“Hmm, I might pickle that,” Simon Rogan says, tearing a seed out of an onion flower and tasting it. It’s 10am and he has already been working for three hours. Dressed in a denim shirt, with a frayed gardening glove on one hand and an ancient beanie on his head, he strides around his farm near the small village of Cartmel, a five-and-a-half-hour-drive north from London. In the space of less than five minutes, he decides where to locate a bone-and-cardboard shredder, examines a bed of kohlrabis, instructs his 17-year-old son to pick stones out from the soil (“he’s been a bad lad so he’s here as punishment for a week”) and checks the sturdiness of the fences designed to stop foxes getting at his chickens. A minute later, he’s on his hands and knees pulling lettuces from the soil – all while talking at a thousand knots a minute about the absurdity of how much meat we eat in the West.
Rogan may dress more like a farm labourer than the boss, but his restaurant L’Enclume, located in a former smithy in the village, has earned him a brace of Michelin stars and draws diners from around the world. Most of the food it serves comes from his farm. “We’re very close to having a closed-circle operation,” he says as he picks up a handful of bruise-coloured gooseberries. Restaurant waste is recycled as compost and animal feed for the farm, where lambs, cows, pigs and poultry have recently been introduced. They live alongside five poly tunnels (where seedlings and micro-herbs grow) and an orchard with 36 varieties of plum, damson, apple, pear and cherry.
“We’re different to most other farms because this farm is designed by chefs, used by chefs and worked on by chefs rather than by farmers,” says Rogan. We’re walking along the edge of the brook that supplies water to the farm, which is surrounded by elder and cedar trees and set against a backdrop of hills the shape of farmhouse loaves. “It’s taken six years to create and we haven’t taken the easy route. So many restaurants that prize local produce are miles and miles away from where it’s grown. Most things on our menu have travelled for about ten minutes.” The link between the produce and the cooking is so important to Rogan that everyone who is hired to work in the restaurant has to spend a month on the farm before they start.
Farm-to-table is a burgeoning movement in culinary circles, but there are few chefs who have taken the concept to this extreme. There are fewer still who can be found with their hands in the soil on a daily basis. And yet Rogan’s attitude is not absolutist. The lamb served at L’Enclume comes from Cornwall as he thinks the quality of locally reared Hardwick lamb isn’t consistent enough. The truffles come from Australia and the caviar from France. Is it possible, I ask him, to have an entirely closed-circle operation? It’s a gradual process, he says. “You can’t just take lemons away from a chef overnight. It took us a while to find the right rapeseed oils, the right berries to replace those things that are part of any chef’s toolbox.”
The son of a fruit-and-vegetable trader, Rogan, 51, was born in Southampton, nearly 300 miles due south. After stints working with Marco Pierre White and Jean Christophe Novelli, he trekked north, opening L’Enclume in 2002 (the name, in a nod to the building, is French for anvil). It has recently been joined by the more casual Rogan and Co, and Aulis, where a maximum of six people get to try out the dishes Rogan is experimenting with. As L’Enclume has evolved, so has his approach to management.
“I promise you I’m so much more mellow than I was,” says Rogan, as he drives us back to Cartmel in his Land Rover. “When I first started in kitchens, you got something wrong you got punched. It could be demoralising and stressful. You were on edge the whole time. I brought that into my kitchens at first but, over the years, I’ve realised that you get more out of people if you encourage them. I feel like more of a father figure – though being that to 100 people can be a bit of a pain at times.”
It’s not just his staff whom Rogan wants to encourage. “There’s no way my business could work without this man being in the same village,” says Peter Unsworth, leaning against one of the stainless-steel tanks in the back room of his shop-cum-bar. Unsworth’s Farm Brewery, in the medieval centre of Cartmel, is a former village garage that has been turned into a producer of craft beers, one of which is Anvil, a bottled, amber-coloured ale that is sold only in Rogan’s restaurants.
The relationship was not always so cosy. “I got into rows with locals all the time when I first got here,” says Rogan. “And there’s still a few left who don’t like what we’re doing at all.” His refreshing honesty extends to some of the decisions he’s made, from his restaurant’s name (“What was I thinking? It’s an awful name. I was just trying to be all pretentious and clever”), to foraging (“We used to forage but we stopped as a lot of what we foraged was just rubbish.”)
Evening service has just begun at L’Enclume. I watch Rogan at work in the tiny kitchen. His chefs, wearing collarless khaki shirts, move around him calmly and quietly. He inspects dishes, tastes them and brings them to diners. I sit down to eat. The 19-course tasting menu takes four hours to savour. The cod mousse is served on a large pebble topped with a “snow” of chives and parsley from the farm. The salted gooseberry-and-herb tart is a medley of textures and flavours; the salt-baked celeriac (above right), cooked in sugar kelp and seaweed comes with a chartreuse-green sauce topped with a generous heap of French caviar (which prolongs the freshness of the celeriac).
At the end of the evening, as the diners emerge from the resutaurant, I catch Rogan, looking as alert as he was 14 hours ago when he was manhandling his lettuces. “It’s this farm and the produce that makes me tick,” he says before driving off into the Cumbrian night.