With a do-first, think-later attitude and a lot of elbow grease, chef and restaurateur Simon Rogan has built a hospitality empire over the past 20 years while pioneering sustainable practices. We have a heart-to-heart over morning coffee.
When Simon Rogan is mentioned, Roganic comes to mind. And when Roganic is mentioned, the look, smell and taste of the restaurant’s prized soda bread dominate the conscious mind. Served slightly warm, the bread permeates the air with a mild sugary scent – courtesy of demerara and golden syrup – and holds its integrity much like a muffin from its wholemeal-flour base. Paired with a savoury cultured butter, the oat-frosted, dome-shaped top is the perfect sweet and salty bite to enjoy in anticipation of the farm-to-table meal to come.
And the farm-to-table mentioned here isn’t the casual run-of-the-mill marketing message slapped on more dining concepts than you can count. Rogan’s farm-to-fork philosophy is the driving force behind every decision made within the Simon Rogan Restaurant Group. It goes beyond the glamorous gesture of presenting fresh in-season ingredients to hungry guests. It’s about expanding the variety of produce by self-growing to break limitation when designing new dishes. It’s about gearing each step, from seeding to harvesting to cooking, towards a sustainable direction, because the lesson of “you reap what you sow” has rung true for Rogan in the two decades of blood, sweat and – happy – tears he’s poured into nurturing his enterprise.
“It started off with just a quest for quality ingredients,” Rogan explains, “and that has driven us to this ethos we have now about doing things right, making things better, doing your bit for the planet.” Sipping on his morning coffee, Rogan, in a well-fitted set of comfortable sweats, chats casually and effusively with a cockney cadence, sounding like a jolly neighbour asking about your day or the affable stranger who holds the door for you.
“I’ve always had a thing for waste, sort of OCD with it,” he says, jumping back in. “Looking for new produce to experiment with, finding ways to use up the scraps. It all started at a young age when my dad was working at a fruit and vegetable market. He’d come home with a mix of things and a lot of it didn’t get used because we didn’t know what it was. And that started off an inquisitive nature in me, asking: what are they, what can you do with them? Then during my time in professional kitchens, I worked for a couple chefs who insisted absolutely nothing goes in the bin, literally nothing. They left strong impressions on me.”
Determined to start his own restaurant after parting with teams that didn’t quite fit, in 2001 Rogan arrived in the historic Cumbrian village of Cartmel to start L’Enclume in a former blacksmith’s workshop. “It took two years to find somewhere,” he recalls. “I didn’t know where I would land but my wife Peggy, who wasn’t in the trade back then, supported me; we dug into our savings while we searched. By chance and a good rapport with the owners of the building, the Cartmel location made sense financially, so we decided to make the move. We were completely out of our zone, didn’t know any of the demographics, didn’t know where our customers would come from.
“But I had an idea of what I wanted and how I wanted to cook. I was heavily influenced by Marc Veyrat and his way around Alpine herbs and wild flowers. He’s very avant garde; modern executions with lots of techniques. For the first eight, nine months I cooked the way I knew how and slowly tweaked and refined everything into my own style, which sort of led to what we’re known for today. It hasn’t always been like this; as a young chef pushing for recognition and accolades, you get side-tracked here and there. Along my way I was drawn to Spanish techniques – everything going on at El Bulli – then looked into French and Japanese methods. Everything got a bit messy and came to a point where I saw a need to get back to our roots using British ingredients.”
This marks the start of Our Farm, Rogan’s gardens in the Cartmel Valley where he and his team select what to grow, when to harvest and how everything’s prepared. “I’ve always wanted a growing operation, but it was a lack of quality ingredients in the region that accelerated the project,” says Rogan. “I always reference the radish; it’s the easiest thing in the world to grow, so if you can’t find a decent one, grow it yourself. Organic food was so expensive back then, we bought just a little bit off an organic farm in the Lake District when we could. When the chance came to take over the place, we jumped at it and started growing our own radishes, and some cabbages, lettuce, root plants … it just snowballed from there.
“There were a lot of failures; we used to call ourselves Google farmers – if we made mistakes and things didn’t work, we’d find ways to right our wrong. With no real experience, we followed lab techniquesof progressive organic farms around the world, reading their work, seeing how they did things, basically copied their steps. Some worked, some didn’t.”
What started out as a quaint “decorative” garden bloomed into a fully fledged operation as the needs of the business grew. Pathways between beautiful beds of flowers reserved for dining tables are now overtaken by rows upon rows of vegetables. The farm has become the heart of Rogan’s restaurants, the inspiration to his cooking and his sanctuary for wellbeing.
