Former head chef at Claridge's and Gordon Ramsay protégé Mark Sargeant has big plans. He's hanging up his chef's whites to run two new ventures in Folkestone - Rocksalt and Smokehouse - and wants to help turn the town into the next Padstow. Kerstin Kühn reports
I want Folkestone to be the next Padstow," says Mark Sargeant, beaming with excitement. We're sitting in the sunshine next to his new baby, Rocksalt, overlooking the English Channel with France just about visible on the horizon, and the smell of sea and grilled fish in the air. Life is good.
But then we turn around and catch a glimpse of the real Folkestone behind us, which makes Sargeant's dream seem a tad unrealistic. Apart from his impressive multi-faceted operation there isn't much to suggest the Kentish seaside town might be the next big holiday destination. The harbour is ailing, a dilapidated, cruise liner-shaped hotel overlooks it and the high street behind has no doubt seen better days. A thriving seaside town at the start of the 20th century complete with a railway connection to London and a cross-Channel port, Folkestone today bears little resemblance to what it once was.
But Sargeant's contagious passion and excitement make all this seem irrelevant. "We're the first piece of the puzzle," he enthuses, pointing to former Saga boss Roger De Haan's ambitious plans to revamp the area. "All this is set to undergo a £40m regeneration. There'll be a boutique hotel, a café, bar, trendy beach hut accommodation. Within five to ten years this will be a completely different town."
For now it's just Sargeant's operation that offers a glimpse of the new Folkestone, though it's a very impressive one at that. His first solo restaurant project since quitting Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) in 2009, Rocksalt opened on 8 June. Spread over two floors overlooking the harbour, it features an 80-seat restaurant with a bar, private dining room, veranda and windows into the large kitchen, while upstairs there's a funky bar that opens up on to a large terrace.
Meanwhile across the road are four small boutique-style bedrooms, designed for diners travelling to Rocksalt wanting to stay the night. And next door is the Smokehouse, Sargeant's take on a contemporary fish and chips restaurant, complete with takeaway counter and a 40-cover dining room with Wagamama-style bench seating and a giant stainless steel shark hanging from the ceiling.
It's a big operation. It's stylish, modern and massively ambitious, especially for the area. But that's not where Sargeant's plans end. He talks of rolling out the Smokehouse concept across the south-east coast, launching a cookery school, venturing into event catering. He's not kidding about taking on Rick Stein. But can Folkestone really be the next Padstow?
"Yes, it's seriously ambitious and there is a lot of risk involved," he concedes. "The obvious thing for me would have been to open in London but instead I'm here in Folkestone. We have to make the restaurant work first. But my partner Josh De Haan [Roger's son and financier of the project] and I have spent an awful lot of time and energy on coming up with the concept. We're hungry for it and we want to grow a really successful business."
Sargeant grew up in the Kentish countryside and attended West Kent College where he graduated with a City & Guild's general catering diploma with distinction in 1992. He then joined London gentleman's club Boodles as a commis chef, before returning to Kent a year later to become chef de partie at Read's in Faversham. After joining Peter Kromberg at Le Soufflé restaurant at the InterContinental London Hyde Park and clinching the Young Chef of the Year title in 1996, he moved to Oliver Peyton's Coast where he worked with Stephen Terry.
In 1997, he joined Gordon Ramsay's Aubergine brigade before helping the chef launch his eponymous restaurant on Royal Hospital Road in 1998 where Sargeant remained as sous chef for four years. But it was in 2001 that Sargeant got his big break, with the launch of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, where he was installed as head chef.
"Opening Claridge's for Gordon was the most exciting thing at that point in my life," he recalls. "Although it had his name over the door, it was very much my restaurant, my team, my menus." A Michelin star followed in 2002, the same year Sargeant won the prestigious National Chef Year of the Year title. "It was a hugely exciting year for me."
He stayed with Ramsay for a further seven years, overseeing the launch of his three London pubs as well as Foxtrot Oscar, and co-writing Ramsay's many cookery books. In 2009, he resigned. "It was time to move on," he says refusing to comment on a rumoured fallout. "I left on very amicable terms; let's leave it at that." He clearly still idolises Ramsay, who he describes as his biggest mentor. "Gordon was very good at pushing me forward, I learned so much from him," he says.
