Leeu Collection has put all its trust in Simon Rogan, giving him total control over the F&B operation at its first UK hotel, Linthwaite House in Cumbria. Tessa Allingham discovers how the four-Michelin-starred chef is juggling things up, adding influences from across the globe and delegating to his trusted team at Henrock
On Windermere, jutting out of the water just where the cable ferry pulls in to take you to Far Sawrey, is Hen Rock. Next to it is Chicken Rock, but that's not quite so catchy a name for a restaurant.
"I came up with Henrock about two hours before [the deadline]," says Simon Rogan. He's pleased with it; it's direct, unpretentious, unfussy. "L'Enclume!" he rolls his eyes. "What was that all about? I was being French and fancy. Ridiculous. I should have called it Anvil."
Henrock is Rogan's latest restaurant. It sits with its solid, indigenous name within one of the most English of hospitality notions – a country house hotel. This one – Linthwaite House on the slopes above Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria – has one of the most iconic lakeside views towards thick Grizedale Forest, Beatrix Potter-land and the misty mound of the Old Man of Coniston beyond.
However, nods to South Africa (its owners, the Western Cape-based Leeu Collection, bought the hotel three years ago) puncture any English predictability with style and humour, and Rogan's Henrock menu reaches out for inspiration beyond the region and country too.
It's a move that distances Rogan's latest enterprise from the approach seen in its purest form at L'Enclume, his flagship Cartmel restaurant, just 12 miles away, with its global reputation for inventive, pared-back, obsessively ‘locavore' cooking. It was described as being "rough-hewn in the image of the region" in The Good Food Guide 2020, in which it returned to the top spot after a two-year break.
"I made a success with the ethos and rules at L'Enclume and it's a juggernaut that won't stop," says Rogan. "But it's one of a kind, it can't be replicated, and I have very eclectic tastes. Henrock isn't my ‘new way', it's just that I wanted to juggle things up. We're doing small plates that are accessible and fun, and, as long as you're not in Speedos or flip-flops, it's come as you are."
On the menu
Henrock is open for business at dinner or lunch and afternoon tea in the Bar & Conservatory. The menu is meatier and fishier than Rogan's other restaurants, though produce is still largely from his Our Farm in the Cartmel Valley. It majors on small plates: 16 of them listed under ‘cold and caviar', ‘salads', ‘bread and broth', and ‘vegetables', with an average price of £7 and supplements for caviar or truffle.
Three main courses – a meat, a fish and a vegetarian (£17-£22) – enable a more conventional à la carte experience, and three sharing dishes (£35-£45) tick that on-trend box with the likes of whole Dover sole with shiso salsa verde, citrus and radish broth, or dry-aged Herdwick lamb, fried rib, loin and date molasses. Guests are likely to spend £60 each without wine. Flavours flirt with Japan, the Far East, Italy and the Pacific west coast under the influence of newly appointed head chef Brian Limoges.
The American brings a flavours-of-the-world approach to cooking and significant experience in senior positions at San Francisco's Michelin-starred Birdsong, Quince (three stars) and Atelier Crenn (three stars). "San Francisco has a huge Japanese culture, the US's biggest Chinatown and amazing Mexican food," says Limoges. "It's easy to be influenced by lots of different things."
A dish of radicchio melds flavours of soy, honey, Korean chilli paste, dried stone fruit and mint to create accents of sweetness and acidity that counter the leaf's natural bitterness.
A lobster roll with a healthy whack of Tabasco and freshening celeriac references Limoges' New England childhood: "Lobsters were peasant food. You'd eat a whole lobster in a hot dog bun. Insane!" A sea urchin ‘galette' suggests Japan in a few rich bites of the animal's foie gras-like uni [gonads] sandwiched between slices of brioche and delicate feuille de brick; the creaminess of plantain and dulce de leche is lifted by Bourbon and Thai spices in one of the desserts.
Rogan's preferences are evident too: hen of the woods features with a miso-cured egg yolk and lovage; there's chicken skin on a dish of roasted carrots and black garlic; and yeast gives a powerful umami punch to florets of charred broccoli under syrupy lardo. Rogan's trademark restraint will remain, too. "That comes with age and contentment," he says. "In the past, I felt my menus had to be highly technical; I had to add to ingredients, always do something to them. I don't need to show off any more."
