Russell made a huge contribution to the south-west of England's food scene with Sienna and is hugely insightful on many aspects of the catering world. A big thank you from me to Russell for spending time with me for this interview.
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Russell was 27 when he entered the world of professional cooking, which is hugely late compared with most other successful chefs, but his time doing other things, most notably running his own fishing tackle business prior to making the transition, furnished him with skill sets that would prove incredibly valuable in due course and are not always taught (or appreciated as needed by young chefs) in the kitchen. Russell:
The difference because I was 27 when I started, so I was nearly 30 by the time I took my first Head Chef’s job, [is that] I had a good understanding of the business side of the job, and being a Head Chef is probably 20% cooking and 80% everything else.
But even here we might note that that’s still an impressive rise through the ranks, from entering professional cooking to Head Chef in a little over two years. A number of factors were behind this, not least bringing a mature set of values to the job, passion and a desire to learn, with his first job in the industry offering scope to really learn the skills that he needed to learn. Also, possessing a longer term plan – having come from self-employment, Russell knew that he in time wanted to open his own restaurant. But while it is important to ‘keep your eyes on the prize’, with no professional cooking experience, Russell had no choice other than to start this new chapter at the bottom.
In conversation with chefs, both for publication on this website and more broadly, most recount the importance of their first real job and their first Head Chef in shaping their industry views. In Russell’s case, his first situation was as a commis chef at the Alverton Manor in Truro, which despite his lack of experience, he was accepted for after a working trial in which he prepped the veg for a wedding. Russell describes the job as ‘an utter baptism of fire’. So what is it that stayed with him from that period? I ask Russell if the kitchen was well run:
It was, but two sides to it, as far as the actual cooking, the kitchen practices, the craft skills, learning about stock rotation, how to run a section, all the practical things, very good. Immaculate food hygiene standards, everything very precise, done to recipes using great ingredients. On a management level, the chef had a temper, he cared passionately about what he was doing, but he wasn’t tolerant of other people’s inadequacies I suppose.
The issue of developed craft skills is a core part of Russell’s own success and later when asked what advice he would give young chefs, ‘learn your craft properly’ is central to his reply. Russell explains what he means:
[I was] very lucky from the practical point of view that it was a busy hotel, so you’ve got to do large volumes of things, so a typical Friday at the Alverton on the larder section when I was running it, you would have 60 whole chickens delivered which need boning out for supremes for the wedding for 120 tomorrow, thighs and drumsticks and three different marinades for the buffet the following night and carcasses for stock. And if you’re boning out 60 chickens every week you get quite good at it. Colin the Head Chef there was a brilliant craftsman and I learned so much there on the craft side, how to bone out a saddle of lamb, how to tie meat, all your basic knife skills, classic sauce bases, that sort of thing… everything was done properly.
When I ask the contribution to success of natural talent, hard work or acquired skills, Russell suggests:
I think it’s a mix of all of it but I think that hard work is the thing that for me predominates. Obviously you have to have basic skills, I think you’ve got to have passion for it, you’ve got to enjoy it, because you wouldn’t be able to sustain the hard work necessary if you weren’t getting a buzz out of it.
In our ‘short-cut world’ hard work as the core of success is so often forgotten, but as sports psychologist Jim Afremow says in his book, A Champion’s Mind:
Hard work always beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard
And former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson notes:
If I had to choose between someone who had great talent but was short on grit and desire, and another player who was good but had great determination and drive, I would always prefer the latter. The former might work well for a brief period, but they never have the staying power that gives a great club stability and consistency.
Russell continues in a similar vein:
I’ve seen it in young chefs that don’t really want it, they think they do maybe but they haven’t got that interest in food, they haven’t got the curiosity or the desire to try new things. And you know there’s not going to be enough to sustain them through the really difficult pressures that the job brings.
Another aspect that I believe as to why the Alverton Manor was such a good first industry job for Russell is that there was significant overlap in core values. On the general leadership blog I’ve talked about how the mission is what you want to achieve and the values are how you work every day to achieve it. I ask Russell about his values as a chef, and whether he took his values with him to the Alverton or acquired them while there:
Partly taking stuff into the job: a desire to do things right, for things to be organised, not to let people down, to deliver what you say you are going to deliver and do it on time, all those kind of things were there, very much reinforced by the time at the Alverton.
I’ve further suggested elsewhere on this website that if you don’t share the values of your employer that you should consider working elsewhere because it will otherwise be a constant source of conflict benefitting no-one. Russell would bump into this at his next job, a hotel in Falmouth offering top rates of pay. Russell notes:
I made the mistake of taking the job without doing a working trial, it was the only catering job I had not been asked to do a working trial for and I think if I had it would have opened my eyes and I would have said no, this isn’t for me... hygiene was one of the things I really struggled with there because it had been so meticulous at the Alverton… it was pretty obvious fairly early on, probably within 24 hours that I had made a mistake.
Double three-star chef Thomas Keller who states 12 values on his website lists both integrity (perform our work selflessly, honestly and caringly) and respect (show respect for our peers, our industry and our guests) among them. How could any chef of quality not embrace these ideas? Accordingly, despite the substantially higher wage, this clash of values led Russell to leave soon after joining, thereby preserving his own integrity and underlining the fact that your core values should always be non-negotiable.
When I started doing these interviews, I had expected to find overlap between highly successful chefs/restaurants and highly successful teams in other fields also such as in sports or big business, but I hadn’t quite expected to find so much overlap. Russell’s thoughts on building a solid foundation for success, which might be summarised as: learn your craft, work hard, have passion and be patient, are absolutely echoed in building teams as big as Manchester United and FTSE 100 companies. As inventor Sir James Dyson noted:
In the digital age of ‘overnight’ success stories such as Facebook, the hard slog is easily overlooked.
This is reiterated by Russell when asked to consider advice that he would give a young chef entering the industry?
Don’t be in too much of a hurry to get to the top, I think it’s really important to learn the craft skills properly, for me that’s so vital because it’s like anything, if the craft of what you do becomes instinctive and you don’t have to think about it, that frees you up to think about other stuff. So learn the job properly, you don’t want to be in the position where you’re a head chef and you’re struggling to bone out the chicken. And do it because you’re passionate about it.
* Russell’s success at his Michelin starred restaurant Sienna is the subject of a second article to be published soon.
For recipes, blog posts, details of Russell's consultancy and more head to his website: creativeaboutcuisine.com