After leaving GRH, Sargeant joined the Swan Group of pubs as creative director, an involvement he says "got blown a little bit out of proportion". "I'd known them for a long time and came on board to help with menu development. When this project came up, they were very happy for me to move on."
The set-up in Folkestone sees Sargeant as the operator, installed by owners/landlords, the De Haan family, who are native to the area and made their fortune through the Saga group of companies, best known for selling holidays to the over-50s. Roger De Haan bought Folkestone harbour for £11m in 2004 and has commissioned architect Sir Terry Farrell to design the multi-million pound regeneration project, for which he is currently awaiting planning permission.
"My partners are really honest business people, which is so hard to find these days," says Sargeant. "We want to grow something really big together. Not too big though; we don't want to over-expand like some people."
At Rocksalt and Smokehouse, Sargeant has been responsible for the entire operational side of the business from designing menus, sourcing produce and, of course, finding the right team both front and back of house. The latter has been pivotal because he's very vocal about the fact that he won't be donning the whites in Folkestone.
"After 20 years of being a chef, I'm ready to move out of the kitchen now and become a restaurateur," he explains. "I'm quite old school in the kitchen. I had years of Gordon barking in my ear and I get quite stressed out during service and can lose my temper. I'm more creative when I'm out of the day-to-day running of the kitchen; I'm more relaxed and being able to take a step back and see producers and suppliers has been really inspiring.
"You see so much more when you're able to remove yourself from the stress of the kitchen and you can achieve so much more - Gordon used to do it all the time. He let me shine when he put me into Claridge's. Now it's my turn to let someone else shine."
That someone else is head chef Simon Dyer, who has joined Rocksalt from Claridge's where he worked for five years, including three under Sargeant. He oversees a brigade of 15 chefs, including sous chef Russell Sherwood, and junior sous chef Sally Tutchings, who also worked at Claridge's.
"My core kitchen team have all worked at Claridge's at some point, which is really important because I need to have that structure and know that I can rely on them when I'm not there," Sargeant says. The rest of the team has been recruited locally.
"For some of them this is their first job in a kitchen so they're not experienced at all. But it's our job to make them skilled and we're here to train them. I wasn't born a head chef and I really want to nurture and train these young chefs. If they leave after a short time then I will have failed them."
The food at Rocksalt celebrates the best of seasonal British produce, sourced from suppliers around the South East. Given the location there's obviously a major focus on fresh seafood but Sargeant is keen to stress that there's a lot more to Kent than fish.
"We're working with some amazing farmers and producers," he says. He talks enthusiastically about local wine, beer and cider, asparagus and potatoes, Kent-reared chicken, pork and beef. Again the sky seems the limit as he talks about growing his own produce and even rearing his own livestock.
"Josh has his own smallholding so we're already growing our own herbs and salads there and we'll soon grow vegetables too," he says. "Roger has his own farm with livestock including 10,000 free-range chickens so we have all our own eggs and eventually we hope to use his lamb and beef. The goal is to eventually be 30-40% self-sufficient."
The menu at Rocksalt is divided into sections including Shell Fish and Smoked Fish, Catch of the Day, Fishmonger, Butcher, Sauces, Vegetables, Potatoes and Puddings.
"We've made the à la carte really flexible and rather than doing finished dishes we've kept the meat and fish dishes really simple with just a small garnish, allowing customers to choose their own accompaniments from the large section of potato and vegetable sides," Sargeant explains. There's a set lunch menu at £17.50 for three courses, while on Sundays a "lengthy, meat-heavy lunch menu" is served, at £25 for three courses including classic roasts served with big bowls of roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables and gravy for the whole table to share. And there'll be a tasting menu too. "This is my Michelin background coming out," Sargeant jokes. "It won't be all plated and decorated; it'll just be a few examples from the menu presented in tasting style. I think people still like to experience this and it's all about offering flexibility and covering all bases."
