Wednesday 17th September 2014,
Taste of Manchester

Neil Sowerby talks rooftop turnips with Simon Rogan, latest custodian of The French at the Midland Hotel…

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By Neil Sowerby

FOR a two-Michelin starred chef, Simon Rogan is remarkably self-effacing. It wasn’t his decision to trumpet his new culinary adventure as “The French With Simon Rogan”. It was down to his new associates from Q Hotels. His innovative, very British 21st century cuisine, honed in Cartmel, Cumbria, will now inhabit Charles Trubshaw’s 1903 take on a 19th century Parisienne interior (suitably tweaked). It doesn’t seem to faze him.

Signed up to breathe fresh life into the comatose fine dining experience at the heart of the Midland Hotel, the man from L’Enclume sits sipping coffee with me, extolling the virtues of raw turnips.

Root vegetables, herbs and micro-leaves will soon be sprouting in polytunnels on half an acre of roof space atop Manchester’s palatial red brick and terracotta landmark. All to provide the freshest of local raw materials his ever-evolving style of cooking demands. To supplement established produce from his own farms in Cumbria and Northumberland.

This means no foie gras and other imported staples of posh nosh. I’ve helped him tote his crockery and tubs of seasonings from his spellbinding chef’s demo at the Northern Restaurant and Bar Show just across the road at Manchester Central (better than ever this year, by the way).

I had lugged a large plastic bottle of olive oil – a gift from a trade exhibitor. It won’t be used in The French’s kitchens, despite the gallic name of his new billet. “Oh, no olive oil, native rape seed oil is what we use,” Simon tells me. “I allow myself truffles, but ours come from Wiltshire. When they run out, that’s it.

“When I opened my restaurant in Cartmel a decade ago, I called it L’Enclume. Today I’d call it what it translates as, The Anvil. Our style of cooking has moved on.”

Evidence of his Stakhanovite commitment to fresh raw materials came at his demo, when he showcased three dishes that will feature on his array of tasting menus when his version of The French launches to the public on Tuesday, March 14.

Co-presenter Brian Mellor looked on gobsmacked as Simon constructed a starter salad of 32 ingredients. A bit labour intensive, I ask Simon? “Oh, 32 is on the conservative side,” he tells me later.

I lost count as the ingredients mounted for what was an incongruously small dish: jerusalem artichokes, dehydrated and deep-fried; buckler leaf sorrel; pickled shallots; salt-baked celeriac; chicory in asorbic acid, salted lovage and parsley oil, raw turnip (naturally) and much, much more.

I just wonder what the spectres that haunt The French will make of it – Bruno, Maitre D for 38 years, Gilbert Lefevre, the chef awarded Manchester’s first ever Michelin star, when the French guide launched in the UK in 1974, and those numerous foot soldiers who pushed cheese and bread trolleys round the dining space that sits like an ornate, oval tardis in the middle of a bustling corporate hotel. They and the old regulars may blanch, too, at the bright decor revamp, including a carpet mimicking laminate timber.

Simon Rogan is haunted by his own gastronomic ghost. Elizabeth Raffald. This 18th century champion of British food as opposed to those damned Frenchies, wrote The Experienced English Housekeeper (the 800 recipes were collected during her time as housekeeper at Arley Hall).

Her book is the inspiration for several current Rogan dishes including his NR&B demo main, Larded Veal with Lemon Pickle, Mushroom Ketchup and Wood Blewits (instead of the unobtainable Morels she recommends). It a was revelation to see the transformation in a chef who, when I first reviewed him, served puddings in test tubes and used Heston Blumenthal-like sleight of hand. Now he was wielding a barding needle to insert smoked fat in loin of rose veal.

Of course, Simon had dried the mushrooms in an oven and then rebottled them with their juice. He’s into pickles and preserves, just like our peasant ancestors, to tart up flavours in the barren winter months; similarly you’ll find him “clamping” root veg under sand to keep them fresh. Yet he’s keen to point out he is not into the sometimes over-the-top historical recreations Heston is prone to.

Rogan is resolutely unshowmanlike but certainly obsessed with such good husbandry  and, of course, foraging like his chef inspirations Michel Bras and Marc Veyrat (both French!). Come spring I hope to go out into deepest Cumbria in the search for all things wild and edible with Simon’s long-term forager/chef Kevin Tickle.

Foraging was in evidence throughout, even in the demo pud, which has to eschew such foreign interlopers as chocolate and exotic fruits. “In winter, we just have apples and pears,” Simon tells me with just a hint of ruefulness re his self-imposed kitchen discipline.

So we get poached pears, with dabs of pear puree, “milk jam” (fresh milk reduced with sugar) – oh, and caramelised linseed with rye crackers and a mousse made from a herb called meadowsweet. “It tastes like vanilla, but we can’t use that.”

In Simon’s absence, Manc Adam Reid will head the kitchen brigade. He has trained with such as Simon Radley and Paul Heathcote.

The French opening times will be Tuesday – Saturday, with a lunch menu served between noon and 2pm, and dinner sitting starting at 6.30pm and finishing at 9.30pm. It’s tasting menus only (though Simon doesn’t like the term). Prices: lunch, £29 for three courses, £55 for six courses; dinner, £55 for six courses or £79 for ten courses. According to Simon, expect “all kinds of add-ons, too”.

The last year has been exciting for this chef. L’Enclume achieved a second Michelin star,  got a full ‘10 out of 10’ Good Food Guide rating and retained five AA Restaurant Guide Rosettes. His London pop-up, Roganics continued to earn critical praise, as did his simpler Cartmel eaterie Rogan and Co. He even took over his village local, The Pig and Whistle.

But Cartmel is a long way from notoriously fickle Manchester. Q hotels have reportedly invested £400,000 in revamping the 50-cover French and come the summer the 150-cover secondary restaurant Colony will be on stream under an under-wraps new name. There Simon wants to create the city’s best bar and cook with ingredients beyond his comfort zone there!. So no pressure then. Bonne Chance, Chef!

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