Simon Rogan on animal agriculture, balancing a restaurant empire and Hong Kong dining

The launch of Roganic in Hong Kong has seen the celebrated chef join a number of elite restaurateurs to have a genuinely international restaurant group. He talks to us about sourcing, sustainability and his food philosophy in the UK and abroad

Simon Rogan

If you were to draw up a list of the restaurateurs who have played a key role in changing the way we think about food, and its effect on the world around us, there's little doubt that Simon Rogan's name is a mainstay. With the iconic L'Enclume in the Lake District, Rogan has presented a philosophy that revolves around impeccable, seasonal ingredients and a supply chain based largely around an adjoining organic farm. The restaurant – which has two Michelin stars and is regularly talked about as the best restaurant in the UK – creates a dining experience, a little like those of Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York State and Alain Passard at Paris's L'Arpege, that attempts to make the diner think beyond the dishes themselves to what they represent.

Having expanded that philosophy to Roganic in London and, now, in Hong Kong, Rogan has faced the challenge of transporting the L'Enclume model far beyond the bracken and beds of Our Farm in Cartmel. Here, he discusses how he and his teams have adapted to different environments, how he engages with food culture outside of dining, and how, no matter where his diners are, all paths seem to lead back to L'Enclume.

Some chefs think of food as a platform to teach a philosophy. Where do you fit within that?

I think we've always tried to change the way people think about food. Obviously having our own farm from early in the life of L'Enclume and seeing that grow has really pushed the style of the food. So over the years our food has definitely got a lot simpler. We're trying to do a lot less with it, because the standard of the ingredients is so high. And when you've got a perfectly good organic ingredient, then you try to respect it as much as possible and cook it as simply and sympathetically as possible. We've always tried to challenge that. We've always been vegetable-centric and the vegetables have always been the star of the show rather than the proteins, which have been the supporting role, if you like.

The tasting menu is obviously something we've also been a great exponent of, and we think we do them very well: it's not just about putting dishes together; it's about the balance and the rhythm and the flavours, the taste, the textures. We've always tried to push the boundaries and that's hopefully carried off in all the restaurants that we've opened around the world.

Who have been your main influences in terms of that whole-farm dining philosophy?

When I first opened L'Enclume I was heavily influenced by the works of Marc Veyrat in the Alps, for his use of wild flowers and herbs and roots in his cookery. I was fascinated by that, and being in Cartmel we were not quite in the Alps, but we were surrounded by the same sort of ingredients. So that got me really back into the wild scene, which I'd been part of in my early days as a chef in the New Forest. It was really nice to get back into that into that style. But then, alongside that, we had the trailblazers that grew their own vegetables like Alain Passard, Michel Bras to a certain extent, and then Pierre Gagnaire as well. I was really impressed by his technique and flavour combinations and his avant-garde style. So I suppose those guys are really the ones that inspired me early on.

Do you see more casual restaurants being able to shift the way others think about ecosystems and food these days?

I think it's definitely filtered down to the to the simpler restaurants now. I like to eat that way myself, you know, so I wouldn't say L'Enclume now or any of our other restaurants were really complicated food. I think our food style has simplified and I think people appreciate it more: nice relaxed surroundings, we like to do things with no boundaries, everything's accessible and people can really understand what what we're doing. So I think people learn a little bit more about the styles of food in the simpler restaurants, definitely.

I've always had a strong belief in eating less meat, the perils of animal agriculture and what it's doing to our planet

How engaged are you with the food system beyond what you do at your restaurants?

Yeah, absolutely. We've done a lot around the world, doing talks on various methods of farming and of agriculture. Our Farm is organic and we've pretty much got to zero waste now – it's pretty much a closed-circle system which we've always tried to establish, where everything depends on each other, composting, waste and whatnot. I've always had a strong belief in eating less meat, the perils of animal agriculture and what it's doing to our planet, so I've done various talks around the world about trying to reduce the amount of farming and maybe feeding starving people with the grain that's been fed to cows to feed the Western population with cheap beef. So it's something I'm very passionate about I'll continue to do that.

Tell me about your Hong Kong restaurant.

