What do you get when a fine dining chef and a worldwide-experienced operations manager decide to join forces to celebrate their love of food and music? A burger restaurant with a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, of course.
I sat down with Jamie Desogus and Rob Hennebry, co-owners of Birmingham’s newest burger joint, The Bun & Barrel, to find out what it’s all about.
Long-time friends Jamie and Rob met as bandmates at the age of 21, with Jamie on the drums and Rob playing bass. Rob went on to forge a successful career in hospitality, running restaurants all over the world from Beijing to Dublin to London, whilst Jamie, following time spent training at Petrus, launched Harborne Kitchen in 2016. Described as ‘bold’ with ‘playful, contemporary cuisine’, the suburban restaurant has gone from strength to strength since its opening; featuring in The Good Food Guide, The Michelin Guide and even being awarded a green star for its sustainability practices in the Michelin Guide Awards in 2021.
Jamie describes Harborne Kitchen as “a modern British restaurant which was born from my influences and my Italian-Sardinian heritage. There are a lot of Italian influences within Harborne Kitchen’s menu, despite me having trained in a French manner.”
A successful six and a half years has seen the restaurant scooping accolades and cementing itself star player of Harborne’s high street and the wider culinary community. Now, Jamie and business partner Rob have made the decision to diversify.
“I’ve always wanted a second project and this has taken over six years to materialise, so it hasn’t been a quick follow up to Harborne Kitchen. I was actually looking to open a half-decent fish and chip shop on the high street here as I was inspired by a place in London which I used to visit when I lived there, but one popped up before I had the chance. I thought then that I’d better move quickly!”
Jamie had always toyed with the idea of a burger joint. “I don’t know about other chefs, but I tend to not eat much fine dining after cooking it all week.” He instead saves this for special occasions, often indulging in a burger on a Sunday. Knowing that Harborne was lacking in this area, he decided to draw his focus here.
The move from fine dining to burgers certainly isn’t a downgrade. The Bun & Barrel’s burgers – made with smashed patties – are infused with bone marrow and enveloped by buns crafted from scratch by Harborne Kitchen’s very own pastry team.
“The burgers at The Bun & Barrel take influences from my own journey within cooking. Our house burger, The B&B, is a double stack of two 3oz patties sourced from my butcher at Harborne Kitchen, and is a Himalayan Salt-aged Beef and bone marrow mix, so it’s very flavourful. Further down our menu, the Surf & Turf burger is reminiscent of how I trained to cook at the age of 17 in a brasserie.”
The house burger, made from Himalayan Salt-aged Beef and infused with bone marrow, boasts a demi brioche bun. Other highlights from the menu include the Surf & Turf burger, showcasing confit and seared pork belly and scallop, and a Crab Bun with soft shell tempura, and mango and chilli salsa.
As well as taking influence from Jamie’s style of cooking, the recipes are also focused on simplicity and high quality ingredients. “Our main ethos is good food which is sourced extremely impeccably, prepared properly and served simply. I’ve always said that we put so many things on a plate and usually end up taking three things away, and that is kind of what we’ve done with our burgers. They contain less than what others may have put on them but we’ve carefully considered layers, flavour and texture.”
The Bun & Barrel houses a selection of beers and unique barrel-aged cocktails (the clue is in the name), alongside natural wines on draught, supplied by local specialists Wine Freedom.
“The Bun & Barrel’s drinks concept came directly from the name as they are all barrelled. When sourcing suppliers, I thought, what better option than to use a local distributor like Wine Freedom to buy wine by the barrel and serve it in a carafe? It’s a really old way to serve wine which I think is brilliant. With the cocktails, we were looking to really simplify the service as we didn’t want people waiting for a long time for speciality cocktails. Instead, we pre-mix, pre-batch and store them in our oak barrels which also gives them another plate for flavour profile as well as speeding up the service. All we’re doing is giving a final stir and pouring over ice to ensure the customer gets a quality drink at speed.”
Acquiring the perfect venue for their concept was a process which took years to come to fruition. Nestled rather unassumingly at the end of a walkway on Harborne’s buzzing high street, the restaurant’s interior is clad in notes of concrete, exposed brick and low-hanging, atmospheric lights. “I had always viewed properties in the area as they became available. As soon as I viewed this site, it felt as if it had found me rather than me finding it. It had been left in a state but I saw past all of the mess – the alleyway entrance had a real dive bar feel to it and I could instantly imagine walking through and hearing the music coming from the bar.”
The restaurant’s style is cool and casual. It is open for walk-ins only, with the idea being that diners can kick back and relax with a burger and a beer (or a barrel-aged cocktail) and play a game of pool.
“The idea was always to have a venue which blends food and drink as a burger joint and a dive bar. The Bun & Barrel is a proper hangout of old. Growing up, I felt that there was always somewhere to go where I could stick a quid in the pool table, enjoy a few pints with my friends, grab a bite to eat and have a great time. It feels as if there is less of that around as I’ve gotten older, so I suppose I’ve created something that I wanted.”
Jamie and Rob have also worked their mutual love for music into The Bun & Barrel concept, with interior design elements celebrating musical heritage, whilst every service will operate against a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack.
“The music at The Bun & Barrel is an integral piece of the concept as it is a huge part of both mine and Rob’s lives. We were in a band together for six years, living in a van having given up our jobs to live the dream for a little while. When it was time to return to normal life, I went back to cheffing, but music has always been my first love. The restaurant’s soundtrack contains a lot of influences from us growing up, although there are also a few modern elements too as we’ve tried to curate the selection to appeal to a slightly wider audience.”
It’s safe to say that within the city of Birmingham, even with the recent boom in recognition for its thriving and diverse hospitality scene, The Bun & Barrel’s concept stands out. These are not just any old burgers. They are refined – elevated, even. Nowhere else in the city offers a burger topped with foie gras. I ask Jamie how he feels about blazing such a trail.
“We certainly aren’t trying to be different, we’re just trying to make a really good burger. I suppose the only difference is my fine dining background and the fact that after six and a half years at Harborne Kitchen, I can bring my style to this menu. This may mean that they are created in a slightly different way to how others may put burgers together. Consider the tasting menu concept at Harborne Kitchen; we work to develop layers of flavours and textures, by which I mean you won’t just eat a mush of one flavour, you will instead experience layers on your tongue. I’m approaching burgers in a similar fashion. They’re not your typical ‘dirty’ burger with masses of sauces and pulled ingredients, they’re actually quite clean in flavour and profile.”
It seems that for both Jamie and Rob, The Bun & Barrel is a project born out of mutual passion and enjoyment, and both have clearly invested a lot of hard work into its creation.
“More than anything, this is a project that has just been fun. It has been incredibly hard, perhaps harder than opening Harborne Kitchen in terms of budget and labour for the build. But it is a really fun place, which is what I set out to open.”
The Bun & Barrel is now open for walk-ins.