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Undertaking these interviews, I always like to ask the chefs what advice they would give to their younger self. Russell’s answer to this, which relates to the opening of Sienna, is profound:
It would be to have the confidence to not start too small, that would be one of the really big learning points from what we did. If you are going to do it, start with something that is growable. The big mistake we made was thinking if it was successful we will expand, without actually thinking that through to the next step: if it is successful and we want to expand, how are we going to do that? We didn’t take our thinking forward enough through the chain. I would look at things now and say ‘what’s your exit plan?’ and that’s the last thing that you are thinking about when you are in the excitement of starting a new business and as a chef you’re thinking about the shiny new cookers and pans, you’re not thinking ‘12 years down the line what am I going to do when my lease runs out?’ whereas you should be.
For those who weren’t lucky enough to visit Russell’s restaurant Sienna, while hugely critically acclaimed (including of course its Michelin star), there was no denying it was small, seating just 14 covers in a space (including the kitchen) of just 400 square feet.
The reason for this out-turn will be familiar to any chef who is looking to start their own restaurant: finding the right space at the right price is incredibly difficult. In order to find the site, you need to be free to do the viewing so you are not working full time which in turn eats into your finance. So you have the choice of going back to full time employment or taking what’s available. There are no easy answers here.
The size issue would impact in all sorts of ways:
Walk-ins at lunch time could be a disaster for us. You’ve just had a delivery, you’ve got a saddle of venison, you don’t have a cold room so you can’t put the venison in the cold room, it’s too big to go in your fridge – you have to butcher that so it will go in the fridge. So you’ve got nobody booked for lunch, you’ve got a saddle of venison that you are half way through butchering and six people walk in the door…. You need the money, you want the customers but part of you is thinking, what am I supposed to do? And that impacts on the customer service because you’ve got to pack up and clear up before you can set up for lunch.
But what really grabbed my attention in Russell’s first statement was his use of the words ‘exit plan’ because this is something that is seldom thought about (or even known about) in those early years, and then later on, you are in a position where you can exert much less influence over it, so it is important. It brought to mind an interview I had seen with Heston Blumenthal in The Independent back in 2010 where Heston recalls a conversation with Thomas Keller:
We were having coffee and Thomas goes to me ‘Hey Heston, what’s your exit strategy?’ And I kind of coughed and went: ‘What?’”
“He said: ‘what have you got as an exit strategy.. I said: ‘Hmm, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
“He’s got a batch of funders, who are all from the financial world and they were all going to him about ‘your name is linked to your restaurants and they’ve got value but what happens when your knees start to go?’
I assume that if back in 2010 Heston did not know what an ‘exit strategy’ was, he is not alone among chefs. With Russell and Keller then making the same point, you really have to pay attention.
Another great learning lesson from Russell is to acknowledge the challenges but to achieve excellence working around them. When it came to the wine list for example, Russell observes:
Elena [Russell’s wife and business partner who ran FOH] would pour you a glass of wine when you ordered a bottle but then she would leave the bottle on the table for you to help yourself. Good wine service when it is done perfectly is amazing, but you need some resources to be able to deliver that really well, but with five tables and three of us working there, you were never going to be able to do that… [but what we did do] was to make the wine list deliver within its confines. We ended up with 50 wines on the list when we finished but we worked really hard to make sure they were 50 really good wines that offered great value for money… [at Sienna] you could drink some really nice stuff for good prices.
If premium wines sales are not available to support the profit margins on food, what was Russell’s approach to menus?
Whenever you cook, you might think that you are working without confines but you always are from one source or another. I think you have to design menus based on what the customers are prepared to spend, what equipment you’ve got, what space you’ve got, what your suppliers can deliver when you need them to deliver it, and what your staff are capable of cooking. So I used to try to take all those things into account on our menu.
Taking a step back from this to consider the bigger picture, what were his aims at Sienna?
Cooking for me has always been about making people happy, you want to put a smile on people’s faces, and you can’t do that on your own, it is a team effort, and you need front of house on your side.
Russell also offers a brave view of the success formula for a restaurant, one which is a rare admission for a chef:
Producing perfect plates of food isn’t necessarily conducive to great service. And as I’ve gone through my career and owning my own restaurant, Elena and I would have said that the food was the third most important thing [in a restaurant], and that’s hard for a chef to say.
So what fills the one and two spots?
One is the meeting and greeting, and two is the ambience, and the food is third. You ask most customers and they will tell you the opposite, they’ll say the food is the most important thing, but I think realistically, and maybe it’s not the same at the absolute rarefied three-star level, but at neighbourhood restaurants, small restaurants, it’s about the whole package, not just the food.
With the lease expiring on Sienna, Russell decided to have a change of tack and has opened his consultancy business Creative about Cuisine. Looking back, is it the Michelin star that he’s most proud of from his time?
In one sense. The Michelin star wasn’t something we set out to achieve… I suppose the things I am most proud of are that we went out on a high. We ran the business for 12 years and we had some great accolades when we finished, we had a great team… I think the things you are proud of is looking at where people have gone on to.
And finally, which bit of it all did Russell enjoy the most?
The buzz of a good service, that feeling that you cooked to the best of your ability, the team has worked really well together, the front of house and kitchen have really been on form… there’s nothing like the high you get from that.
Even breaking this interview into two parts, I could not cover all the wisdom Russell had to offer and a few more snippets will appear elsewhere on this website over time. Russell is an amazing chef, a great ambassador for the modern hospitality industry and hugely insightful across so many aspects of the industry. I always enjoy talking to him, and learning from him and I would like to thank him for his time in giving this interview.
For recipes, blog posts, details of Russell's consultancy and more head to his website: creativeaboutcuisine.com