Michelin-starred chef-restaurateur Simon Rogan talks about his biggest undertaking yet, as he prepares to launch Fera at Claridge's in the space previously occupied by Gordon Ramsay for 12 years. Janet Harmer reports
Simon Rogan has a fabulous track record when it comes to opening restaurants, but launching Fera at Claridge's is going to be like nothing he has experienced before.
He is under no illusions that the scale of the launch on 6 May will be immense. The eyes of not just the notoriously ickle UK culinary critics will be on him, but also those from further afield.
For Rogan, the opportunity to be catapulted on to the global stage provided by the five-red-AA-star, 203-bedroom Claridge's will, he believes, be nothing less than he and his team deserves.
While L'Enclume - Rogan's restaurant in Cartmel, Cumbria, which holds two Michelin stars and a perfect 10 score in the Good Food Guide, and the French at the Midland hotel in Manchester, which opened last year, have attracted attention from serious foodies within the UK, Rogan views the outlets as being "out on a limb" for overseas visitors.
"Being in Claridge's will be different," he explains. "It is a world-renowned hotel and the audience will be far greater and wider than we've experienced before."
Despite the enormity of what lies ahead and the pressure that is building, Rogan is confident that he will be able to run the new £3m, 94-seat restaurant as well as anyone else.
It is a confidence shared by Thomas Kochs, the general manager of Claridge's and the man who offered Rogan the opportunity to take on what will be one of the biggest restaurant openings of the year.
"I really do believe in the restaurant; Simon's food is exquisite and inspirational," says Kochs. "We have a 10-year management agreement with Simon, with a five-year break clause, but I don't think we will ever need to use it.
"There is no sense in creating something that is popular for just two or three years. What we are doing is creating something that is substantial, which will potentially last for a lot longer than 10 years."
The decision as to who would be taking over the dining room at Claridge's was certainly not taken lightly - it took nearly nine months from the time it was announced that Ramsay would be departing to the news of Rogan's appointment.
Although rumours were rife that a chef from overseas would be brought in - the names of Thomas Keller and Daniel Humm were frequently mentioned - Kochs is discreet about who he spoke to, but admits that there were "quite a few, all who were incredible".
In selecting Rogan, Kochs says that it was important that Claridge's worked with a chef who would be physically present for a lot of the time and be like-minded to the hotel's way of thinking.
While he doesn't say that it was a prerequisite for Rogan to be British, he is obviously delighted that he is. "I think that is very important,as Claridge's is such a British hotel. The time is absolutely right for him. He has many years' experience and has an incredible standing within the UK, but you feel that there is so much more to come. In some ways his journey is only just beginning. I am very happy that he will now have an international platform."
The relationship between Rogan and Kochs is undoubtedly going to play a significant role in the success of Fera. From their first meeting, they both agree that they were on the same wavelength regarding the focus of the new restaurant.
"We got on immediately," explains Kochs. "From the first time I spoke to Simon, I immediately sensed his energy and excitement.
I love his approach to food and the attention to detail when it comes to growing his own ingredients."
Rogan is equally complimentary about Kochs, saying that the two of them share the same values and sense of humour. Together, they have made joint decisions - in what has proved to be both a meticulous and exhausting process - about every aspect of the restaurant.
It had been Rogan's intention to return to London ever since the two-year pop-up restaurant Roganic in Marylebone closed last year.
With the experience having introduced him to a highly supportive customer base, it is no surprise that there were several operators in the capital who were keen to sign him up. In fact, negotiations were quite advanced with another hotel when the call from Kochs came.
"It was fantastic," recalls Rogan. "After that initial conversation with Thomas I quickly realised that the two of us shared the same goal. When I visited the site and met with Stephen Alden [chief executive of the Maybourne Hotel Group, owner and operating company of Claridge's], I knew that this was where I wanted and needed to be."
The success of the French in Manchester - where Q Hotels, the owner of the Midland, is delighted that bookings have increased by 500% in the past 12 months - made Rogan realise that his return to London would be best facilitated in partnership with a hotel. "I didn't want to go it alone again like Roganic," he says.
The Manchester experience has helped Rogan in his approach to opening Fera. "We initially had staffing issues at the French," he explains. "Although we had a thorough recruitment programme, the pressures of achieving the highest standards resulted in casualties, and at times it felt like a never-ending circle.
"It took about three months to get the team right - everyone worked their arses off, including me. The head chef Adam Reid and sous chef Lee Bird have done an incredible job in making a success of the restaurant. By the time we came to open Mr Cooper's House & Garden [Rogan's second restaurant at the Midland], it was a lot easier to recruit."