Limoges crossed Rogan's radar a couple of years ago. "I was struck by his passion," says Rogan. "He's obsessive, ambitious. I thought ‘one day we'll work together'." The chef accepted the Linthwaite opportunity in a heartbeat. "Simon and I got along immediately. He is an incredible man, a no-bullshit person, a direct communicator, like me. He doesn't over-manage people. He'll step in if need be, but he lets people be successful."
Limoges has inherited an eight-strong brigade of young chefs hungry to learn and whom he is hungry to teach. He joins what Rogan describes as a "brilliant" team, one that has enabled his Umbel Restaurant Group to grow in a way that bewilders even Rogan himself. His name is above the door, but he delegates. "I'd go berserk, absolutely insane if I didn't," he admits.
Sam Ward, operations director and shareholder, is Rogan's detail-oriented, people-focused right-hand man with a notebook and pen. Sommelier Charles Carron Brown has diverted to Henrock from Cartmel, and Nicolas Perdrier, also formerly at L'Enclume and whose hospitality career began at Linthwaite House, runs the restaurant. In time, Limoges will no doubt cross paths with Oli Marlow, who looks after Roganic and Aulis in London and Hong Kong; Paul Burgalières, L'Enclume's driven head chef since July 2017; and Tom Barnes, executive chef at Rogan & Co and L'Enclume.
A hotel from home
But why return to hotels? Rogan's previous unions have not been the happiest: he dismantled a relationship with the Midland hotel, Manchester, in 2016, three years into a five-year contract to manage the French restaurant, and a year later ended a 10-year contract at Fera in Claridge's, London, early. "OK, I admit I did say at the time ‘never again'. But this is different.
Here, I'm not like a naughty little squatter in someone else's hotel," he says. Rogan is in control, and that's why he believes it will work. He has overall responsibility for the entire F&B operation, looking after 50-cover Henrock, the 60-cover Bar & Conservatory, with its all-day menu (including razor clam spaghetti with Calabrian chilli; quail yakitori; classic afternoon tea), events and room service. The financial arrangement remains private, but Rogan admits it's "an easier, less risky, way for me to open a restaurant".
For Analjit Singh (who prefers to go by Bas, an acronym for Bhai Analjit Singh; bhai being an honorific meaning brother), one of India's most successful entrepreneurs and founder of the Leeu Collection, it's about a "shared vision and value". He recalls his early encounters with Rogan: "When we were buying Linthwaite House, I took a colleague to Cumbria.
We ate at L'Enclume, just as visitors, and I said ‘wow, this is close to my heart'." A year later, with the hotel refurbished and the focus turning to improving the pizza-pasta-risotto offer, Singh pondered who to approach. "We asked, ‘who's top of the pops around here?'"
A mutual acquaintance made an introduction and the rest reads like a love story. "We connected straightaway – I'm talking minutes, not hours – there was chemistry, the philosophy was right," Singh recalls. "We were in alignment… I love that word!" Rogan returns the compliment: "I've always admired Linthwaite House, but felt it under-achieved. The decision [to partner] was easy. The Leeu Collection is a great company, and Mr Singh is an extraordinary man."
Like Rogan, Singh is a delegator. "People get myopic about F&B. We wanted best-in-class F&B and Simon is better at it than we are, so he should do it, not us. Also, in all my hotels, F&B solutions are local. We are so lucky he was just a hop, step and a jump away."
What the partnership also does, Rogan says, is strengthens his company's position in "our own backyard". He may be city-born (Southampton), but Cumbria is home. It's where it all began in 2002 when he and his partner, Penny, sold everything ("my house, my car, my stereo, my cat – no, not the cat, but you know what I mean") to open a restaurant in a village on the road to nowhere and with zero culinary heritage beyond sticky toffee pudding. He was fired by a belief that "if the product was right, people would come". They did, of course, and you don't have to probe far to understand that he's still happiest at the L'Enclume pass.
Cartmel is about to post a record year, but things are harder in London. "It's not ‘boom or bust' [in Cumbria]. London hospitality is going to be shattered by Brexit. It's been on a downward spiral since the vote." He still needs a "shop window" in the city, though, fulfilled of course by Roganic and Aulis.
Ask him to look forward 10 years and retirement is the quick answer. At 52 he talks of "old bones" and that cooking is "a young man's game" but there's "plenty of time to sit by the pool or in a wheelchair". He hints that Ward, who started as a bartender with the company in 2008, could run the show in due course, but he's clearly far from finished with hospitality – he has ambitions still.
