Cheese Chat with Tonco

Flo Russell is chef and co-owner of Tonco restaurant in Sharrow, Sheffield. Flo “slowly chipped away at the resolve” of her friend Joe Shrewsbury (founding member of popular Sheffield post-rock group 65daysofstatic) and persuaded him to become her business partner and front of house manager.

Asked why he eventually agreed, Joe cites “a bad experience with the lawyers at the record label and the sheer force of Flo’s personality”. Our Wholesale Team can attest to this: Flo is a particularly engaged and committed cook. At Tonco, as much as can possibly be cooked from scratch is and they “have a bloody good stab at doing everything”.

How did you start working in food?

Ever since I was about 12, I wanted to be a chef. I did work experience in a restaurant and just adored it – but then everyone said to me “don’t do it, it’s a nightmare, you’ll be so tired, you’ll be dead by 40”. So instead, I went to university and then after that I started doing some journalism and thought maybe I could write about food if I wasn’t cooking. I did that for a couple of years and then thought “what am I doing?”.

I was working in a café alongside writing and got chatting to a customer who worked at Moro. I asked if I could do a day in the kitchen. To them it was no big deal, but to me it was the biggest thing in the world. I stayed there for three years, and it gave me such a good grounding in flavour. They’re just so good at making stuff taste delicious. Properly learning how to season and to cook in a wood-fired oven was such an eye-opener.

A table full of small plates from Tonco in Sheffield


How did you end up opening Tonco?

I’d been to university in Sheffield and my husband’s from here. When we first moved, I spent a couple of years miserably churning out food that wasn’t really resonating with me. We started a pop-up and it completely snowballed. Originally, we wanted to open a café, but every time I told people about the food I wanted to cook they went “that’s not a café”. I said “Joe, we’re opening a restaurant.”

Once we’d found our site, we signed on it straight away and opened within six months. Twelve weeks later there was a global pandemic.

That summer when they announced you could eat outside, we just put every single table we could find outside and started cooking. It was just me in the kitchen, Joe front of house and my husband on the bar as and when. We were tired. I’m clinically vulnerable, my husband was really worried about me. I don’t really know how we got through it, but we made it work.

What was your introduction to cheese, and what made you want to work with Neal’s Yard Dairy?

I wasn’t allowed to eat much protein at all until I was 13, so it was a very special thing whenever I was allowed a bit, even a fingernail of cheddar was a big deal. I’m still making up for lost time. Our focus is UK produce, and that’s what you specialise in, you’re the best. You guys are so passionate, and you have so much knowledge to absorb.

You’ve been experimenting with cheesemaking. How’s that going?

I’d been reading a book about the origins of cheesemaking and how they didn’t have commercial cultures, so I thought I’d just be able to make it and let the raw milk from a local farm express itself naturally. It was a complete disaster, I could have killed somebody with it, it was so hard! I was trying to make a Camembert.

I spoke to Lucy at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and she gave me some advice. The next batch came out an absolute treat, it was delicious. I don’t think it was anything particularly special, but it was satisfying. I really enjoyed the process of it. I’d like to try a hard cheese. I was making the cream cheese for our cheesecake recently.

What cheese is exciting you right now?

About a week or two before your big open day I’d tried Doddington for the first time and couldn’t believe how delicious it was. Then I met the cheesemaker- Maggie Maxwell- at the open day and went away thinking “oh my god, she’s such a legend”. When I learnt that Martin Gott chooses the milk of one animal to make the culture for the whole season when he makes St James, I thought that concept was so amazing. It’s all about not being homogenous. When I’m cooking, I’m happy to have a bit of variation, because otherwise you’re not learning.

What cheese pairing do readers absolutely have to try?

Today for my baker’s breakfast we made cheese on toast using Montgomery’s Cheddar with apple and pumpkin seeds. That was great!