Classically trained chef Ian Russell has always been a risk taker.
“I took a lot with me [of risks]’ said Russel. “Big risks were never an issue for me.”
In 2019, Russell decided to take a big step and left his comfortable position as area manager at a wine trading company to focus on a pipe dream.
Now Russell, 43, is the owner of the hugely popular Smoke & Donuts joint, which will open its second Orlando store this fall after earning a permanent spot in the UCF Student Union last spring.
Russell’s success follows an unconventional background with a variety of different experimental career paths – from traveling across the country to folk singing to working on a fishing boat catching pollock off the north west coast.
“I think Smoke & Donuts is my first real plan,” Russell said. “Everything else? I don’t think I did much to plan a long period of my life leading up to this venture.”
Russell’s mother said she was intrigued by her son’s decision to try different careers, some of which she credits with general education.
“He was homeschooled,” said Margaret Mary Russell. “One of the things I read about was a general focus.”
Another part of homeschooling, she said, involves her son cooking. One day while baking chocolate chip cookies, he figured out fractions himself.
“That was the strangest thing,” she said. “There was three-quarters of a cup and he wanted to make a double batch, so he drew a rectangle and three lines inside the rectangle — don’t ask me where he got that!”
Ian Russell graduated from high school at the age of 16 and immediately began traveling around the country, settling in different cities and doing a variety of side jobs.
He got his first job as a chef at the Wild Orchid Restaurant in Annapolis, Maryland, where his cousin Christina was a waitress.
“I worked for a chef named Jim Wilder,” Russell said. “He was a really cool chef.” Although Russell loved his time cooking at the Wild Orchid, he said he didn’t “put it all into the cooking” there.
“I still wanted to be a folk singer,” Russell said.
After a year in Annapolis, Russell decided to move to New York, where he almost immediately started cooking again. And after spending some time building sets for photo shoots in the fashion industry, he decided to attend culinary school.
“One night, on a whim, I told my brother I wanted to go — I wanted to cook,” Russell said. “But if I do it, then I do it for me.”
Russell didn’t spend time thinking about where he wanted to go to school because he already knew.
“I thought, ‘If I go to culinary school, I’ll go to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America],'” he said.
After a series of interviews and essays, Russell was accepted into the CIA. His mother said when he was inside her son buckled his seat belt.
“His brother would tease him because he wouldn’t learn about certain things that are happening in the world,” she said. “He would say he was in the hole.”
Russell’s hard work paid off when he graduated with honors in 2009. After graduating, he became interested in the study of wine and landed a job at the Wine Barn in Florida. In 2010 he started working at the wine distribution company Premiere Beverage.
“I was very fond of wine,” Russell said. “There are always many funny stories behind the wine.”
He started in sales and ended up on the supply side, which consisted of traveling and teaching about wine. “I’ve done a lot of wine dinners,” he said. “It was fantastic work.”
In 2015, Russell got interested in smoking meat, which wasn’t easy at first.
“I’ve made a lot of really bad barbecues,” he said. “It was either way overcooked or way undercooked.”
This prompted him to return to his culinary roots and take up reading. “There is a lot of food science involved in grilling. It got better over time.”
Russell’s wife, Juliana Peña, was the one who bought him his first baby smoker.
“I got him a smoker for fun,” Peña said. “And then he made a salmon for our friends in Vancouver that they’re still talking about to this day.”
The same year that Russell’s interest in smoking meat began, his grandmother, with whom he was very close, died. “It was a very enlightening moment for Ian,” Peña said. “He said, ‘What am I going to do with my life?'”
As he became more interested in smoking meat and reading books on chemistry and flavor molecules, it wasn’t long before he bought a larger smoker.
“I was coming home from work one day and I saw him driving by with our 4-runner and a huge smoker on his back,” Peña said.
Russell bought the smoker with the intention of making a pop-up at farmers markets on the weekends. However, Peña had plans of her own — to do a donut pop-up.
“She noticed these little donut shops would come up and they’d put savory things on donuts,” Russell said.
Peña, who works for airports across the country, brought home donuts. “I would travel, like the mad lady, with a dozen donuts on my lap,” Peña said.
Peña told her husband that they had to jump on the trend because there was an opportunity in donuts. However, Russell wanted to smoke grilled meat.
“We drove back and forth,” he says. “And eventually we just went ‘Donuts and Barbecue,’ and that’s how we came up with the name.”
In 2016, the couple began trials in a communal kitchen and had their first unofficial pop-up in their driveway. In July 2017, they had their first paying customer at Red Cypress Brewery in Winter Springs.
Russell said the company started with $9,000. “Doughnuts and barbecue didn’t google it,” he said. “So we either found something great or it was a horrible idea, which is why $9,000 was probably the right amount of money.”
However, the pair quickly realized they had a hit. They started doing regular pop-ups on the weekends, all of which sold out quickly.
“Once we were sold out, we kept increasing the volume until we reached capacity,” Russell said. “Soon we could no longer transport.”
By the end of 2017, the couple had made a down payment on a food trailer. In 2018 they ran several events per week.
Peña said they were inundated with events that drowned them in work because they were doing everything from scratch. Luckily, they had help from family and friends.
One of these friends, Luis Munoz, ended up working for the company for years.
“In the beginning it was just for one day,” Munoz said. “And then I loved it and I became very close to the family. It really feels like a family business.”
In 2019, Russell made the decision to try full-time.
“We knew we had to make a choice — we were either going to get rid of this thing or try it,” he said. “But if we wanted to try it, I had to quit my day job.”
And he did.
“It was very scary,” Peña said. “We had a very comfortable life.”
In late 2019, the risk seemed to have paid off when Smoke & Donuts was given the opportunity to open a branch with brick-and-mortar restaurant Belicoso Cigars and Cafe. However, when COVID-19 hit in 2020, Belicoso closed.
“We had literally just built the kitchen,” Russell said.
With government support, they were able to open a production kitchen with COVID precautions. And during the pandemic, the Orlando community kept Smoke & Donuts afloat.
“We’ve had so much support from the Orlando community,” Russell said. “They just kept buying groceries from us wherever they could find us.”
In 2021, the company was asked to join the Local Restaurant Series, a series of pop-ups in the UCF Student Union that emphasizes local, authentic cuisine.
“Our goal was to show that we deserved a full place there,” said Russell. A year later, Smoke & Donuts opened its location in the UCF Student Union.
Russell said that when you have a passion for what you do, it’s worth the sacrifice to take risks.
“If you’re scared to take the step — I don’t know, just put one foot in front of the other and don’t see it as a big, huge, scary thing,” he said. “Just get the inertia going.”
For Munoz, Russell’s story is inspirational because he followed his dream.
“It’s a really cool story because for a while with the wine it seemed like a perfect job,” Munoz said. “But he had a dream about cooking.”
While his life certainly hasn’t gone by the book, Russell is glad he tried a ton of different things before figuring out what stuck.
“Maybe that means your career will be pushed back a bit,” he said. “But you’re not going to say, ‘I hate my job.'”
Smoke & Donuts: 609 Irvington Avenue in Orlando; 407-776-4693; www.smokeanddonuts.com
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