One restaurant, two decades, three stars: the story of L’Enclume

One restaurant, two decades, three stars: the story of L’Enclume

One restaurant, two decades, three stars: the story of L’Enclume

by Tom Shingler29 March 2022

Since taking root in Cumbria twenty years ago with his flagship restaurant L’Enclume, Simon Rogan’s approach to food, farming and capturing the flavours of the Cumbrian countryside has made a lasting mark on Britain’s food scene. Tom Shingler travels to the Lake District to see just how big it – and the entire operation – has grown.

One restaurant, two decades, three stars: the story of L’Enclume

Since taking root in Cumbria twenty years ago with his flagship restaurant L’Enclume, Simon Rogan’s approach to food, farming and capturing the flavours of the Cumbrian countryside has made a lasting mark on Britain’s food scene. Tom Shingler travels to the Lake District to see just how big it – and the entire operation – has grown.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

For a tiny village in rural Cumbria, Cartmel has always had quite a lot going for it. The ancient settlement gained a fancy priory in the twelfth century, then a popular racecourse in the 1920s. In 1984, the village shop started making sticky toffee puddings that quickly became regarded as the best in the UK (and therefore the world). Not bad for a clutch of buildings with less than 5,000 residents.

In 2002, however, an ambitious chef called Simon Rogan arrived from the south coast to turn an old blacksmith’s in the village square into his first restaurant. Over the next twenty years, L’Enclume – named after the anvil that still proudly sits in the dining room – turned Cartmel into a culinary destination on a par with the likes of Noma in Copenhagen, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. The restaurant has been awarded pretty much every accolade out there, but in 2022 its legendary status was sealed when it became the first northern restaurant to win three Michelin stars in British history.

There are only seven other restaurants with three Michelin stars in the UK, and they’re all in London or Bray, Berkshire (a small village where both The Fat Duck and The Waterside Inn can be found). But it’s not just its location that makes L’Enclume stand out – it’s the entire offering. While the others tend to fall into the white tableclothed category of restaurant, with seriously luxurious ingredients used with abandon in the classically French influenced kitchens (excluding The Fat Duck, which still sits firmly in the world of molecular cookery), L’Enclume feels distinctly British. It’s in a beautiful old building full of timber beams, bumpy stone walls and stripped back table settings, with a menu that puts just as much importance on humble ingredients like kale and seaweed as it does on truffles and meat. To eat there is to experience the very pinnacle of modern British food; the culmination of just how far the UK’s restaurant scene has come since the days when a good meal out meant eating stuffy French cuisine.

But to label L’Enclume as just a modern British restaurant does it a bit of a disservice – it goes beyond anything else I’ve ever experienced in the world of food and drink. The operation behind the scenes is staggering; the amount of work it takes for a dish to make it on the menu goes far beyond the confines of the kitchen. The food, meanwhile, tastes like a snapshot of the Cumbrian countryside at a single moment in time. As pretentious as that sounds (remember we’re talking about high-end fine dining here, so allow me a little pretention!), the actual experience of eating there is anything but. What Simon Rogan and his hugely talented team have created is a restaurant that goes beyond a nice meal out. It’s an entire experience that feels seriously special; something that really does stay with you long after you leave. Yes, it’s not cheap and you usually have to book months in advance, but if you really want to enjoy British food at its absolute best, L’Enclume is worth every penny.

While it gets the headlines, L’Enclume is just one (albeit very important) part of what Simon and his team have built up in the Lakes. The lengthy tasting menu is a culmination of two decades of experience and growth, a twelve-acre farm and a 180-strong team of people working across multiple restaurants to ensure every bit of produce gets the treatment it deserves. Today, Cartmel almost feels like it was built around Simon’s businesses. Wind the clock back twenty years, however, and Simon had only just set foot in the village for the first time.

The beginning

L'Enclume opened in Cumbria in 2002 – a time when the county was barely on the map for intrepid foodies.

