Russell Brown, head chef at Sienna, explains toJoanna Woodwhy it'simportant for chefs to take an interest in their local catering college and howhis involvement with Weymouth College led to him doing a guest chef dinner
One of the nice things about getting a bit of recognition in this business is that it often opens up channels for you to put something back into the industry. Sometimes, though, it takes a while to sort out the right event at the right time.
Since my wife and I opened our restaurant, Sienna, in Dorchester in 2003, I've established a friendly contact with one of our local catering colleges, Weymouth College; a contact strengthened since my chef de partie Martin Smith, 23, joined us, as he graduated from the college four years ago.
About a year ago, Weymouth asked me to do a dinner at the college's restaurant, Cygnets, with some of their students working alongside. At the time, it wasn't really practical for us as I didn't have a large brigade with the relevant experience and confidence to reproduce our food outside of the restaurant. But since getting a Michelin star last year, Sienna has been much busier and we've taken on more staff. By January this year, I felt we had enough depth in the kitchen to be able to take on the event.
Weymouth has a very proactive hospitality department which arranges theme nights and guest chef dinners all the time in their restaurant, so they're used to staging them - but for me it was a first and I wanted the Weymouth menu to stay as true to my cooking style as possible. So when I had my initial meeting with the college's organising team of Ashley Perry (chef lecturer), Alan Kelly (chef lecturer) and Leonie Monaghan (restaurant manager) I explained that I wanted to cook a five-course tasting menu to give the students a real feel for what we do at the restaurant.
The college were up for it and we agreed to do 35 covers, but somehow that crept up to 44 - nothing quite like keeping it real for the students! The menu was almost an exact replica of the January tasting menu at Sienna, just one course shorter and a garnish tweaked to make it easier for mise en place.
I like to use seasonal ingredients, regional where appropriate, so we had venison, cod and beef alongside a version of our signature chocolate tasting plate of desserts (although we cut the number from four down to three) using Selvatica chocolate, a Spanish couverture I've discovered which is produced in Barcelona. This was going to be a challenge for the level two students… and us!
The dinner was on Monday 24 January and we had a great turnout of students, about 20, along with their lecturers Alan and Ashley. Their skills were diverse as some were already working on day-release in the industry while others were college-based and at different stages of their City and Guilds diploma training. I divided the group into three teams, one working with Martin on the meat and fish, one with Al Gooding (my other chef de partie at the time) on veg and garnish and the last group with me on pastry.
It was interesting that typical industry gender preconceptions prevailed - with most of the girls plumping for pastry: we had to push people towards the veg! At Sienna, the garnish section is vital; our meat and fish is very simply prepared, relying on the quality of the ingredient. The garnishes are where the real effort goes - and to an extent where the real skill kicks-in. Garnishes on the day included piquillo pepper soup, sautéd spinach, potato gnocchi, curly kale, parsley oil, truffle crust… and more. Tough section!
Weymouth's lecturers did a great job of facilitating, helping us in a strange and massive kitchen. Our kitchen at Sienna is tiny and it was a challenge to adapt to a larger kitchen and different ranges. We brought along water baths, Thermomix and some other bits of portable kit that we normally use which the college didn't have. It was good to give the students first-hand experience of the modern kitchen. We also did several demonstrations throughout the day as we prepped the food - butchery and fish filleting for instance. That was one of the big things for me: introducing the students to different techniques and ingredients; sous-vide, whole saddles of venison, chorizo sausages and pecorino cheese were all things that created real interest.
By about 3pm on the day, the mise en place was boxed off and the students got off for a break, ready to come back for 5.30pm to start service at 6.30pm. For service we again split into groups with some students being given responsibility for specific jobs such as the bread (which we made fresh), plating the cold venison starter and various garnishes. The rest of the students either worked with me on the pass or with Al and Martin on the stoves. Service went really well and feedback from the restaurant was very positive. Because the college holds dinners regularly it has a database of customers who come along to these evenings - but my wife Eléna was also out front that night and for me her feedback was vital as whenever you do an evening away from your kitchen it's a risk to your culinary reputation! Thankfully, she felt that the food was a true representation of what we do in the restaurant. A fantastic result.
Talking to the students and staff afterwards there was a genuine sense of achievement. Everybody seemed to have had both an enjoyable and educational day, one which provided an insight in to the work of a fine-dining restaurant. We'd decided before we held the event that we'd have a prize of a dinner for two at Sienna for a "student of the day" and this turned out to be Ali Batchelor. She put in a great effort on all the sections, actively seeking jobs to do and left me very impressed with her ability and attention to detail. She told us that we'd inspired her, which was great. She said: "I've learnt from today to be more precise in my cooking and to be more aware of the small details."
