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Restaurant of the Year 2013 – The French, Manchester

The French in Manchester is winner of Decanter/Laurent-Perrier Restaurant of the Year 2013, for it's simple and unadorned style - as published in Decanter's February 2014 issue.

Last year was a good year for eating out, as was the year before; it’s finally happened – what was revolutionary is getting to be the norm. Though there was a swarm of faux French bistros and a stampede of steakhouses that kept coming on like a robot army, swathed in clichés and artful décor, there was still a remarkable amount of originality evident in both the cooking and the wine lists. As the icing on the cake, the notion that restaurants are in the hospitality business also seems to have finally taken hold.

The encouraging thing about much of what’s going on here in the UK is the breadth of the inventiveness and, in a way, its frequent contrariness. All the fuss still being made about laboratory cooking, which seems aimed more at reinventing food in the most theatrical way, may wow the cult followers of Foodism (and the sort of people willing to compile lists that rank restaurants from Copenhagen to Melbourne), but it’s become like cooking in an international echo chamber. Even worse, it’s anti-terroir. It’s clear that labs and locavores don’t really mix.

So: thank you, Hedone, Dabbous, Grain store, the newest 28°-50° outpost and the newest Pollen street spin-off in London. Thank you to unpretentiously inventive pub conversions in Cornwall and the Berkshires, thanks Alimentum in Cambridge, to all the chefs and sommeliers who pulled together, and thanks most of all to the cheerfully imaginative simon Rogan, chef-patron at The French, the triumphantly reincarnated restaurant in The Midland Hotel in Manchester, which is the Decanter/Laurent-Perrier Restaurant of the year.

Rogan has been quietly riding along the top tier of British cooking for a decade, achieving perfect or near-perfect scores from guide books and critics. But he remains only a rumour to many others, since his restaurant, L’Enclume, is based in Cartmel – a village in Cumbria, up north and out of the way. A deliberately temporary pop-up restaurant in London provided glimpses of what he can do, and then disappeared. As it turns out, this hiatus was only temporary, and his return to London will be fairly spectacular: the afternoon we met was the day after it was announced that he will be the replacement for Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, the venerable, luxurious Mayfair hotel, what one national newspaper later called ‘one of the biggest coups in cuisine’.

What will London’s gourmets make of his cooking in this elegant context? Roganic, his pop-up, was simple and unadorned, with the focus on his cooking. This features a wide array of herbs, foraged greens, grains and seeds, plus offbeat vegetables such as kohlrabi, chard and blewitt mushrooms in striking – sometimes startling – combinations: charcoal or mustard infuses olive oil; greens like kale or cabbage are charred or caramelised over wood flames; and regional specialties like sarsaparilla and malted barley are featured. What he does is quite original; his own singular definition of British cooking.

Rogan’s father was a fruit-and-vegetable wholesaler in Southampton, and some of his happiest memories are of being taken to the markets on the docks as a small boy. ‘It’s in my DNA,’ he says with a smile. ‘Seeing all those unusual raw materials like tomatillos, kiwis, star fruit and tropical vegetables had an appeal, made me want to discover how to use them.’ A stint at a restaurant in the New Forest as a young man included extensive foraging, which reinforced his determination: ‘I knew what I wanted to do long before I had my own restaurant.’

He gives the impression, even sitting quietly at rest, of not being quite relaxed, which may have as much to do with his near-constant commuting between London and Cartmel, as with this latest news about Claridge’s. He’s modest, spreading the credit for his success across his team, almost always speaking in plural forms, as he hops across the peaks of a busy life, spent mostly in the kitchen.

After working with Jean-Christophe Novelli (‘he taught me about modern cooking, and got me out of Southampton, for which I’m grateful’), John Burton-Race and Marco Pierre White, he polished what he knew with Alain Senderens in Paris – famous for being the first chef to reject his Michelin stars. In 2002, he found a ‘fabulous’ stone building in Cumbria and created L’Enclume, a restaurant with rooms. ‘I was nervous. It was a long way from what I knew, but it’s a magical place.’

In 2008, he gained his first Michelin star and opened Rogan & Co, a more casual restaurant. Then a farm that had supplied him with organic fruit and vegetables went bust, and he took it over (‘once you get hooked on farming, you can’t stop, and it’s a massive part of our success’). Now, it’s grown to more than 5.5 hectares, and includes livestock like chickens, sheep, cattle and bees; more expansion is on the cards. Then he bought the local pub. ‘When I started, I only ever imagined the restaurant,’ he says wryly. Restoring The French to its former glory and giving Manchester something to cheer about gastronomically looked easy, but involved many 18-hour days. ‘Almost like starting over,’ he says.

Though he speaks fondly of the farm, he’s enthusiastic about Aulis, his research and design test kitchen developing new dishes and techniques. ‘We use science when it works, but keep the technical stuff in the background; I don’t need to deconstruct food, just to enhance it. And that’s what we work on all the time: British ingredients cooked simply but brilliantly.’

The French, The Midland Hotel, Peter St, Manchester M60 2DS. Tel: +44 01612 363 333; www.the-french.co.uk.
Open for lunch Wednesday-Saturday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Reservations advised.

Written by Brian St Pierre

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