In 2002, The Lake District was certainly a tourist hotspot but there were few places you’d actually travel to just to eat at. Simon ended up opening L’Enclume there not because it was where he was from, where he’d worked previously or anything as romantic as that – it was because a restaurant consultant told him about an old antique shop in an unassuming village called Cartmel.

‘I’d always worked at country house hotels down south but it never really worked out,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to be in control of my own destiny, and as cheesy as that sounds it was what made me determined to open my own restaurant. I grew up in the New Forest and my wife Penny is from West Sussex, so we weren’t looking further than the south coast. After a site in Brighton fell through, we didn’t really know what to do. Someone I knew got in touch about an antique shop in Cumbria being converted into a restaurant site and, with few other options, I decided to jump in the car and take a look.’

After a long drive, Simon pulled into Cartmel and was greeted by a building site. It required a lot of vision, a huge throw of the dice and a seriously persuasive pitch to his wife, but the pair agreed to take the site on and in September 2002, L’Enclume opened its doors for the first time. ‘The first six months were hairy – we basically had no customers,’ says Simon. ‘If we had twelve booked in for dinner on a Saturday we were amazed! Luckily we opened with seven bedrooms for people to stay in; if we didn’t have that then I wouldn’t have taken it on, and the restaurant certainly wouldn’t have survived.’

Simon knew L’Enclume had to become a destination restaurant, and fast – there wasn’t anything else drawing people to the area, so the restaurant couldn’t rely on local or passing trade. Luckily, it gained a reputation quickly. The first piece of national coverage came in January the following year, and then a Michelin star in 2005 started bringing in more and more people. The rest, as they say, is history – the second star came in 2013, L’Enclume topped all kinds of lists and gained all sorts of awards, and Simon started to open other restaurants in both Cumbria and further afield.

The farm

L’Enclume is the shopfront for everything Simon does, but the driving force behind every plate of food served in his restaurants is ‘Our Farm’, where the vast majority of the fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers used in the kitchen are grown. Many restaurants have kitchen gardens these days – a collection of raised beds growing garnishes and other little bits and bobs to make dishes extra special – but Simon’s farm is a serious operation that has grown over the past ten years into something that’s self-sufficient, sustainable, twelve acres large and entirely off-grid.

Our Farm is now ten years old and grows bigger each year to keep up with demand across Simon's restaurants.
Almost every single one of the fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers on the menu at L'Enclume is grown on the farm.

‘Once we’d got settled at L’Enclume, the food started to become more like what it is today,’ explains Simon. ‘I started to explore my foraging roots and looking at the local larder, and obviously vegetables play a huge part in that. We were struggling to find what we needed locally, so we asked an organic farm up the road to start growing radishes for us. As we grew, so did our needs, and we eventually took over the entire farm. When we outgrew that, we bought a plot of land and started our own. Ten years ago it was just an empty field and we had to really improve the quality of the soil, learning lots along the way, but it’s now the world-class sustainable growing operation I always wanted it to be.’

A restaurant growing its own produce wasn’t necessarily a new thing when Simon started doing it – places like Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons are known for its gardens almost as much as its dining rooms – but they are often created as an attraction for guests. Our Farm doesn’t have the picnic benches, manicured raised beds and babbling fountains you’d find in country house hotels. Instead, it has polytunnels, muddy fields and farming equipment.

What it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in both production and quality, however. Supplying all of Simon’s restaurants in the UK means growing has to be done at scale in a controlled, incredibly organised way, with each year bringing its own challenges that can be learned from for the next. There’s little room for error when running a restaurant at such a high level, so a mistake in the spring could have severe consequences in the autumn.

The Ridan composters on the farm ensure any food waste can be used to grow new ingredients for future seasons.
Even during the dreary months of winter, the farm was full of bright pink 'peacock' kale freshly harvested for the menu.

