Blackheath restaurateur Russell Norman tells The Guide Resident how his love of Venice and Venetian food inspired his career his London restaurant group POLPO and his latest cookbook
The first time Russell Norman visited Venice was as a fresh-faced student in 1986, boarding a train from Paris with absolutely no idea what to expect. Set to spend three weeks in the city, he admits that he didn’t even realise the city was surrounded by water.
‘I knew nothing,’ he laughs. ‘I was just completely ignorant and unprepared. So it just took my breath away, knocked me off my feet – all those clichés.
‘I spent my first three weeks trying to get my head around this place, which was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I just kept wanting to go back and explore more and more of it, which I did.’
The weeks he spent there over 30 years ago started a lifelong love affair with the place, its people and, most importantly, its food.
Since then, it’s inspired his first cookbook and restaurant group – both under the POLPO name – and now his latest book, Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking.
Grounded in the Venetian neighbourhood of Giardini in Castello, which he first visited on that 1986 trip, the cookbook collates 130 recipes from his travels and encounters with locals.
‘There was so much to learn and there was so much about the food in the city, that I kept coming back for more.
‘I suppose this book was the culmination of my fascination with a city that has occupied my imagination for the best part of my adult life,’ he says.
The culture and history that Norman so loves means that the book does not read as simply as a recipe book.
He has peppered it through with memories, stories and history to ground each dish in its origin. So much so that one of his friends said: ‘It’s a cookbook, but it’s also anthropology.’
‘The introductions to each of the recipes are really important because they do place the recipes in time or in location in terms of geography, or sometimes in terms of feeling,’ he explains.
This book was the culmination of my fascination with a city that has occupied my imagination for the best part of my adult life
‘And I was very fortunate that some of my neighbours when I was living there for 14 months were generous with their recipes and their ideas.’
Such as his neighbour who introduced him to a twist on a spaghetti cassopipa recipe, which is made with the last dregs of seafood from fishing boats alongside cinnamon, nutmeg and saffron, influenced by Venice’s history on the spice route.
Food has always held a great fascination for Norman, who began working in the industry making cocktails at a bar in Covent Garden when he first moved to London.
He then worked as a waiter at Joe Allen in Covent Garden, a job he continued on Saturdays while he worked full-time as a teacher after his son was born.
‘I remember getting towards the end of my teaching week and starting to look forward to the weekend as I’d be going to the restaurant, which I really enjoyed and the money was quite good. So after a while I thought, who am I kidding?’
He went from full-time at Joe Allen to Conran, Mirror Image Restaurants and then Zuma before what he describes as his ‘last proper job’ as Operations Director at Caprice Holdings (which runs The Ivy, Sexy Fish and other acclaimed restaurants).
It was here that he decided to make the plunge and open his own restaurant. And where else would he find inspiration other than Venice?
Alongside his fascination with the food, Norman had also fallen in love with back-street wine bars called bacàri, which served small plates of food, during his trips to the city.
He decided to bring these to London in a form that suited the capital’s dining style, opening his first restaurant in Soho in 2009 with business partner and close friend Richard Beatty.
Now, with five restaurants in London and one in Brighton, the group is thriving with its unique offering. But while there were rumours of a POLPO in Lewisham a few years ago, the group has yet to set up south of the river, where Norman calls home, having lived in Blackheath with his family for the last five years.
‘What I like about it I suppose is you get the best of both worlds – you’re a very short journey into the West End and you also get this real sense of being in a village,’ he says. ‘And the restaurants aren’t too bad either.’
His daughters love Japanese restaurant Kitcho and Sticks’n’Sushi in Greenwich, while Norman himself is a big fan of the Buenos Aires Café and GAIL’s Bakery in Blackheath.
And with the food scene in Deptford rapidly taking off, we’re convinced that POLPO has a place in south east London. Norman, ever the realist, is ‘not sure whether there are enough people to sustain it’, but if the delicious recipes on offer in his cookbook are anything to go by, we really hope he can be persuaded…
Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking is priced £26 (Fig Tree)
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