Soho’s king of small plates, Russell Norman, is heading to Notting Hill for his first venture outside central London. Alexander Larman met him to talk food, fame and footfall
If ever I was reincarnated as a restaurateur, I think I’d like to come back as Russell Norman. The former operations director of Caprice Holdings has established himself as one of the mainstays of London dining in a remarkably short space of time, opening establishment after establishment which have attracted plaudits for their mixture of top-notch food, funky Venice-meets-Brooklyn atmosphere and remarkably reasonable prices.
Having opened seven restaurants in the past few years (most recently the Ape & Bird gastropub in Cambridge Circus, ‘a pub for people who don’t like pubs’), it’s almost a surprise to find the invariably charming and articulate Russell still confess to nerves on the verge of opening his first West London restaurant, Polpo Notting Hill, when we meet at his recently reopened Polpetto in Soho, in the midst of Berwick Street. ‘I’m still acquiring the fixtures and fittings for Notting Hill – I’ve just bought a 30s sink for the loos – and I’ve spent too much time obsessing about the little details. Certainly more than is healthy!’
The new restaurant is on the site of the late, unlamented All Bar One on Notting Hill Gate, and Norman has grand ambitions for his new establishment. ‘It’s a lovely big site, where we’ll have 120 seats rather than Soho’s 60, and we wanted to create a restaurant that looks like it’s been there forever, even though it’s new.’
It certainly wasn’t a premeditated idea of his to move West; as he says, ‘It’s unknown territory, as it’s not a business district out there, unlike Soho or Clerkenwell, and there’s always footfall outside. Notting Hill’s a neighbourhood, and we’ll be getting in people who live there, rather than work there, which makes it a different kettle of fish. I fully expect there to be big differences in the operation, although the menu’s going to be the same – I’m a firm believer in the adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and if we tried to change our menus, we tend to get bitten on the bum.’
Instead, he wants to keep a vibe that he describes as ‘being at a great party, with great food.’ One big advantage of the new site is that the license will allow people to drink Polpo’s excellent cocktails without having to order food; as Norman puts it, ‘it’s been so frustrating until now to say to someone ‘You’ve got to eat, you can’t just drink’, but now we can!’ He looks wistful and starts eulogising the ability to have ‘a nice cold beer on a summer’s day’; no doubt he won’t be the only one doing so.
I last met Norman in 2011, when he was a successful but still up-and-coming restaurateur, on the verge of opening his self-proclaimed ‘non-kosher Jewish caff’ Mishkin’s in Covent Garden. Since then, he’s risen to a far higher degree of fame, first with his bestselling cookery book Polpo which won the Waterstones Book Of The Year prize (something that he wryly describes as ‘staggering…I still half expect someone to come and tell me that there was an administrative mistake’) and then most recently with his appearance on BBC2’s The Restaurant Man, in which he acted as a compassionate and endlessly helpful mentor to a variety of hopeful (and sometimes hopeless) would-be restaurateurs. He’d been courted for a TV series before, but hadn’t found the right project – ‘and I was almost ridiculously busy as well, as I am now.’ Eventually, he was persuaded to take part in something ‘intelligent and genuine’, and the result was The Restaurant Man – ironically eventually commissioned by Alison Kirkham, who had attempted to lure him onto the small screen in the first place.
It struck a nerve with people far beyond the metropolitan food scene, as Norman visited six disparate parts of Britain to help would-be entrepreneurs launch their first restaurants, to mixed effect. His criteria were that the series had to be real, non-formula and that it started from the beginning, rather than a fix-it programme. Of the six participants, four succeeded, and two failed – as Norman says, ‘that’s a real snapshot of what happens in the restaurant business, not a faked contrivance.’
Norman proved a charismatic and authoritative presence, belying the enormous effort that it took to do the filming (‘about 60-plus days’) along with juggling all his other commitments. I wonder whether he ever sleeps; he cheerily tells me that he wrote his first book by dint of getting up at 5am and writing for two hours every day, ‘and I’m doing exactly the same with my next one, about Spuntino’. The strange thing is that, far from seeming at all exhausted by this, he seems to thrive on it; I’ve seldom met a man more energetic and enthusiastic about what he does.
After Polpo Notting Hill opens, there’s what he calls ‘a period of consolidation’ for the rest of the year (perhaps with some much-needed rest), before his biggest project to date, opening a two-floor restaurant and bar in the Walker’s Yard area of Soho, replacing some grotty porn shops with another classy and fun establishment. But in the meantime, there’s a trip to Venice – ‘my favourite city’ – to look forward to with his senior staff for their annual jolly a few days after we meet, and a family life with his wife and two young children in Blackheath to head back to at the end of a day.
But before then, it’s off to a meeting with his supremely talented head chef Florence Knight (‘a woman who is going to go so far in her career it’s almost frightening – every single suggestion she’s ever made about her menu has been brilliant’) and then lunch service, before a tour round his other restaurants. It’s frenetic, demanding and fun – and you can’t imagine that the talented Mr Norman would have it any other way.
126-128 Notting Hill Gate W11 3QG; polpo.co.uk