While he gets even more animated when talking about the producers, menus and amazing ingredients he is working with, his main goal now is to become a businessman.
"I want to learn more about the industry and become a restaurateur," he says. "Josh has never run a restaurant and I have never run a business. We want to learn and draw on each other's skills, become a really fantastic team in the industry and start something big."
Sargeant is clearly over the moon about his new venture and his ambition to take over the world is truly endearing. For now though his focus will have to be Folkestone and getting Rocksalt and the Smokehouse off the ground. Let's hope the sun continues to shine for him.
MARK SARGEANT CV
1992 General catering diploma, West Kent College with a City & Guild's
1992 Commis chef, Boodles, London
1993 Chef de partie, Read's, Faversham, Kent
1996 Chef de partie, Le Soufflé, Inter-Continental Hotel Hyde Park Corner, London
1996 Young Chef of the Year
1996 Senior chef de partie, Coast, London
1997 Chef de partie, Aubergine, London
1998 Sous chef, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London
2001 Head chef, Claridge's, London
2002 Michelin star
2002 National Chef of the Year
2009 Creative director, Swan Collection
2011 Chef-proprietor, Rocksalt and Smokehouse, Folkestone, Kent
2011 Consultant chef, Canteen
MY KIND OF COOKING
After co-authoring many of Gordon Ramsay's books, Mark Sargeant's first solo book will be published this year. "I was passionate about helping Gordon with his books and it was something I really wanted to push forward," he says. "So it's great to have my own book."
My Kind of Cooking will be released by Quercus Publishing at the end of September. It will cost £20 and feature 120 recipes.
"After leaving GRH, I had a lot of time to cook at home and discovered a new style totally different to the French, Michelin-type restaurant food I was cooking before. I found lots of new influences like Oriental and Moroccan flavours, and the book is all about that."
HISTORY OF FOLKESTONE HARBOUR
In 1843 the railway came from London and the viaduct crossing the Foord Valley was built. This was followed by the purchase of the harbour by the South Eastern railway, which succeeded in transforming Folkestone into a successful cross-Channel port to Boulogne. By 1851 the town's population had nearly doubled, and large, luxurious hotels were built, along with many other amenities, to cater for the holiday-making public.
In the 20th century Folkestone suffered greatly during both world wars. Foreign holidays began to damage the town's tourism business, and the closure of the ferry service to Boulogne in the 1980s along with the closure of the harbour as a Channel passenger port in 2000 gradually spelt the town's demise. Furthermore the rail line to the harbour, once used by the Orient Express, was closed in 2002.
In 2004, Roger De Haan bought Folkestone harbour for £11m and enrolled architect Sir Terry Farrell to design a £40m regeneration project, for which he is currently awaiting planning permission.
Head chef Simon Dyer
General manager Lorraine Morillon
Capacity 80 plus 14 in the private dining room and 40 in the upstairs bar
Menu Typical dishes include "red herring" (beetroot cured smoked mackerel); Josper-grilled sardines; Monkshill Park pork belly; roasted Kentish Ranger chicken; 32-day aged Kent-reared Sussex beef, and a catch of the day section. Desserts include summer berry pavlova; Kentish gypsy tart; and a selection of Kent and Sussex cheeses
Average spend Set lunch menu £17.50 for three courses; à la carte £30 for three courses excluding wine; Sunday lunch £25 for three courses
Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and Tuesday to Saturday for dinner; the bar remains open on Sunday evenings
Rocksalt Rooms Four bedrooms feature smoked oak floorboards, exposed brickwork, 'wet room' shower rooms with slate floors and glazed brick tiles
Address 4-5 Fishmarket, Folkestone, Kent CT19 6AA
Telephone 01303 884633
Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner
Menu Includes Folkestone flounder, plaice, dab and mackerel, as well as cod, haddock, coley, rock and lemon sole. Other dishes include salt & pepper squid, battered scallops, fried sprats and mussel popcorn
Average spend £10
Address 1 Back Street, Folkestone, Kent CT19 6NN