Even with the risks that growing your own ingredients bring, the team have ensured everything remains as sustainable as possible using a closed loop system. All food waste can be composted via a fleet of nine Ridan composters, which create the perfect environment for composting to take place naturally. They don’t even need electricity to run; someone just needs to turn the crank attached on the side occasionally to aerate the mixture.

‘We looked at all sorts of systems that control things electronically, but these ones are so simple and allow us to remain off-grid,’ says Simon. ‘We’ve even got a machine that can grind down cattle bones, so absolutely nothing organic ends up in the bin.’

Growing produce for a three-starred restaurant means the plants themselves have to be pretty special, so you won’t find big old donkey carrots, bog-standard parsley or nondescript apples in the fields at Our Farm. The team focus on heritage varieties, lesser-known herbs, exotic berries and ingredients that offer flavour far beyond the usual supermarket fare. When I visited during February – not exactly the most bountiful time of year – I was welcomed with fields of psychedelic purple ‘peacock’ kale, nothing like the dark green cattle fodder leaves you’d usually think of. Later on, L’Enclume’s head chef Paul Burgalières prepared a dish of tiny, bean-sized potatoes with a cheese sauce and onion ash, the result of a ‘happy accident’ on the farm when some failed potato plants had in fact grown tiny, flavour-packed tubers.

In the summer, Our Farm can account for every single fruit, vegetable, herb or flower on the menu at L’Enclume – the only things it can’t cover are large vegetables such as onions and leeks for starting off bases for things like stocks. The winter can be a little trickier, even though the polytunnels can have things growing in them year-round, but the team are constantly working towards the ultimate (and often near-impossible) goal of being completely self-sustainable year-round. They’re very nearly there.

The people

Simon is, of course, the founder and figurehead of L’Enclume and the rest of his restaurants. But even the smallest, most unassuming establishment would be nothing without the team that makes it tick. With L’Enclume, Rogan & Co, Aulis, Henrock, Our Farm and even a Simon Rogan shop in the Lakes; Aulis London and an outpost of both Roganic and Aulis in Hong Kong (along with The Baker & The Bottleman, a new bakery and wine bar), this is a restaurant empire in every sense of the word. Umbel is the name of the umbrella company that brings them all together, and within that there are countless key people that have been integral to its international success.

John Rowland (left) and Sam Ward (right) are two key members of the vast team that makes L'Enclume what it is today.

Sam Ward is the managing director of Umbel and the glue that sticks every part of the massive operation together. His background as L’Enclume’s maître d’ is clear to see in the way he works with people – always on top form and welcoming everyone he meets with a smile. He is, in my opinion, hospitality personified. But while any restaurateur would be lucky to have someone like Sam out front looking after guests, he’s proved he has so much more to offer. Now a partner in the business along with Simon and Penny, he has a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders – especially as there are no other investors or a board of directors to fall back on.

Sam grew up in Cumbria but now oversees a company that stretches all the way to Hong Kong; the fact that he knows every one of the 180 people he employs in the Lakes by name shows how invested he is in looking after the whole team. ‘He’s the lifeblood of the entire group and has been integral to everything we do for a while now,’ says Simon. ‘We’ve really started to diversify the business in the past few years and the success of that is entirely down to Sam.’

Over on the farm, the rhythms and quirks of the seasons are contended with by head farmer John Rowland. Originally a groundskeeper, he got into growing after working in the kitchen gardens at The Manor House in Castle Combe. With a keen passion for sustainable, ethical farming that benefits the surrounding area, he runs the team that ensures there’s a steady supply of ingredients harvested for the restaurants year-round. Pushing the limitations of what and how much they can grow; experimenting with new varieties for the development kitchen; understanding the science that links flavour with soil quality – all this and more is in John’s wheelhouse. The fact that L’Enclume received a Michelin Green star in 2022 is testament to his efforts.

