Russell Brown, Chef Patron Sienna Restaurant Dorchester

The  Staff Canteen
Russell Brown's first job in the industry came at the age of 27, when he worked at the Alverton Manor hotel in Cornwall. He then went on to work at Percy’s Country House hotel before getting his first job as a head chef at Yalbury Cottage hotel in Dorset. He then moved to the Horn of Plenty in Devon before opening his own restaurant in 2003 with his wife Elena. Russell’s early inspirations came from the book La Tante Claire and meals at the Horn of Plenty. Sienna has three AA Rosettes and one Michelin star. Ok, Russell thank you for meeting with us today.  My first question is:  How many menus do you run here at Sienna? We are running three at the moment.  Lunch, dinner and a six course tasting menu, which we offer just at dinner. And do they inter-link?  By that I mean, is your tasting menu an expression of what is on the a la carte? Absolutely, yes.  We generally start by writing the dinner menu and then everything else, both the lunch and tasting menus are a derivative of the dinner menu. Right.  And in terms of price - where do they sit pricewise? Umm, very reasonable, I hope, we are fifty quid for a six course tasting menu. Wow, that is good.  Do you do wine matching with that? We don't specifically but we will do it.  Eléna is very good at matching to the dishes; she knows food inside out so ... we offer quite a big selection both by the glass and the decanter, so there is a good choice to match with it. OK. And what is currently your best selling dish on your menu? Probably the Partridge at the moment, actually. A very seasonal dish. Yes, very seasonal.  We have made a few menu changes recently and I have about three more to make before we are fairly set for the winter, but the Partridge we try and get in as soon as it comes into season.  It's my favourite game bird. What are you doing with it? Well, we are doing it as a roast crown of Partridge; we are cooking the crown sous vide then finishing it in the pan with olive oil, butter, thyme and we are serving a ravioli of braised leg, then sweetcorn puree, fresh sweetcorn kernels, a ground roasted salted sweetcorn, some watercress - yes, a nice seasonal dish. Yes, some very classical elements there but seasonal ones too, with the sweetcorn, lots of different textures going on there as well. Yes, a good dish texturally and we are sitting the ravioli on some braised leek and pancetta and there is some pancetta trimmings in the sauce so you get a little bit of a smoky bacon flavour through the sauce as well. OK.  You mentioned earlier that you have made some changes and you have some more changes coming up - what drives a menu change?  Is it driven by the seasons? Absolutely.  It makes my job easier and it partly writes the menu for you - if you look at it and say "Right, the Partridge has just come in - what are we going to do with it?" "What's in season to match with it?" Yes.  And when you do a menu change, is it a complete menu change? Or do you change two or three items? We made the mistake of changing the whole thing once and that was enough! (Laughter)  We'd had a holiday; came back after the holiday and started with a completely new menu, which I had written while I was on holiday - what a nightmare!! I can imagine.  But they say that you learn by your mistakes, don't they? Yes, they do.  I definitely learnt by that.  So we now change the dishes literally as the dishes go into and out of season, so you might get one dish change in a month or you might get two or three dishes change in quick succession. And what is your thought process in a dish changing?  What do you go through?  Do you think - We have got Partridge coming into season now ... do you look back at a little repertoire that you have got? You do look back to a certain extent, but I make a fairly conscious effort not to repeat dishes in their entirety. Is that for you? Or for the customer? If I am honest, it is probably more for me than anything else. Fair enough. And it is about the guys in the kitchen as well.  If they stay with us for a reasonable length of time it's nice for them to see the same seasonal ingredients but you are doing something different with them. Do you always try and progress things? I think you always look at something and ask the question "Can we do it any better?" and part of the time that is about taking something away rather than adding something to it. It takes a brave chef; a confident chef to do that, I think? Umm, yes it does but I am very lucky in that if I present dishes to Eléna she is very good at saying "Why have you got that on there?  Does it need it?" And we try and have an open discussion about it - Martin & Al will get involved as well.  And hopefully, that then makes the dish stronger. OK, Russell, what makes you drop a dish?  Is it going out of season? Yes, predominantly.  For example, we have a Saffron Crème Brulee on the menu at the moment, now we are serving that with Lemon curd and English Raspberries - the Raspberries are now moving towards the end of their season; we are still getting English Raspberries but they are kind of borderline to drop off the end, so I have been thinking about the new dish that is going to replace it for the last two or three weeks.  So, again, it's the seasonality that drives it.  Very occasionally you will put a dish on and it just doesn't sell and then you have to look at it and say "It needs to go" Yes, it does happen. Yes, it can be a dish that you think is amazing and, in your mind, it ticks all the boxes but the customers just don't want it, so you have to change it. So, how important is customer feedback in terms of the way you structure your menus and what goes on? Customer feedback is very definitely important.  At the end of the day, a lot of chefs may disagree but we do cook for our customers at the end of the day and if they are not happy then you don't have a successful business.   