Whilst restaurateurs in major cities bemoan a slow revival, diners seem to be hungry for Cumbria if the experience of Simon Rogan’s restaurants is anything to go by. In an exclusive interview with Cumbria Life, he shares how it feels to see your restaurant empire shut down, and offers a message of hope to others in the hospitality sector

It’s 9.30am and a corner of Cartmel village is a hive of activity. Staff go back and forth between restaurants and stores, vans deliver fresh supplies while inside the floor is being cleaned and a team is already at work in the kitchen preparing for the day’s service. This is legendary L’Enclume and, in short, the place is buzzing. The only clues that this is anything other than a normal day are that all the staff are wearing masks and the tables are slightly more spaced out.

On his phone, sitting at a table in a quietish corner is Simon Rogan, icon of the Cumbria food scene. An enormous mug pronouncing ‘The Boss’ brimming with what looks like builder’s tea sits across from him. It must be encouraging, to say the least, to see his original and two Michelin star restaurant surviving, and clearly thriving, so soon after lockdown.

“I feel so fortunate that from the first day we reopened the buzz and the excitement was back,” he says. “All the staff were itching to get going again."

“It’s very much a team effort. We worked very hard to come through it and out the other end and smash it and, so far, what we’d hoped for is happening. The future looks quite rosy, although, of course, you never know what’s around the corner.”

As a national, and now international success story, it’s fair to suggest that others may look to him for guidance, even leadership, in troubled times, although he is quick to point out that he looks good only by virtue of the team around him. He also admits to feeling a little awkward when others in the industry outside Cumbria continue to struggle and remain gloomy about the future. “It’s hard because you don’t want to sound like you’re gloating, but I can only say what’s happening here and so far it’s very positive. As soon as we announced we were opening reservations, we were full again.”

With L’Enclume returning to almost capacity, Rogan & Co outpacing all the restaurants for general trade and the reopening of new restaurant Henrock at Linthwaite House Hotel, near Bowness, the Rogan magic touch has lost nothing in lockdown.

The empire stretches far beyond Cumbria, of course, and here the picture is mixed. When we met, the authorities in Hong Kong had just imposed another temporary shutdown on restaurants following a third spike in COVID-19 cases. Aulis, a third branch of Simon’s UMBEL Restaurant Group’s intimate chef’s table and development kitchen concept, and Roganic farm-to-table restaurant, opened there last year. Simon last visited at the height of the Chinese coronavirus outbreak.

“I was a bit scared and worried about going and thought should I go or not? I decided it was best to show the people of Hong Kong and the team that I really care about those restaurants. I took a lot of precautions, but it was pretty much business as usual in Hong Kong.

“They’d had SARS before and were prepared for another pandemic. They also take personal hygiene very, very seriously and are always washing their hands. The safety of our staff and customers is paramount and we’ve been able to learn from their experience.

“Little did I know then how bad it was going to be here. It never occurred to me when I was in Hong Kong that it would cause so much havoc and that it would tragically kill so many people here. I never though the impact here would be so huge.”

Back in the UK and his London restaurants, the original branch or Roganic, and Aulis, were hit first. “Reservations just collapsed as soon as things started to unravel and we closed in London a week or two before Cartmel. We tried to struggle on here. We had a few cancellations then as soon as lockdown was announced reservations collapsed. It was heartbreaking to see a full diary for the whole summer and autumn disappear before our eyes.”

Simon’s own diary was similarly wiped out – his Simon Rogan restaurant at Royal Ascot, a pop-up in Sydney, another in Thailand, big dinners in Hong Kong with other chefs, all cancelled.

Whether top end restaurant or local takeaway, lockdown was a leveller in the hospitality sector, the likes of which has never been seen before.

Simon says: “It was an extraordinary situation. We were fortunate in that we went into it in a strong position. We made the decision early that we didn’t want to make any redundancies and we wanted to reopen as soon it was allowed.

“The group’s owners decided to take no money whatsoever and senior management took a wage cut so the money at the top filtered down to kitchen porters and chamber maids. A skeleton staff kept working but most were furloughed on full pay.

“We have built this amazing team over the years and we were going into a season in our strongest position ever, pushing on and pushing standards ever higher. We didn’t want to lose anyone.”

That said, a small number has been lost at least temporarily, namely staff who returned to their home countries and, due to difficult travel circumstances, have stayed. It means that the group is in the unusual position of frantically trying to recruit – not that there is any shortage of candidates.

“The standard and amount of applications has been quite staggering,” says Simon. “A lot of amazing restaurants have bitten the bullet and we are picking up people from there. We will be back up to strength in no time at all.”

