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There is something about L’Enclume and the village of Cartmel that seems to suit Simon’s food and vision, I ask Simon whether L’Enclume as we know it today was always the intention:
[L’Enclume] didn’t happen overnight. There were lots of opportunities that came and went. We were looking at projects from the New Forest in Hampshire along to Brighton in West Sussex, these were projects that almost materialised, but for one reason or another, they didn’t. But during my time looking, someone found me, and it was purely by luck that the two guys that owned the freehold to L’Enclume at the time got in touch with someone who knew me. They wanted to lease it as a restaurant (it used to be an antiques shop), they equipped it and refurbished it to a certain standard ready to be a restaurant with rooms, seven bedrooms, [but] couldn’t find anyone mad enough [to occupy it].
Simon here is referring to the fact that the area was then recovering from the foot and mouth outbreak resulting in the immediate surround being somewhat depressed. With another project falling through, Simon decided to travel up from his home near Brighton to have a look, and after a little convincing by the owners, Simon saw the potential:
I stood in the garden, the garden backed onto a river, and I looked back at the building, and I just sort of had to have a vision... just imagine what it could be like. The rooms were very important... because this had to be a destination restaurant. And I just remember a restaurant I used to work at with Jean-Christophe Novelli in the New Forrest called Gordleton Mill, and it reminded me of that and I thought if I could make it half as good as what that was, then this should work.
Simon decided to take a risk. Indeed, the willingness to embrace uncertainty is a key characteristic of successful people, and what should be understood is that changing the location of his intended restaurant from the south coast to Cumbria is simply a change of tactic but not a change of strategy.
In addition, moving north provided a financial benefit:
They [the sellers] outlined a deal which was quite attractive, it was a deal that I would never have been able to get with an establishment of this quality in the South at all, I would have had to borrow a hell of a lot of money or having some severe investment, or both, and both are chains around your wrist. So it was a very attractive deal [allowing it to be] my restaurant. They [the sellers] would help me get to opening without having to borrow shit loads of money.
This is a super-powerful point Simon makes here, giving away equity in your business is giving away ownership for the life of that business, so you really have to be sure that makes sense for you and is always best avoided if possible. Bank (or other) debt meanwhile is a financial burden at the very start when things are already at their most difficult.
Like many a restaurant, the early days were difficult despite all the hard work. Perseverance and belief are necessary to sustain the effort through this period as well as addressing the question, ‘what do we need to do to improve the situation.’ Simon comments on that difficult period:
There was just me and Leo (who Aulis is named after) in the kitchen, his girlfriend as the housekeeper/washer-upper at night, and we had two in the restaurant, Steven and Jamie and that was it. We opened and we were lucky to do any covers in the week, we might stretch it to a dozen on a Friday or Saturday night. We were unsure if this was ever going to get off the ground, but we just thought to hell with it, let’s take a punt and we sold everything, we had, we had to sell our house, our car, stereo, everything we owned just to plough in to keep it going. And thankfully, we employed a London PR, it takes a while for the PR bandwagon to start rolling, and it did. I always remember the first major thing we were in, it was in The Sunday Times Travel Supplement and it was the 20 Best Places to Go Next Year, and we were one of them. That was it, the phone started ringing, and then it led to something else, and something else, and before we knew it we were away.
But as the empty restaurant became a full restaurant, a new set of pressures emerged:
We were trying to feed a busy restaurant and we only had a kitchen one quarter of the size now with the wash up, so it was 40-50 covers, lunch and dinner every day in a tiny tiny kitchen starting work from half past six in the morning to midnight. It was six days a week as well. It took its toll on me, it really did, it was a very very tough time. But you have to go through those tough times.
So where did Simon draw the strength to push on?
It was a quest to make it, to try and be one of the best, or the very best you can do. It’s a very subjective industry: you’re someone’s best, you’re someone’s most rubbish. So we don’t take anything for granted, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. What we do is what we do and hopefully most people like it... you’ve got to be quite thick skinned.
