Russell Norman on managing a sumptuous spread of restaurants while writing a smorgasbord of compelling cookbooks.
Opened first restaurant: 2009
For restaurateur Russell Norman, the path to conquering London with his Venetian-style hotspot Polpo was, paradoxically, both long and winding and a straight shot to the top. He first visited the City of Canals as a student with his friend (and future business partner) Richard Beatty, where he promptly fell in love with Venice’s “glorious decrepitude”. “It’s physically in decline; it reminded me of my own mortality,” he says. “Then I noticed the food.”
Decades – and many trips to Italy – later, Beatty convinced Norman to quit his job at restaurant group Caprice Holdings (owner of a swathe of famous London eating spots) and open a restaurant with him, inspired by all “the back-alley wine bars” that they so loved. The Soho spot launched in 2009 and Londoners queued for the unfussy atmosphere, plates of cichetti (small snacks) and generous Aperol spritzes. “For the first six months I was the first one in and the last one to leave,” says Norman. His hustle paid off: they soon expanded and there are now six Polpo locations across London and Brighton, as well as branches of sister restaurants Spuntino and Polpetto, which serves Brooklyn-inspired grub.
Cookbooks soon followed, first 2012’s Polpo and then 2015’s Spuntino. In 2014 he presented a six-part documentary for the bbc called The Restaurant Man; in 2015 he became a columnist for Esquire in the UK. “I think the thing I do most now is write,” says Norman, who studied English at university. “I see myself as a writer; that’s how I position myself among the various plates I have spinning.” For his third book, Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking, he spent 14 months living in the city, shopping in the markets and preparing his own meals at home every single day. “This is me exploring genuine, experiential home cooking in Venice.”
In order to keep those spinning plates in motion, Norman relies on a team as diverse and wide-ranging as his career has been. Among those he includes in his inner circle are editors, designers, photographers, networkers, entrepreneurs and a fuzzy-faced counsellor for when it all gets to be a bit much – otherwise known as Tegwyn, Norman’s two-year-old cavalier-poodle mix.
For years Russell Norman served as the operations director for London restaurant group Caprice Holdings, focusing on front of house. He found success, which gave him the confidence to venture out on his own with long-time friend Richard Beatty. “I was good at my job so I did have that security of knowing that I could go back if Polpo failed.” He needn’t have worried.
Scott MacDonald MD of Polpo
“He joined in 2017 but his role is significant because it means I don’t have to have a day-to-day operational role. He’s quite remarkable.”
Izzy England Unofficial assistant
“If I say something in passing, she’ll get it sorted.”
John Hamilton Book designer at Penguin
“We went to Venice and it was a privilege to go back with such a brilliant designer.”
Jenny Zarins Photographer
“She shoots all my cookbooks. She’s brilliant. There is something special about her work.”
“She does this thing where she climbs on my shoulders and it’s the best way to de-stress. She’s an intuitive dog and full of beans.”
Juliet Annan Publishing director at Penguin imprint Fig Tree
“Like a lot of successful publishers, she’s very shrewd.”
Richard Beatty Business partner
“I opened a restaurant with my best friend.”
Vanessa Fogarty TV agent at Curtis Brown
“She is incredibly well connected and has so many ideas.”
Cathryn Summerhayes Literary agent at Curtis Brown
“She helped spread the word about Polpo.”