It was accident rather than design that led London restaurateur and star of Channel 4’s The Restaurant Man Russell Norman to move south of the river, but now he’s here to stay
Russell Norman, owner of Venetian-inspired restaurant Polpo, is the first to admit that his move to Hither Green was “a complete accident”. He was born in west London, spent his adult life in north west London and then bought a flat in Swiss Cottage with his wife Jules.
“We lived there with our first daughter and were very happy, but then unexpectedly we discovered my wife was five-months pregnant and realised we would imminently be running out of space,” explains Norman.
They decided they needed “a four-bed late Victorian house with a garden” and set about finding somewhere where they could afford one.
“I was really blokish about it. Scientific. I got out a map and looked at areas of London. Hither Green is one of those places with lots of lovely late Victorian housing. The Corbett Estate was built from 1903-5 and it utterly beautiful,” he enthuses although he does confess to some initial qualms.
“I brought my missus from Swiss Cottage and it was a bit like, ‘Oh my God, where are we?’, but when we saw the house we thought, ‘this is something else’.
The original plan was to return to north London after a while, but six years on the family is well and truly settled in the area (although a move to Blackheath is on the horizon, as it’s where Norman’s wife works as a teacher at Blackheath High, and his daughters Martha, seven, and Mabel, five, go to school).
“We love our house but we are looking to move to a townhouse close to the school and the village.”
And it’s not the only dealings Norman could be having with estate agents locally. He confides he has his eye on Deptford as a possible restaurant location.
“I harbour a secret desire to find a big industrial space, maybe an old garage or something, about 4,000 square feet,” he reveals. “Deptford is up-and-coming and it would attract people from all around. I haven’t started a serious search yet, but it’s an idea.”
I don’t want to get everyone’s hopes up too much, but with Norman’s recent track record the chances are it may very well happen. One minute it’s merely an idea, then suddenly it’s opening night.
After a career in teaching (he was head of English and Drama at a girls’ school in Stanmore, where he met his wife), Norman worked for a succession of high-end London restaurant companies. His love affair with Venice began when he went there as a student in the late 1980’s, and he and Jules travelled there many times before they were married, and also for their honeymoon. Norman was particularly taken with the bacari, the tiny back-street wine bars serving small plates of authentic Venetian titbits, known as cicheti.
As he explains in the introduction to his award-winning debut cookbook Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) – which beat Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies to be named Waterstone’s Book of the Year in December – it was on a trip in April 2008 he had the light-bulb moment that gave rise to the restaurant group he now runs with his college friend, Richard Beatty.
“I was eating a warm octopus salad at the bar of Alla Vedova in Cannaregio. I was thinking about the Italian word for octopus, polpo, and musing that it would be a fun name for a restaurant. The penny dropped… I got incredibly excited by the thought of building a version of a bacaro in London. I resigned as operations director of a fancy corporate restaurant group, got a tattoo of an octopus on my back, and Polpo was born.”
Norman opened his first restaurant in Beak Street in Soho in September 2009 and it was an immediate hit, popular for its small plates of arancini, bruschetta and pizzetta, but also for its buzzy atmosphere and pared-back, distressed design.
“We don’t have tablecloths, we pour wine into tumblers, it’s all very casual,” says Norman, who scoured antique markets and salvage yards to find the perfect fixtures and fittings.
“When I opened Polpo I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to look, but we couldn’t afford a designer. There were already doors but I got the builder to take them off and put them in the skip, then went to Aladdin’s Cave in Lewisham and bought beaten up Victorian doors and rocked up with them.”
Just three and half years later there are two more Polpos – one in Covent Garden and one in Smithfield – as well as Spuntino, their Soho take on the New York diner, and Mishkin’s, “a kind-of Jewish deli with cocktails”, in Covent Garden. Norman’s got a lot on his plate, and is notoriously hands-on, so how does this fit with family life?
“I do work long hours but I still manage to see a lot of my family,” he says, adding that “things have improved dramatically since we bought a bolthole in rural Kent and spend weekends there.”
“I really enjoy cooking and I am pleased to say my family enjoy eating it. At the cottage I like to make soup and bake bread.”
His kids are also very involved in his restaurants. He has a grown up son, Ollie, 21, from a previous relationship, who is studying at Leeds University and works in his restaurants during the holidays. His daughters have also helped him design logos and menus – and it looks like there may be more of that on the cards: Norman’s future plans include “a very large project in Soho”, plus he is interested in a couple of other London sites. Another book could be in the pipeline, too. In fact he’s off to see his agent now.
The life of Russell Norman is all go, and he clearly likes it that way.
Russell Norman’s local hotspots
1 You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, Hither Green
“It’s unique and feels like you’ve been transported somewhere else. Great florist, good bread and they even have knitting on a Tuesday.”
“It’s a classic Victorian suburban park and it’s got a great cafe and really nice gardens. It’s the sort of place I remember from my childhood and feels like somewhere in a Janet and Allan Ahlberg book.”
3 Chapters, Blackheath
“The staff are incredibly accommodating and it’s West End standards in Zone 3.
I also like Bella Vista and Buenos Aires Cafe. My daughters love Giraffe. I am happy about Côte coming to Blackheath, too. I know it’s a chain but it is really reliable.”
This article was first published in The Guide Resident, February 2013