Simon has also sought to keep a focus on what’s important in the business so that, for example, he is no longer involved with the restaurant in Manchester that was The French:
Nothing would please me more than to be behind the pass at L’Enclume all week; there again, nothing would please me more that to be behind the pass at Fera all week. So it’s with a heavy heart that I have to split myself in two. Manchester has gone now, taking that commitment away, purely because of that fact. I do make my restaurants quite personal, I am not a chef that opens restaurants and then you might see them once a month, I’m very hands on. So you won’t see me opening restaurants all over the world and building a bigger portfolio, we’ve actually reduced our restaurants because we thought, ‘sod that, that’s not me.’ I want quality things that are going to be remembered and I want to be there when they achieve the things that they do.
It’s an interesting and integral part of Simon’s vision, building things for the future and building things to last, in turn, creating leadership in the industry and eventually leaving a legacy. Again, it comes down to values guiding you in what you do and how you do it.
One thing that I believe has made a huge difference to the restaurant group is David Simms joining the group as Group Managing Director. I am a huge fan generally of taking time to reflect and asking yourself if your infrastructure has kept up with your success? If the answer is no, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Simon considers his recent experiences:
[that multiple restaurants lead to] a complicated life is probably an understatement, I was getting more and more bogged down. You open more restaurants, you see the financial rewards of it, it’s exciting, it’s a challenge, you’re establishing a new product. I enjoy creating things like that, I enjoy the buzz and getting them open, and getting them established, that’s great. But when that’s all over, then it’s down to the mundane running of them. Running the restaurants and trying to be creative about what goes on the menu is pretty much darn impossible for a small team to handle, so as the restaurants have grown the team has obviously got bigger and bigger and the appointment of Dave, the MD was probably fundamental in getting my mind back to where it should be because I was getting pretty bogged down with stuff.
This is a great move employing David and having known Simon for some years, I’ve never seen him look so well as he does now or have so much energy. But I’m interested in how this works, the split between Simon and Dave.
The great thing about Dave is that he’s got a very good chef’s pedigree as well... but as the MD he’s basically controlling the financial purse strings now. He’s got all the financials controlled, he takes a lot of decisions out of my lap. So he has a chef’s pedigree and he’s still got a chef’s hat on even though he’s controlling it, (laughs) but he does it in a more sensible manner than I do. Now we can really concentrate on the customer side of things with the confidence that the systems we have in place are second to none and it takes so much pressure off our employees.
So Simon’s role?
My role now is... I write the menus, the final menu choice is with me, I don’t always come up with the menu choice but I might tweak it a little bit or I might just leave it alone, but I’m agreeing what the menus are, all the service techniques are run by me, basically, everything that you can see, anything that customer can see comes by me. That’s the same between L’enclume and Fera.
Again, I think this move really emphasises that every chef, every manager and every owner has to recognise that there is only one him/her and so has to decide ‘how best do I use my time?’ Spending time on decisions that someone else can make for you (and possibly make better and quicker than you can) is a lost opportunity to add more to the business where you yourself are most valuable.
After all the hard work, the sacrifices made, the trophy cabinet now looks pretty good, but how does Simon view his achievement and what’s he most proud of?
The thing about L’Enclume is, when we opened it was just about L’Enclume but over the years, now, it’s about the whole package, it’s not just L’Enclume anymore, Cartmel has changed, that’s probably been for me my biggest achievement to see Cartmel develop in to the busy bustling place that was on The New York Times’ list Top 52 Places to Go in 2014.
It's hard not to disagree that that’s a remarkable achievement: Cartmel ranked 44th on that, listed above Nepal (45th), Vienna (46th) and Niagara Falls (52nd).
Simon is fascinating, and with so much insight on business, food and life, it’s a shame to bring things to a close, but before I do I wanted to touch upon something which we had seen that night at L’Enclume, which was a party enjoying a special birthday celebration and who were so excited to be eating Simon’s food, a typical scene no doubt at L’Enclume. Simon has never lost sight of the fact that his restaurant and his food should bring people joy, as he notes what makes him happy:
Seeing a full restaurant, busy, buzzy, people with smiles on their faces, enjoying their evening, just having a great time, that’s what we’re in the job for, to provide service which hopefully no one else can provide and give them those memories and enjoyment.
I find it inspirational that a restaurant like L’Enclume seeks as its mission to provide not just the best food you can imagine, but also lasting memories.
And that concludes. I would again like to thank Simon not only for his time, but also for sharing so much with such honesty. Simon is without doubt one of the all-time greats of the British culinary scene and L’Enclume is, as I noted after my last visit, truly a world class restaurant staffed by a world class team.