“Waste really is a big thing of mine; I like to use everything,” he reiterates. “Having a farm allows us to have total control of that system. You only see part of a plant in a supermarket or from a supplier. But on the farm, we see every single detail. It has a stem, it has a root, a flower, a leaf; it has pollen. We find ways to use everything and we have a good time doing it. We grow what we want, to the size we want and we pick what we use. It’s given us massive advantage in what we do, a real rhythm to work with because we know what’s coming. We could plan for the winter; we produce more over the summer to make preserves.
“Early morning when the sun is shining on the farm, you can do a bit of weeding, pick some stuff. It’s in a valley, so beautiful and quiet. Mobiles don’t work there – well that’s changed actually, they’ve got some gizmo up to boost the signal – and there’s not many places I’d rather be. I think the farm has probably been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life, something I’m really, really proud of.”
Regenerative agriculture is the approach Rogan chooses over sustainable farming.The differentiation lies in restoring natural habitats to their optimal state instead of simply maintaining current conditions. The more aggressive approach requires even more research, experimentation and manpower to execute.
“Sustainability to me is a plant and animal system that works in harmony and is beneficial to the environment,” he explains. “It happens when you do things the right way. Regenerative is taking it one step further. It’s about enhancing the biodiversity of the farm.
“We reinstated hedgerows, not only for hedges like hazel and elder that will give us fruits for the restaurants, but we also use them as windbreaks for the crops. They also provide shelter for birds that, in turn, act as our pest control. We just reinstated a pond as well, which increases the frog population that helps keep the caterpillars and aphids at bay. We follow biodynamic principles, plant by the moon cycle, use teas like comfrey and stingy nettles to fertilise the land – not only to feed the plants but they feed the soil too.”
Rogan rambles on, visually excited about new developments on the farm: “We just started an amazing composting system with a wormery – a brilliant idea from our head grower John Rowland – to bring us closer to becoming a zero-waste operation. Our thousands and thousands of worms create the best compost to replace peat in our micro presses, a material we’ve stopped using for environmental purposes. We have big grinders to sort out the stock bones and we compost all organic matter including meat, fish – absolutely everything. We have 11 hot composters; together they provide all we need for commerce. Everything is hand drilled, no electronics, so there’s no power; thanks to the windswept nature of the Lake District, we’re going fully off-grid through wind and solar power.”
Other than the farm, staff sustainability is at the top of Rogan’s priorities. “We want people to stay with us for a long time,”he says. “We put a lot of time and investment in the people and they’re our future. How we’ve grown over the 20 years, it’s not because of me; yes I’ve been at the forefront leading the direction, but everything’s been driven by the amazing people I work with.
“It’s hard enough to find people – our industry has a bad reputation, I grew upin an era where it was a battle just to get through the day. It was violent, long hours, low pay. I stayed because I love what I did. But that’s wrong, it shouldn’t be like that; you can achieve the same by being nice. Treating people right, giving them the right training programmes, paying them the right money, giving the right hours – these practises help us keep the good ones.”
L’Enclume is now operating on a three-and-a-half-day work week and his other restaurants in the UK will follow suit. Closures used to take place on different days but will soon align to allow employees to have more time to fraternise. A staff party is thrown now and then by the company. “People work bloody hard during their contractual hours; then they’re off to rest,” Rogan says. “They come back refreshed, invigorated and ready for work again.” His two restaurants in Hong Kong, Roganic and Aulis, are also offering four-day working weeks.
Apprenticeship programmes are in place to encourage staff to expand their horizon by working in all areas within the group, including the farm and every part of the business. “Our junior staff knows there’re opportunities and career progression with us. We train them well and we always promote internally. They’re our Ashs and Sams of the future,” Rogan says, referring to Roganic Hong Kong head chef Ashley Salmon and the restaurant group’s managing director Sam Ward.
Trailblazing sustainable practices in hospitality, Rogan is resilient against challenges and optimistic about the future. “The biggest obstacles arise when we work with third parties, like suppliers, but we find solutions,” he says. “Ingredients we sourced would come in Styrofoam boxes, but we ended up using them for clamping– a method of preserving root vegetables in sand. But we don’t do that any more – our products now come in wooden crates; our partners recognise what we’re doing and want to do their part as well. We see the industry evolve over the past 20 years in the UK, and it’s astonishing that Hong Kong – a city that was behind on the movement – is catching up even faster. Under our encouragement, farms we work with in the New Territories are now willing to take all our food waste for composting and they work hard to do everything right and well.”
Taking a last sip of coffee, Rogan concludes, “When we first got to Hong Kong, people were sceptical about what we wanted to do, telling us it wouldn’t work. But that’s bullshit, it doesn’t matter if we’re surrounded by skyscrapers. If you’re passionate, dedicated and determined about what you want to do, you’ll find what you’re looking for. And we did. We found a way to start, we’ve brought what we do best to Hong Kong, sparked quite a bit of interest and excitement in the way we work, and we’ll do the same in other parts in Asia soon.”