The Caterer visited just 24 hours after Michelin announced its 2020 stars. Rogan shrugs. He didn't go to the shindig, and though he did share on Instagram his pride at retaining all four stars (two at L'Enclume and one each at Roganic and Rogan & Co), he hasn't yet picked up on the ups and downs because he's not wedded to social media. "Too much to do. There are never enough hours in the day without getting fuzzy in the head with that."
Later, perhaps because he's more off-guard, disappointment is detectable. "I don't know what more we can do at L'Enclume. Maybe next year... We've really pushed, and The Good Food Guide recognised that. I'm not naïve, though, I know things change fast."
Rogan says that Ward puts him right if he gets down. "He says to me: ‘Boss, shut your mouth, look what we've got: a business that is motoring, full restaurants – and in this climate'. And I say, ‘yeah, you're right'.
The Leeu Collection
"We are 20 days from either implosion or explosion in the UK," says Analjit Singh, founder of the Leeu Collection. His tone, speaking to The Caterer on 11 October, is pragmatic. "But whatever happens, I am a strong believer in the UK." He put his money firmly where his mouth is – admittedly just two months before the Brexit referendum – with the purchase in April 2016 of Linthwaite House, investing a sum "above £10m but below £20m" to buy and renovate the Edwardian property and its 14 acres of garden, tarn and woodland. Six stunning new Lake Suites, a short walk from the main building, bring the rooms to 36, while two multipurpose spaces are near completion and will contribute profitable events revenue.
Interiors by Beverley Boswell, who has worked on all the Leeu properties, are contemporary and glamorous. Leather, velvet and slubby linen in on-trend shades of Air Force blue, burnt orange and green are used on the button-back sofas and bucket armchairs, while floor-to-ceiling windows capitalise on the setting. Wood floors are rug-covered, an open fire burns in the hallway, and there are coffee table books on art and design.
Nods to South Africa (the Leeu Collection is based at Franschhoek in the Western Cape Winelands) pop up in the shape of African artefacts, dashes of leopard print upholstery and artwork, some from Singh's eclectic personal collection. Outside, the theme continues: a bronze lioness prowls through damp Cumbrian bracken, a pair of male lions passant flank the entrance, and there's a sculpture of Diana the Huntress in pursuit of impala. Landscaping by Francesca Watson – another Leeu regular – cleverly blends rough fellside, woodland and rocky outcrops with picture-perfect flowerbeds.
Linthwaite House is the first hotel outside South Africa for Singh, the hugely successful Indian-born, South Africa-based entrepreneur whose other interests include telecommunications, healthcare and insurance. Next up is Leeu Villa Querce just outside Florence, a former boarding school set to open in 2022 as a 70-bedroom luxury hotel.
Plans to turn an office building into a 100-bedroom hotel in London's Fitzrovia have been shelved, however. "The truth is, I acted in haste," says Singh. "Fitzrovia is a fantastic location for a business hotel, but it's not a fit for us."
Instead, future openings will happen along what Singh calls his "corridor in life and business" that runs between the Cape, the UK and Italy. Northern England, Scotland and "greater, greater London" interest him, places with established tourism – hence the Lake District with its "not too shabby" 15 million visitors a year.
Wherever the Leeu Collection goes next, its vision is clear. "We see hospitality through three vectors: living, F&B, and events. Firstly, you can't master all three, and secondly, it's impossible for every venue to be an events venue. But there has to be a sense of place, whether it's a valley, forest, river, desert. Our challenge is to create a difference."
With F&B delegated, the ‘living' aspect is the Leeu focus. "This is about look-feel-smell-touch; it's about comfort, landscape, service. And I think we lead the show."
From the menu
- Venison carpaccio, salsify, egg yolk jam, aged Cheddar £7
- Lobster roll, lobster fat crêpe, Tabasco £10 (£12 with caviar)
- Jerusalem artichoke custard, elderberries, Brussels sprout, turnip £6
- Roasted pumpkin, smoked prune, buckwheat, cider (to share) £35
- Poached cod, nasturtium, black lime curry, buttermilk £19
- Pine-smoked quail, honey, quince, endive £22
- Grapefruit and apple pavlova, olive oil, yogurt, vadouvan £7
Contact and details
- Chef creator Simon Rogan
- Head chef Brian Limoges
- Restaurant manager Nicolas Perdrier
- Covers 50
- Predicted spend per head Dinner, excluding wine, £60
- General manager Karen Irving
- Rooms 36 (30 in the main building, plus six Lake Suites)
- Rates From £200 room only
- Covers 60 (Bar & Conservatory)
- Linthwaite House, Crook Road, Bowness-on-Windermere, Windermere LA23 3JA
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