Russell Brown celebrates ten years at Sienna, the UK’s smallest Michelin star restaurant

The  Staff Canteen

This month Sienna, Dorset’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, celebrates its tenth anniversary. The Staff Canteen caught up with chef patron Russell Brown to talk about the highs and lows of ten years in the UK’s smallest Michelin restaurant. 

It’s the size issue that strikes you before anything else. Walking through the front door off Dorchester’s bustling High Street, you step into a space that would suffer inferiority issues in a line-up with a bunch of Chinese takeaways.

There are five tables serving 14 covers (15 at full stretch). Behind these liesSienna Dorset a bar which is six feet long, at a generous estimate, and a small hall leading to the kitchen. The kitchen alone could be an exercise in Tokyo real-estate planning. There is barely room to swing a spoon let alone a cat. In fact if you did swing anything, you would send every pot, pan and piece of cutlery in the place clattering to the floor.

>>> Related: Dorset’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Sienna, set to close

When you think there are often three chefs plus someone on pot wash and Russell’s wife Elena running back and forth from front of house in this tiny space, it’s hard not to wonder why they haven’t won awards for choreography as well as cooking. Naturally issues of space have provided 46-year-old chef proprietor Russell Brown with some of his biggest challenges in Sienna’s ten-year history.

“At the beginning,” Russell laughs. “We naively took the attitude of – if it’s successful, we’ll expand. Unfortunately it hasn’t proved as easy as that. We have to prep more often because of lack of cold storage. I have to think about how many pieces of crockery I’m using. Is there actually enough room on the tables? Things as Sienna Dorsetsimple as changing plate sizes mean you have to look at the table settings – where the salt and pepper goes, where the drinks menu goes. It’s the same in the kitchen. When we got the sous vide, I had to make the call of getting rid of the deep fat fryer to make space.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone more able to bear these tribulations with equanimity than Russell Brown. He exudes a serene sense of well-being that, presumably, he has acquired from ten years of being permanently inside the personal space of other sweaty, ill-te
mpered chefs. Russell turned to cooking as a 27-year-old running a fishing tackle business in Cornwall, a transition he describes as, “a massive change from basically sitting on my backside, not doing a great deal.”

Food had always been a big part of Russell’s life with his mother’s home cooking and the family farm shop in Truro. “I grew up on a working farm of 45 acres,” said Russell. “running to and from Bristol market to sell cauliflowers and daffodils and early Cornish potatoes. My mum cooked for the shop, making cakes sponges, tray bakes, jams and chutneys, hot cross buns at Easter and Christmas cakes; so food was obviously a big part of growing up.”

Rather than go to college, Russell took a job at the two-AA rosette Alverton Manor Hotel in Truro where he moved from commis chef to chef de partie before moving on to Percy’s Country Hotel and then the Yalbury CoSienna Dorsetttage Hotel near Dorchester. As head chef at the Yalbury, Russell earned two rosettes and – more importantly – was given the freedom to pursue his own style of cooking. After three and a half years at the Yalbury he moved on again to work for Michelin-starred chef Peter Gorton at the Horn of Plenty in Devon.

>>> Read: The Staff Canteen talk to Marcus Wilcox, the new owner of Michelin-starred Sienna Restaurant

In 2003 Russell and wife Elena decided to open their own restaurant in the south west. They found Sienna. It was ten covers less than they ideally wanted and it didn’t have a separate lounge and bar area but the figures added up and the rest as they say is history – precisely ten years of it. In those ten years the accolades have rolled in with two AA rosettes just seven months after opening, a third in 2007 and the coveted Michelin star in 2010 which it has subsequently kept.

For Russell however, one of the biggest accolades has been the fact that a small, independent and unpretentious fine dining restaurant has survived for so long. Survival, as some biologist once mentioned, goes hand in hand with evolution and the food has indeed developed in ten years while remaining true to the overall umbrella of ‘modern British’.

Sienna Dorset“We’ve become much more focused on seasonality,” said Russell. “More focused on the quality of the ingredients and that’s grown over the years. The seasons are what drive the menu now, entirely. “My cooking has become more confident as well, and that’s mostly confidence to make it more simple – just taking a great piece of meat or fish, cooking it sympathetically and putting really nice garnishes with it.”

So what about the next ten years of
Sienna? According to Russell: “One way or another we’ve got to find a way of expanding the business, whether that’s through finding bigger premises or changing direction, it’s a case of watch this space.”

For a man who has only missed two services in ten years – and managed not to murder anyone in that kitchen – it feels like the next ten years of Sienna, in whatever guise that happens to be, will see even more evolution and success.  

To celebrate their tenth anniversary Sienna are auctioning a tasting menu for two and other treats with all proceeds going to Hospitality Action. Click here for more details. Photography by Richard Budd (C) 2013  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th April 2013

Russell Brown celebrates ten years at Sienna, the UK’s smallest Michelin star restaurant