The second thing Rogan learnt from the launch of the French is being prepared for what he calls the "old guard".
"Some of the former French [restaurant] customers didn't take to what we did too well. Everything was different to what was there before - the food, the service, the design. Some became new customers, but others decided it was horrible without even trying the food. We need to be prepared for that kind of reaction at Claridge's and limit the damage."
In order to ensure the kitchen team is 100% solid and ready for the opening in early May, Rogan has appointed Dan Cox, his trusty lieutenant, as executive head chef at Fera, to oversee the creation of a 50-strong brigade of chefs, which will match the team of 50 front-of-house staff, headed up by Ben Hofer as restaurant director. Until recently, Cox was director of Aulis, Rogan's research facility in Cartmel, while Hofer joins Fera from Viajante (now closed) at the Town Hall hotel in east London.
Unsurprisingly, given Rogan's standing among the UK culinary elite and the iconic status of Claridge's, there has been no shortage of applicants to work at Fera. But, having enough staff is not sufficient for an operation that will face the intense pressure of operating two services a day, seven days a week, in front of a highly discerning audience.
Building a team that comprises many of those who worked at Roganic - including Richard Cossins (guest relations manager), and Andy Tomlinson (head chef) - will help to ease the way. The 10-day period prior to the opening in which the restaurant will cater to invited guests will also ensure the teething problems of Manchester are not replicated in London.
Working within what is undoubtedly one of the most impressive kitchens and stunningly beautiful dining rooms in town should certainly inspire every member of the team.
Partially open to the restaurant, the kitchen is less utilitarian-looking than most, with slate tiles on both the walls and floor providing a sexy look to the vast space.
Grinning from ear to ear, Rogan cannot hide his delight at how the state-of-the-art kitchen has worked out. Not only does it look fabulous, but it is the perfect environment in which he and the team can create food which is expected will outshine L'Enclume, the location where he started his journey in 2002 into the culinary stratosphere.
Designed by Promart of Liverpool - the company that created the new kitchen installed last year at L'Enclume - the Fera kitchen has no traditional central cooking suite, but instead has induction hobs located throughout the space.
With a heavily vented ceiling and Rogan's focus on using heat eliminating gizmos such as sonic hydrators and rotary evaporators, this is set to be one of the coolest kitchens - both physically and metaphorically - in London.
Rogan expects to be based at Fera full-time for the first weeks following the opening, but once things have settled down, he hopes to be able to reduce that to half of his working time, with one day spent in Manchester and the rest n Cartmel - where he operates Rogan & Co brasserie and the Pig & Whistle pub, in addition to L'Enclume.
Having Fera within his portfolio will be extremely valuable to Rogan's wider business, with Claridge's providing a shop window to drive guests to both Manchester and Cartmel - as happened when Roganic was open. A whole new generation from overseas is likely to visit Cumbria for the very first time.
But that is later. For now, Rogan is totally focused on London. "There is no chance of being second best," he says, surveying Fera as it takes shape. "We've got a brilliant team, and together we are going to create something really special here."
The name Fera means 'wild' in Latin, but there is nothing wild about Guy Oliver's design of the new restaurant. What Oliver has done is cleverly juxtapose the earthy colours and natural, simple aesthetics of L'Enclume within the art deco setting of Claridge's. The result is a glamorous space which, although enjoying an element of grandeur through its high ceilings and mirrored columns, is not in the least intimidating.
The look very much reflects the style of service Kochs is expecting the restaurant to offer.
"We want a really confident, knowledgeable and motivated team to deliver great service, but not service in the traditional fine-dining sense when it was all about the delivery of standards to a certain formula, such as opening a bottle of wine in a certain way," he explains.
"We shall be offering a more evolved service, with the barriers removed. True hospitality should involve intuitive elements, adapting to what the client needs and wants in a relaxed way, while at the same time operating at a consistently high level."
Oliver, who has worked on interiors at Claridge's since 1996, designing the penthouses, royal suite, ballroom and drawing room, has helped to create a relaxed feel by opening up the room to allow the nearly 5m-high windows flood the room with light during the day. Glass doors and panelling, which previously created a private dining space adjacent to the windows, have been removed and replaced with a new marble wall - painstakingly matched to the pattern of the original stone elsewhere in the room - topped with a nickel balustrade.
Beyond the windows, a meadow has been designed by award-winning gardener Tom Stuart-Smith, featuring the herbs and flowers that appear on Rogan's menu, adding to the natural vibe of the overall design.