The Hong Kong operation has really taken me by surprise. With Brexit surrounding the UK, I think that's the place to be, in Hong Kong, at the moment, to get away from the Brexit gloom, because there's a lot of money there and they're doing really, really well. There was a lot of talk when we announced we were gonna to Hong Kong, about how we would carry out our ethos and how it wouldn't be the same, we wouldn't get away with it being in a skyscraper environment. But there are lots and lots of organic farms if you push in towards the Chinese border in the in the new territories, so I've been pleasantly surprised about the amount of produce and the quality of organic produce that you can find in the Hong Kong area.

It's a real case of if you're passionate and you believe in what you're doing and you can look hard enough, you can find anything you want. So we've gone to Hong Kong and we've not blended into the Hong Kong restaurant scene with a Hong Kong-influenced menu; we've gone 'slam' in there with a menu that you can find at Roganic in London or at L'Enclume in the Lake District. That's why people wanted us in Hong Kong, and I think that's why it's so popular.

How did you feel about Rogan & Co getting a Michelin star? Was it a help or a hindrance to what you're trying to do there?

I don't think any chef doesn't want a Michelin star. I don't think it's been a hindrance at all: Rogan & Co is in essence a version of L'Enclume in an à la carte form. It's the same sort of ethos, same sort of food, same sort of ingredients, from the farm, a little bit of international ingredients on there as well. We relax the rules that L'Enclume has to adhere to – but in essence it's the same sort of style, and we get a lot of people in the Lakes come in for a two-night package, and they want the same sort of standard. So it's definitely helped with covers.

We've always struggled for what the right style would be at Rogan & Co as a sister restaurant to L'Enclume, but we think we've cracked it now, and it's as busy as L'Enclume – rightfully so because of its new Michelin star, and Tom who was head chef at at L'Enclume was also the head chef at Rogan & Co when it got a Michelin star. So we work very closely together, we have for a number of years, and it's a great achievement and very welcome.

How important is it to have that anchor in London with Roganic, and does being in London change the approach or the ethos?

In London, obviously, time is money – people don't want to spend so much time at the table. So we try to keep things swift and maybe the portions are slightly smaller, but in essence again it's basically what you would find at L'Enclume – same ethos, same sort of ingredients, same style. It's always been very important for us to have a London shop window; it drives traffic north. Even more so now we seem to have a lot of traffic coming from the Far East because they can't get tables at Roganic and Aulis in Hong Kong, so they're coming to London to get them.

It's great to have that cross-section of activity between the two Roganics. And then finally once they've visited the Roganics, either in London or Hong Kong, they think that's something worth actually travelling for, all the way to the north to come to L'Enclume service. So it's important to have a London and a Hong Kong shop window.

With your portfolio diversifying a little, how much input do you still have at each restaurant?

People are surprised that I'm still heavily involved. I'm not quite sat around a pool in St Tropez just yet. I'm heavily involved, and obviously my workload has got quite large over the years. Thankfully I have guys in each unit that have worked for me for quite a long time – they know what I like and what I don't like, they're absolutely 100 percent on the style and what we're after. So it's more of a committee sort of effort now, and generally there's ideas that are kept – we have God-knows-how-many WhatsApp groups and we're always talking to each other all around the world. And then generally I get the final say, the final tasting, and any little tweaks. So it's not just me all the time: I've got Ollie at Roganic, Tom at Rogan & Co, and Tommaso in Aulis in London. It's a group effort, really.

I know the farm has grown recently – what's behind it and how much further are you planning to grow it?

We made quite a few changes on the farm this year. We decided not to be so greedy and grow so many different things, because what happens is we get a bit excited and grow so many different varieties of stuff that when it comes to summer we're really in trouble because we have got a menu big enough to encompass all the ingredients that we've got. So we're cutting down on the number of varieties but growing more amount of that variety. So hopefully the menu won't have to change so much – it will be a little bit more consistent and we can keep the restaurants totally self-sufficient with the amounts that we can grow for them. Not forgetting growing a lot more in the summer for preserving for the winter months when things are a little bit more barren. So that's what we've done this year, and hopefully all the vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers that you see on the menus in all our restaurants are from that farm.