The London restaurants remain closed for the time being. “With the overheads there and things still being unsure it makes sense to keep staff on furlough. London is still pretty much a ghost town.

“Maybe Cumbria is the new London. People are coming for peace and quiet. Hopefully we are not the only ones in Cumbria who are busy and we can all reap the benefits. It was heartbreaking to see Cartmel so quiet so it’s great to see people back. I know the Cavendish Arms is doing well so I hope it’s the same for everyone.”

He says a lot of work has been done on ensuring staff and customer safety and they have taken both government guidance and their own experience in Hong Kong into account. “We are as safe as safe can be for our guests to feel confident and still enjoy their experience. We are fortunate that L’Enclume is quite a big restaurant so with the space we have we’ve only had to lose two tables out of 20.”

Across the yard at Aulis, a further party of four, or two couples, can enjoy a private dining experience with executive chef in Hong Kong, Oli Marlow, who has returned to the UK temporarily, in the kitchen.

The L’Enclume experience will be slightly different for a restaurant renowned for the table interaction of its waiting staff, which will now be reduced, and there will be no change of cutlery during the course of dinner. That, and menus and wine lists on QR codes, are things that a slightly horrified Simon has had to come to terms with.

“I wouldn’t have dreamt of this kind of thing in restaurants at the top end of the market, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to,” he says. “The main thing is that everyone is safe and that we still try and give the L’Enclume experience but in a different way. We never thought we’d be doing it this way, but you have to accept that nothing is beneath you. You have to explore every avenue to keep the cash the flowing,” he adds by way of advice to others who may look to his blueprint for success.

Diversification is something the Rogan empire has embraced.

It began in March with take-home meals, partly as an answer for what to do with the produce that kept on growing at Rogan’s Our Farm, on the edge of Cartmel, and also to support the elderly and vulnerable in and around the village.

The chefs, who were still working, took advantage of the fresh surplus and emptied all the freezers to produce a range of nutritious and comforting dishes to boost morale and combat the food shortage in supermarkets and local stores. Working with the vicar of Cartmel Priory, The Reverend Nick Devenish, to identify the most isolated or at risk, the meals were delivered free of charge to vulnerable people and care homes, or could be collected. Other residents were asked to give £5 a dish to cover the cost of ingredients and to support the donation of further meals to local people in need.

“We owe a lot to where we are, our surroundings and the people here so it was nice to be able to give something back,” says Simon.

There were also Farmboxes of fresh produce, but these had to stop before demand outstripped what was available at the farm. On Thursdays-Sundays throughout July, they also hosted the Summer Terrace at Linthwaite House to keep new restaurant Henrock, which had barely got going before lockdown, in diners’ minds.

Things went to a whole new level, however, with Simon Rogan at home. Executive head chef in Cumbria Tom Barnes and the team have developed weekly changing, three-course menus delivered to customers’ homes for £30 a head. Vegetarian alternatives are offered, as well as wine pairings, and there is a two-course Sunday lunch for £25 per person. The service came out on top of a survey by Kitchenhaus of 26 takeaway services operated by Michelin starred kitchens across the UK based on value for money, overall dining experience and customer service, beating the likes of Heston Blumenthal to the top spot.

Simon Rogan at home began with deliveries to Windermere, Ulverston, Grange, the Lyth Valley and Kendal – including some by Simon himself in his own car on the first Saturday – soon expanding to all LA postcodes in South Lakes, followed by West Cumbria, North Cumbria and Eden. “I have a mate in Whitehaven and he asked if we could deliver there. I took one over to him, then he told friends so then we took 40 dinners to his house. Now we have a full delivery service to Whitehaven,” explains Simon.

Orders soon soared to 400 courses a week, with plans to grow further to include 1,800 holiday cottages. This is a business in its own right, and its success has even led to the same concept being exported immediately to Hong Kong. “We have unleashed a bit of a monster,” says Simon, “and, yes, we are looking for new premises for it. It’s another angle to our business and is something we can continue when times are easier.”

Rogan Chefs at Home launched before lockdown to great acclaim and is set to come into its own in the future. “It’s part of the new normal,” says Simon. “A lot of people still don’t want to go to restaurants so why not bring the chef into your home? As soon as we are allowed to do it, as soon as it’s safe for customers and our staff, that will be going on as well.” All in all it’s been quite a year for the UMBEL Restaurant Group, with L’Enclume head chef Paul Burgalières being crowned Chef of the Year in the Cumbria Life Food & Drink Awards 2020, then Tom’s win with his lamb main course in the Great British Menu.