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Russell Norman: Pearls of Wisdom

By Stefan Chomka , 21-Dec-2012

Related topics: Pearls of Wisdom, Business, Venues, People, Restaurants

The former ops director of Caprice Holdings turned London restaurateur recently opened a third Polpo, his take on a Venetian bàcaro. Plans are under way for three central London sites, in Soho, theatreland and by the river, as well as a new incarnation of his Polpetto restaurant.

Russell Norman, owner of Polpo, is planning more restaurants for London next year

Russell Norman, owner of Polpo, is planning more restaurants for London next year

I’ve got more [restaurant] ideas than there are days in a month. If I had it my way I’d open a new restaurant every week.

A recession forces you to be frugal. If you can make it work in tough times it’ll be easier when times are better. I’d recommend a recession – although I wasn’t gleefully rubbing my hands when I opened Polpo. There was a chance it would bomb. 

Selfishly, every idea I have starts with me. It’s never about me thinking what will make money and be commercially successful or viable. The starting point is always, ‘how does it tickle me?’

I admire [Hawksmoor’s] Will and Huw. Those guys tried a couple of ideas before and they didn’t work. Hawksmoor was their last attempt to do something that satisfied them. And my goodness, didn’t it?

When I look at a potential site I stalk it. I’m there at 8am, at lunchtime, in the afternoon. I like to see the sort of people who live, work and play in the area and who’s just walking by.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that my taste is quite normal. If I like something it usually follows that others will like it too. It was slightly terrifying opening Polpo three years ago because at the time I didn’t know my tastes were so universal.

I never think about trends. They don’t preoccupy me.

When I joined Caprice Holdings I had no doubt in my mind that I would retire there. I may have stayed there if two things hadn’t happened. Firstly, the recession kicked in and my day-to-day activity changed, it became more about maintenance and efficiency rather than looking at new ideas. Secondly, I started to realise a lot of the ideas I was having weren’t appropriate for Caprice Holdings. 

I had the idea for Polpo even before I was at Caprice. The version then was very different, but thank goodness I waited as it wouldn’t have worked. It was to faithfully recreate a Venetian bàcaro where you’d come in, stand, eat, drink and be gone in 15 minutes. London is not ready for that. 

Working for Caprice instilled a discipline in mathematics and back-of-house mechanics. All those boring spreadsheets have stood me in good stead.

I’m incredibly fussy when it comes to sites. I’ve probably turned down 30 to 40 restaurants for every one I’ve opened.

I find it quite painful to sit in a restaurant that considers itself fine dining. Polpo was the antidote to the sort of restaurants I was used to at Caprice.

The dining scene in London will never catch up with New York. London starts in the centre and moves outwards – the intensity in zone one is diluted as you move out and it gets more and more suburban. Manhattan and Brooklyn are made up of neighbourhoods, they have a vibrancy and urban feel London will always struggle to have. London is not as visceral as New York.

I get envious when I see great restaurants in spaces I never thought to explore. I had lunch at Caravan in King’s Cross and it was heaving. I would never in a thousand years have thought you could fill up a restaurant in King’s Cross on a Monday.

I don’t like it when imitation is unthinking and total. If someone comes in here [Polpo] and replicates it wholesale it really pisses me off. But we are all magpies. I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as an original idea. I’ve picked up every single one of my ideas from somewhere.

The effort and manpower required to open a 70-cover restaurant is identical to the effort and manpower required to open a 170-seater one. It’s just a question of scale.

We turned down a site on Great Newport Street in Leicester Square and every time I walk past it I get a little pang of regret. It’s a constant reminder to be a little bit more imaginative about site selection. If it doesn’t tick all the boxes, sometimes it’s enough that it ticks most of them.

I have a strong urge to open a pizza restaurant. It won’t reinvent the wheel, but there will be plenty to make people smile.

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