Simon is truly one of the greats of British cooking and it was a privilege to talk to him about what has driven that success.
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For five years, L’Enclume has achieved a perfect 10 in The Good Food Guide and I hope to get under the skin of how Simon’s achieved that. But to understand L’Enclume now, Simon takes me back to why and how L’Enclume with its current offering came into existence.
I had disappointments in my career in employment where I had always chosen the wrong employer – they could probably say the same about me – but I never quite found that person to share my vision and what I wanted to do, so I suppose I have got my last employer to thank for me never ever wanting to work for anyone ever again… I needed to found my own restaurant to find my own destiny.
The other chefs interviewed thus far for my website have generally found an employer who imprinted upon them early a strong influence which stayed with them spiritually through their career, but in Simon’s case, it is the very absence of finding that person which pushed him towards opening his own restaurant. For me, this once again comes down to ideas around values, with values being the sense of ‘how we achieve our goals’. Coherent values between the individual and the employer are essential, with the implication that if your current employer doesn’t provide a strong fit with your own core values, you should move on. Simon lived that principle and the only way for his vision to come to life was to go it alone, and that means L'Enclume was always destined to be a properly unique restaurant, the product of Simon's singular vision.
Of course, the food becoming what it is today was very much a journey in its own right and initially, the influences of your previous situations still dominate:
In the early years I had this thought of how I wanted the food to be. In my last work of employment, we were cooking ‘London food’… Marco had left a legacy, very modern, polished, French cuisine done in a very London way… but I wasn’t part of that [movement]… I wanted to do something a bit different to that.
And then [in my last job] Frederick my sous-chef won the Roux Scholarship and went to work for Pierre Gagnaire for 3 months as part of his prize, and he was phoning up every day to tell me about all these techniques and equipment he was using and it was like, ‘wow, that sounds amazing, I must go there.’ Incredible creativity and something that just blew my mind.
About the same time, I had a guy come to work for me, a mate who had been working for Marc Veryat at la Ferme de mon Pere and he had been there for three months and he [Veryat] uses a lot of Alpine wild herbs and flowers in his cookery, very avant garde cooking techniques, really wacky and that just blew my mind, the pair of them, but especially Marc Veryat, I just wanted to do something like that, and it was just by chance that I ended up in England’s answer to the Alps.
It’s notable here that Simon connected with values of Gagnaire and Veryat without having cooked there or eaten there but it helped give further form to Simon’s vision and what he wanted to achieve at his own restaurant. But you can’t just transition immediately.
You can’t go from cooking a typical London menu to this whole new world so for this first six, seven months it was what I knew and carry on with that sort of style while we were busy getting ready for our first tasting menu.
At this time, a further feature that has become somewhat synonymous with Simon also made its first appearance:
We had an organic farm up the road which I approached: can you grow me things like good King Henry, winter savoury and sweet cicely, which I found out you can get in the wild everywhere now, but they’d grow these little things that I had seen that you couldn’t get anywhere else so it took about seven or eight months before the start of the first show of style that I anticipated for the business, it wasn’t overnight, it took a while to come up with it all.
Also associated with Simon is technology and kitchen gadgets that look straight out of a science lab, but he’s not in fact overly techy, just curious:
We’re not splitting atoms or anything like that… there is an element of science to it but it does look a lot more scientific than what it really is. Yeah, a rotary evaporator does look very impressive but it’s a very simple concept and most of the techniques we use are just basically as simple as trying to do things at low temperature. That’s it really, that’s the secret, that’s the secret of flavour, the secret of freshness, the secret of nutrients – don’t destroy them with heat, which obviously as a chef we are used to doing.
But again, common among leading chefs is a willingness to experiment and take a few risks:
I think I saw a demonstration once of a rotary evaporator and I thought, that’s an interesting concept, let’s buy one and I had no idea how to use it, and if I can learn how to use it, it’s pretty simple really.
But Simon is perhaps being overly modest here because the scale of R&D at L’Enclume is one of the key differentiators, in that they are not trying to build a better mousetrap, they are doing something totally different altogether:
That’s what L’Enclume has always been about, it’s been in the forefront and doing new things, and setting trends, techniques and menus. To be able to do that you need time, that comes back to the team and I trust them implicitly to be in the kitchens preparing all the recipes that are created, only for me to plate them during the important time during service but it gives me time in those [other] periods to work with the development boys to give them those recipes.
While Simon’s food was developing into his own, early on his management style was very much anchored in the practices of his former employers, coupled with the fact that resources in the beginning, both staffing and money, were tight:
There have been times when I’ve been driving myself completely mad and [been in] dark places, it’s not been all moonlight and roses, Penny [Simon’s wife and business partner] will tell you that. She was fundamental to the business in the early days… and she hated working for me, I was a complete bastard, but that was mainly because I had a vision, I wanted to get there, and nothing was going to get in my way, nothing at all, and my attitude to get there was probably down to the people I worked for, the violent, political kitchens that I had worked in and I just thought that was the way and that was the easiest way of getting there.
This notion comes up again and again, that is, the younger staff absorb and adopt the culture that is created by the senior team and then often carry that over with them when they themselves become senior. Managers constantly need to be aware that the behaviours they demonstrate to their staff will become the cultural norm across all employees – so we’re back to the values thing. But Simon has now been able to leave these behaviours behind:
In the past four or five years… I have considerably mellowed, probably due to the fact that I am not in the restaurants all the time… I’ve taken a different view of things. I realise that [in these past four or five years] we’ve achieved a hell of a lot more doing things nicely than you could ever do when you’re this crazy obsessed person.
Not least, Simon now has a much larger responsibility, being not just his restaurant workforce but his ‘Cartmel family’ of staff. Accordingly, it’s a very different message that Simon now pushes down to his kitchen teams:
It’s not all about cooking talent anymore, it’s about being a nice person and doing the right thing and treating people the right way. You’ve got to learn those things first, learn life before you try to be a head chef. I mean I am a father to about 70 people in Cartmel, that’s what it feels like, I have all their problems on my shoulder. If I am not a nice person, they’re not going to feel wanted are they?
Talking of the character of chefs, I ask if chefs really are the new rock stars?
I think it has gone a bit too far as well to be honest… you’re chefs, get behind the stove and cook a meal for people… sometimes they take themselves a bit too seriously. At the end of the day we are cooks and there to provide enjoyment for people. If you do good food, do good tasty food, and you’re sensible about it, that’s all the world changing you need to do. We follow our principles; the evidence is there on a plate. We do it, day in day out.
* Part 2 of this interview focussing on the business aspects of Simon’s restaurant group will be published shortly.