L'Enclume's head chef Paul Burgalières joined in 2017 and leads the kitchen day in, day out.
Tom Barnes is executive head chef across all Simon's restaurants in the north of England, ensuring not only L'Enclume but also Aulis, Rogan & Co and Henrock remain best in class.

Then there are the chefs. Simon can clearly rattle the pans with the best of them, but with restaurants in Cumbria, London and Hong Kong, it’s impossible for him to be on the pass at all times. At L’Enclume, Paul Burgalières has been head chef since 2017, joining from Copenhagen’s celebrated Geranium. There’s also Tom Barnes, the Roux Scholar who is executive head chef across all of Simon’s Lakes-based restaurants and another local lad, growing up in Barrow-in-Furness. Further afield there’s Oli Marlow, who is the executive chef of the Hong Kong restaurants and Aulis London, working closely with head chef Charlie Tayler. These are all seriously talented chefs who could pick almost anywhere in the world to work or easily gain investment for their own restaurants – but they remain with Simon because they share the same ethos.

‘I’m so fortunate to have Paul, Tom and Oli by my side – they’re the most talented chefs I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,’ says Simon. ‘I’ve been working incredibly hard in the kitchen for twenty years now, which feels like an eternity, and there’s only so much my old bones can take. Everything is done together, and I know each restaurant is in completely safe hands whenever I’m not there.’

Running a rural restaurant means getting the right staff can be tough and, while Simon probably isn’t short of applications these days, he recognises the need to retain the talented people that he employs and ensure new generations continue to see hospitality as an enticing career. In 2021 he launched The Academy by Simon Rogan at Kendal College, which gives students the chance to work across his restaurants and gain a qualification, culminating in a week-long stage at Roganic in Hong Kong.

‘The amount of talent we have coming through the company at the moment invigorates me, and we want to keep as many of them as possible,’ he explains. ‘I think for the younger chefs to see people like Tom Barnes, who has been with me on and off since 2011, proves there’s real opportunity to grow and evolve within the group. If someone wants to do something different or even open their own place, I want to be in a position to help them do that within the business.’

The future

Simon is in the kitchen less these days, but still has huge plans for the next few decades.

After twenty years of graft, Simon has built a business, a team and a restaurant empire of the highest possible level. Winning a third Michelin star and making restaurant history was clearly the pinnacle of his career, but it’s not as if he and the team can now take their foot off the gas. He can’t tell me what, but there are apparently big things already in the pipeline to make the next twenty years just as exciting as the past two decades. He’s got his eyes on opening another international outpost, perhaps in the US, although is quick to mention three different new sites have fallen through since COVID, so nothing is guaranteed. Perhaps the biggest thing that’s driven Simon to work so hard in achieving his vision twenty years ago is what people will remember him for when he’s hung up his apron for good.

‘Accolades are great when they happen and they obviously matter hugely for destination restaurants like L’Enclume, but what I really want is to know I’ve made a difference. If I can achieve half of the legacy of what chefs like the Roux brothers, Marco and Nico Ladenis did, I’d be happy. To do something differently and inspire the next generation to do even better things was always my biggest ambition. I can only be in the kitchen during service for so much longer, so I’m definitely moving into more of a figurehead position. That means nurturing the people we employ across the business to secure the future.’

With serious talent in the kitchens, Sam Ward running operations, worldwide recognition and a farm producing top-class ingredients, L’Enclume and the rest of Simon’s restaurants are in a better position than most to build upon their success. As I walked around Cartmel for the final time before leaving, watching groups of chefs carry vegetables from one building to another, tend to charcoal grills in the courtyards out back and say hello to passing locals, it struck me just how influential L’Enclume has become not just on the village itself, not just Cumbria, but the entirety of British dining. Championing local produce, cooking with the seasons, celebrating humble or foraged ingredients – these are things we see pretty regularly nowadays, but L'Enclume kickstarted a lot of that. Simon hopes to leave a legacy that matches those of the greatest chefs the UK has ever seen before he retires; I’d argue he’s achieved that with years to spare.