chef, Dan Barber for his waste-conscious pop-up on Selfridge’s rooftop last spring. “Every table I went out to that chose my dish, people would say: ‘Ahh, yeah, we remember...we used to go to Roganic.’ I went, ‘Erm, I’ve been at Fera for the last three years.’
“‘Fera? Where’s that,’ they’d say back. That just goes to show.
“Forget about Fera being the wrong decision to go to; our customers really loved [Roganic 1.0]. It really hit home that we needed to bring it back. Our sort of customers don’t really want to go into a five star hotel in Mayfair; they want to come somewhere a bit more rock ‘n’ roll, on the street, where we have more of an identity, it’s more us,” he explained.
“All our customers [during the first service] were old Roganic customers. All the customers at Fera were Roganic customers: they came once and never came again! Because they didn’t want to come to Claridge’s but that’s the way it is. Different sort of clientele go to different sort of areas. And we feel Marylebone is our area.”
But it wasn’t always the plan.
“[It was supposed to be] a lot longer. There were different owners from when I did the deal. So there was a whole new ownership, we wanted different things, though I believe they’ve still got the same sous chef in charge, still the same menu,” he says with a grin. “Sort of the same sort of food that we were serving.”
He goes on: “I enjoyed it while I was there. Well, sort of. It was great to be there, great to be asked. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t really me. And, it was a mutual thing to end early. I always thanked them for the opportunity. It put us on the world stage. I got a lot of exposure worldwide. Which was invaluable, so I would never diss them or diss the actual period; although it wasn’t really us, it was a stepping stone for doing what we’re doing now and hopefully this will be bigger and better than what I’ve done in London before. It’s just a learning curve: you go through these to get to where you want to go.”
Although he says he and the team didn’t really go away, London is a mightily different place to the city it was in 2011, and a comparatively small site in Marylebone is obviously a different entity to a restaurant contract in a five star Mayfair hotel. But Rogan has a fanbase, he’s diversified and he’s surrounded himself by professionals he trusts. Roganic’s success or failure could be a harbinger of the fate of the London restaurant industry in 2018.