It is my business and the business side of it is important. Absolutely.  Russell, what about terminology on menus?   Like you said you could put a dish on and you think that dish ticks all the boxes but it doesn't sell - is it sometimes, the way it is written on the menu? Or the terminology that you use? The wording does make a difference, but something that also matters is the position on the menu. Oh, OK. For example, we always reckon the second item on the menu probably gathers more attention - I don't know whether it is some sort of psychological thing, but yes you can have a dish that is not selling and if you change the wording you can change the way it sells. Yes. But it is also about the interaction with your waiting staff and the customers. Yes, absolutely.  Is there flexibility in one of your menus to accommodate specials? You know, if the fishmonger phones you up and says "Russell I have got some absolutely stunning ...." To a certain extent, yes. Because of what we do, we try to strive for absolute consistency all the time then putting specials on is something we don't do a lot of, what we tend to do more is put specials on at lunchtime when we are trialling new dishes to go on the a la carte.  So that tends to be the way it works. You mentioned earlier, it is your own business and it is important to make sure that you are selling and you have got good interaction with the guests, but how important is costing your menus? It is important, obviously, at the end of the day I have got wages to pay and rent to pay and so on and if we don't make margin then we don't achieve that. What do you work to? Umm, we have been working to round about 65%. That's good for a restaurant, isn't it? Not bad.  We have been achieving that fairly consistently for the past few months and we are actually driving for 70 at the moment and we are doing pretty good, actually. The boys in the kitchen have bought into it - how the portion costs work, it's good for them to learn it. Absolutely. You know, they fillet a fish now with the invoice in front of them!  (Laughter) and they can see how much the fish has cost; they know from the costing sheets that we have got that they have got £3.80 to spend on the protein section of the dish and then, "OK, how many portions can I get out of that?" Absolutely. But then I would always come back to "I'd rather lose a portion and make it a generous piece" because that is partly what we are about. There is nothing worst than looking at a plate of food and thinking "God, that is a tiny bit of Bass on there" Absolutely, you don't want to have a six course tasting menu and walk out hungry. Absolutely.  No.  It's about the balance, we are aiming for the margins but if we look at something and think "No I can't get five portions out of that" then I get four. Yes, and dishes on your menu.  Umm, take the 6 course tasting menu are there certain items on that menu that, perhaps won't hit the GP but you'll balance that with other dishes that will give you a greater margin. To a certain extent.  You have got to be careful with that when it is a short menu, particularly on the carte because there is only five choices and if you have one dish that is selling 60% of your sales and you are not making GP on it, then you are in trouble, so you have got to balance it.  But the tasting menu probably gives you more flexibility to have the odd dish that is more expensive - you can get a better mix from that. And in terms of your menus, you were talking about Partridge and that, how important is it to build a strong relationship with your suppliers? Very important, I suppose because we are so small - 15 seats; tiny little kitchen; storage space we have quite rigorous requirements from our suppliers. Do you structure your menus around your size and capacity? Yes, because there is a limit to what you can do.  You have to write a menu around the capabilities of your staff; the equipment you have got; what your suppliers can deliver.  I think, if I had no restrictions, the menu would be completely different, but that is not the case and in reality it very rarely is.  So yes, menus are written around all those criteria and suppliers are very important. I think you name them on your website, don't you? Yes, we do... and on our menus.  And we always try and credit our suppliers if we are doing demos if we are using their products.  We live in an area, where for me, I think the seafood and dairy produce are the real kingpins in Dorset - you know, anything from Hand-dived scallops to Lobsters; we have been getting some fantastic Brill locally; Hand-lined Portland Seabass at the moment - we are very lucky.  And then you have the dairy industry - the cream; the butter; the cheeses - anywhere in the West Country they are fantastic. OK, last but by no means least, what is your favourite menu season? And why? It's a tough choice because all the seasons have nice elements. You are often looking forward to the next one, aren't you? Yes, I think your right and I think you are forced by your business to be thinking ahead.  It's one of the funny things about the industry, you know you haven't had your summer holiday and we are thinking about the Christmas menu.  It is hard because what you are doing now, you have almost forgotten about in one sense.  Umm, I would have to pick Autumn and Winter - it brings in more variety in the cooking techniques, you start to bring in the braising and the slow cooking; good solid flavours. And then by Spring you are looking for the lightness and all the little herbs! Exactly.  Looking forward to that first Asparagus and all the rest of it. Russell, thank you very much.
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th December 2010

Russell Brown, Chef Patron Sienna Restaurant Dorchester