And what did I get out of the day? It was an interesting and ultimately satisfying challenge to cater for a much larger number than I usually do. Plus I think it was a great way for my two chefs to benchmark how far they'd come since their own college days. However, the impetus for doing the dinner for me was, primarily, to put something back in to the industry - though hopefully, the event also raised the restaurant's profile and with any luck we'll have met a few future Sienna chefs!
sienna at weymouth college menu (£35 per person)
â- Peppered venison loin with celeriac remoulade, rocket and shaved Peccorino, horseradish mayonnaise
â- Roast fillet of Cornish cod, parsley root purée and a red wine reduction
â- Truffle-crusted fillet of West Country beef with kale, Chantenay carrots and potato gnocchi
â- Selvatica chocolate trio (white chocolate brÁ»lée, bitter chocolate mousse and a milk chocolate shake)
Note Finance is always a big headache for the colleges and Russell Brown would like to thank the following suppliers who generously supported the college dinner: www.mediteria.com, www.samwaysfish.com - and www.finefoodco.co.uk
gala dinners at local colleges - a chef's view
James Mackenzie is co-owner with his wife, Kate, of the Pipe and Glass in South Dalton near Beverley, East Yorkshire. Like Sienna's Russell Brown he, too, has established links with local colleges near to his restaurant - East Riding College in Beverley and Yorkshire Coast College in Scarborough (where he himself trained). In addition to one-off culinary demonstrations at the colleges, he also staged (with the help of two of his chefs) a 40-cover, £40-a-head three-course charity gala dinner at East Riding College just over a year ago which raised £500 for a local charity. The menu gave guests choices at each menu level.
Mackenzie says: "We aimed to do stuff on the menu that the students don't normally do. We had shellfish, crab, lobster and a lamb dish on the menu - and as we prepped we explained about sourcing, seasonality, etc. When I was at college you learnt about butchery by cutting up a quarter of lamb, pig, etc but these days at some of the smaller colleges they don't have the resources to be able to do it. Hopefully by us going in and showing the kids, they'll learn a few more skills.
We actually went in the day before the dinner - it's good to have that contact with the students and let them come up with a few ideas as well and maybe tweak the menu to incorporate them.
It's a risk letting students loose on expensive ingredients, if they make a mess of a £40 sea bass of course you're going to go "oh my god"…so I'd say you do have to compromise a bit on menu. But you shouldn't do that too much - you've got to go in and be true to what you're about at your restaurant.
I always enjoy the questions from the students. Giving something back to the industry and hopefully inspiring someone here and there is the main reason for working with our colleges. You can't moan about the skills in the industry if you're not prepared to put something back."
gala dinners at local colleges - the college's view
Gerry Shurman, head of catering, hospitality and travel at Hampshire's South Downs College, is an enthusiastic advocate of inviting leading chefs in to his college's restaurant to do charity gala dinners. "Students build up an impression of what top celebrity chefs are about, and it's good for them to see they're human beings. It actually gives the students more confidence for entering the world of hospitality and fine dining," he says.
"Having links with major chefs also opens doors once they find out the calibre of our students," he adds. Over the last few years the college has built up links with a number of the UK's culinary leaders, including Heston Blumenthal, Angela Hartnett and D&D London restaurants and established a relationship with industry educator the Savoy Trust.
"We do about four guest chef dinners a year and we try to make at least one of those something big," says Shurman. Four years ago Caterer covered a fundraising dinner at South Downs in aid of Hospitality Action and the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation. Blumenthal was among the guest chefs (alongside David Nicholls, John Williams and Jake Watkins) who cooked a course each for 80 guests raising almost £10,000 in the process. Due to links first established through the event, one of the college's graduates is now working front-of-house at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel in London.
"The charity has to be right to for a big dinner," advises Shurman to anybody thinking of staging a similar event. "Either industry related or something like Help the Heroes." Local charities, he suggests, are more suited to smaller-scale dinners. And he also has a word of caution about multi-chef events. "The logistics of more than one chef in a kitchen can get hairy, so you need the space and the facilities. Running a commercial restaurant at a college definitely helps."
celebrity chef dinners - top tips for colleges
â- Establish an association with your chef(s) first. Top chefs get asked to cook at events all the time - if there's a connection you're more likely to get a "yes"
â- Look out for up-and-coming chefs to establish a link with: for example, newly accoladed chefs in your local area who are beginning to get a media profile
â- Get suppliers on side (yours and the guest chef's), particularly for charity events. Food sponsorship is a vital key in keeping ticket costs under control and, therefore, helping to raise money (and don't offer spaces on charity dinners to sponsors!)
â- Get your guest chef(s) to engage with your students well in advance of the dinner, for example, giving masterclasses in techniques they'll need/see for the gala menu
â- Make sure the guest chef brings his own chefs with him to oversee stations: a ratio of one professional chef to 6-8 students