With a host of successful restaurants across London, Leeds and Brighton, Polpo founder Russell Norman has established himself as one of the capital’s leading restaurateurs. Educated at Sunderland Polytechnic, now the University of Sunderland, Norman has spent time at the forefront of the hospitality industry, including four years as Caprice Holdings’s operations director. Whilst there, he was involved with the business’s new openings at Scott’s, the Sheekey Oyster Bar, and the Ivy Club.
Now at the helm of a plethora of his own restaurants, Norman’s concept of a Venetian bacaro – a space where guests can enjoy small appetizer or tapas-style dishes alongside wine and good company – has seen him expand into other ventures including Mishkins, a self-styled Jewish deli with cocktails and Spuntino, a New York-style speakeasy. Visit Polpo at: www.polpo.co.uk
1. What was your biggest career break?
Aged 22, I was desperate for work after finishing my degree at a third-rate polytechnic in the north-east of England, and took a poorly-paid job as a bartender in a theme restaurant in Covent Garden. I was making awful blended cocktails all day long (Creole Piña Colada, anyone?) for tourists, and I had to wear a green striped waistcoat and bowtie. It was acutely embarrassing, but it gave me a taste for hospitality. If I hadn’t taken that job I wouldn’t have ended up making my career in the restaurant business, so I suppose it was a career break, of sorts.
Many years later, joining Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings as operations director was a big break. I was only with the company for four years but it taught me so much and gave me the disciplines needed to run my own business.
2. Have you had a notable mentor – and if so what was it about them that was so inspiring?
I worked for Rainer Becker when Zuma was founded in 2002. I was general manager at that first restaurant and then did a few other bits and bobs. He was such a visionary and so uncompromising and focused. He taught me the importance of sticking to your vision and paying attention to the details.
3. What one piece of advice would you give to the 20-year-old you?
I would say: “For the next thirty years, from time-to-time, you will be asked to make decisions on a variety of matters in a multitude of situations: personal, financial, occupational, professional and emotional. Don’t answer immediately. Sleep on it, then decide.”
4. What qualities do you look for in the people you work with?
Loyalty. The ability to learn and adapt. An understanding of what hospitality is. Proactivity. A sense of ownership.
5. Who do you admire and why?
One of my first regular customers at Polpo in 2009 was the writer, broadcaster, design guru and polymath Stephen Bayley. He has since become a friend and a bit of a hero. He is somebody who understands his subject deeply, expounds upon it passionately, and transfers his enthusiasm and energy to you like a set of jump leads. We occasionally meet up for lunch and I usually spend a full week looking forward to it and a full week reeling afterwards. He’s a force of nature.
6. What does the future of your career look like?
I really hope I can continue what I’m doing. I have a few strands to my career at the moment, mostly restaurants, writing and broadcasting. I would like to try my hand at another writing genre at some point in the future – I’m currently working on a screenplay.
7. If you hadn’t chosen your current career, what would you have done instead?
I would have either been a jobbing theatre director – I started directing in 1995 and got quite good at it – or I might have become a professional beach bum.
8. What is your biggest extravagance?
I spend a small fortune on vintage acoustic guitars. Highlights are a 1928 Gibson L1 and a 1956 Martin 0018.
9. Who would you invite to your dream dinner party and why? (you can invite three people – they must be alive)
Will Self – he’s slightly grumpy and bit scary but an incredible writer with a towering intellect. I’ve met him a couple of times and would love to spend an evening chewing the fat.
Woody Allen – another famous grump but a fascinating and controversial living legend.
Thom Yorke – one of my heroes and a bit of a cypher. I’d like to get to the bottom of his brilliantly gloomy outlook on the world.
But I’ve just realized I’ve chosen three of the most irascible men on the planet…
10. What do you do to relax away from work?
My favourite way to relax is playing Scrabble. I also like to sit in my garden on fine days in an old deckchair with a pot of tea and a blanket. I will close my eyes and listen to the birds singing. It’s like meditation.
11. If you could change one thing about Britain today, what would it be?
Ah, Britain. It gives me such grief. Without getting into my gripes about not being part of the European Union anymore (I still can’t quite believe the result of the referendum), I suppose the easiest way to improve Britain would be to give it much better weather. If we could transplant the climate of northern Italy it would make my life so much better.
12. What would your last meal be? (please choose a starter, a main course and a pudding)
Starter – A dozen Whitstable rock oysters, shallot vinegar, Tabasco
Main – Skate wing with capers and brown shrimps, a side of Joel Robuchon’s mashed potato and wilted, buttered, salted spinach.
Dessert – Stilton, Cornish Yarg, Brie and Carr’s Water Biscuits