Meanwhile, the sage sateen wool curtains are complemented by a stronger green carpet, while the walls are painted Paint & Paper Library's dark lead, providing a neutral backdrop for a full-height and full-width mural surrounding the opening to the kitchen. Painted by American artist Linn Meyers, the lines of the work create an abstract topographical landscape representing the day. A triptych composition, also by Meyers, hanging opposite the window, depicts the night.
At the centre of the room will be a life-size sculpture of a bronze tree, which will not be installed until the autumn. Bill Woodrow, the artist, wanted to see the finished restaurant before finalising his design.
A private dining room for up to 12 guests is panelled in maple and features an original 1930s fireplace, while a development table - a term Rogan prefers to chef's table - will open in an adjacent room in September.
Dishes yet to make it on to the main restaurant menu will be served up to eight guests at the development table, which Rogan predicts will become "the hottest table in London".
Food here will be prepared by Rogan himself - "if people are prepared to pay" - or one of the senior members of the brigade. Meanwhile, a mezzanine room above the kitchen and overlooking the development table will be used for research and as a learning facility.
Perhaps the biggest nod to Koch's wish to create a more evolved style of non-elitist service is the eschewing of stiff white linen in favour of bare walnut tables. Bespoke ceramics from Paul Mossman Pottery, Mei Kwin Wong and Naine Woodrow, together with wooden platters, bowls and boxes from Peter Hall, are further evidence that this is a hotel restaurant like no other in London.
Oliver's intention to create gemÁ¼tlich (German for a situation that induces a cheerful mood) has been successfully achieved.
Inspired by the seasons and produce available at any given time, Rogan will be evolving the menu for Fera right up until the opening of the restaurant.
"I need to spend time in the new kitchen, surrounded by the new equipment and staff, for ideas to come together," he says.
The DNA of L'Enclume will run through the menu at Fera. This, after all, is why Claridge's has appointed Rogan.
There is no point reinventing myself for London," he says. "But the repertoire will be completely different. All the dishes here will be unique; they won't have been seen before at L'Enclume or the French."
Alongside two tasting menus - 10 courses for £95 and 16 courses for £125 - Fera will offer an Á la carte menu, which will be priced at £85.
There will also be a set lunch menu for £45. L'Enclume doesn't offer an Á la carte, but it has been agreed there will be a need to in London, where some hotel guests and customers will want to be in and out of the restaurant at a faster pace than the three-hour tasting menu will allow.
"Running two menus scares me," says Rogan. "Just having the one option breeds quality, but I'm determined the Á la carte will be just as good as the 16-course flagship menu."
The scale of the operation at Fera will mean that not all of the produce at the new restaurant will initially come from the 12-acre farm he operates on the edge of Cartmel and which supplies the vast majority of ingredients at
L'Enclume. However, a new growing area he is taking on in the Vale of Evesham will enable Fera to gradually move closer to some form of self-sufficiency.
The freshest of herbs and flowers, though, will be available at every service, with the chefs snipping them directly from trays of growing plants located all around the kitchen.
Ultimately, it is Rogan's intention for customers at Fera to enjoy the freshest and purest flavours, something he believes is only achievable by growing the ingredients himself.
SAMPLE TASTING MENU - £125
•Pea flour wafers, salt cod mousse
â¢ Stewed rabbit and monkfish liver with lovage
â¢ Marinated sturgeon, seawater cream
â¢ Tunworth cheese and duck hearts
â¢ Oyster, cabbage, Black Saison
â¢ Lettuce dressed in vinegar, flaky crab, beach herbs, dill cream and radishes
â¢ Raw beef and smoked broccoli cream, scallop roe and acidic apple juice
â¢ Clay-baked asparagus with savory and onions, pork skin, mead, ramson shoots
â¢ Prawns from Gairloch, parsnips with meadowsweet, chard leaves and violet flowers
•Grilled salad, grilled over embers, Isle of Mull cheese, truffle custard, cobnuts
â¢ Plaice braised in nettle butter, horseradish, cockles and salsify
â¢ Dry aged Herdwick hogget, pickled tongue, hen of the woods, turnips, Alexanders
â¢ Baked yogurt, pear poached in verjus mountain mint and muscovado
â¢ Beetroot cake, sea buckthorn curd, licorice and buttermilk
â¢ Stewed rhubarb, aerated honeycomb,gingerbread and sorrel
â¢ Chocolate malt nitro