Norma opened a few weeks ago, how has it been so far?
It’s been mental; we really hit the ground running. In terms of trade, we were fortunate to have a couple of good reviews in the press. Behind the scenes, of course, we’re still tightening up the nuts and bolts of the operation; logistically it’s quite a challenging space, with the restaurant spread over a couple of floors, and the kitchen housed in the basement.
How did the opportunity to open the restaurant first come about?
For me Norma is exactly the sort of restaurant I was looking to open after leaving Salt Yard. Originally I was looking to open a site on my own or with my wife, but despite that project getting quite far those plans fell through. And then there was a chance meeting with The Stafford’s CEO Stuart Procter, who was also looking to open a Mediterranean-focused restaurant as part of the new Stafford Collection. And that’s what drew me in; the opportunity to work with Stuart and his team to realise this vision.
There are obviously a lot of Italian-focused restaurants in London, what’s Norma’s USP?
It’s true that London’s Italian restaurant scene is hugely competitive, but when I was developing Norma I didn’t spend much time thinking about how it would fit in; my focus was mainly on making sure the concept was polished. For me Norma’s USP is that it offers an idiosyncratic take on Italian food that is very much my own. Many of London’s Italian restaurants are owned by Italians, which can be a great selling point but also a hindrance. For me the key was making sure the menu had a contemporary feel and plenty of originality; that it was luxurious, yet relaxed. And I think that sums the restaurant up perfectly.
What was the process behind creating the menu?
Much of my career has been focused on exploring Mediterranean cuisine; it was my remit when I was at Salt Yard and remains a great personal passion. Having regularly travelled to Italy, particularly in the last few years, I had begun learning more about the food of Sicily and the North African influences, and I found it inspiring. I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on with Norma, but I didn’t want to just stick to tradition: I wanted to offer modern food that emphasised my own creativity and innovation.
Give us a few examples…
Take the spaghetti fritters, which are quite traditional in Sicily. I’ve elevated the mixture by combining the cooked spaghetti with an emulsion of chicken stock, butter, parmesan and egg. They’re then deep fried to order and served with a parmesan sauce. The aubergine parmigiana I’ve tinkered with by adding burrata to the recipe. And on the dessert menu we’ve included a brioche con gelato, which is traditionally served for breakfast during the summer in Sicily. Here it consists of a freshly-baked brioche bun served warm with salted caramel ice cream in the middle that’s topped with a bitter chocolate sauce.
Do you intend to change the restaurant’s offering regularly?
I certainly want to develop it further. One of the things I’m looking at currently is creating my own version of a cassata Siciliana, for example, which is this visually garish layered cake wrapped with green pistachio paste and topped with candied fruits, which would be great to offer for birthdays at the restaurant further down the line. And then there’s the crudo bar we have here, which currently features cherrystone clams and red prawns, and will change its menu seasonally.
You were appointed culinary director by The Stafford at the start of 2018. How have you been working to put your stamp on the hotel’s in-house restaurants?
We relaunched The Stafford’s American Bar in May last year following a refurbishment, and as part of that project I overhauled the menu to give it a more Mediterranean focus, with tapas dishes to share and a couple of pizza options alongside the more conventional bar offering. And in terms of the Game Bird, I’m certainly involved in giving input when we’re deciding on new dishes to add to the menu. But that operation is predominately being run by Jozef Rogulski, who is the executive chef there.
Are there any plans in place for the future?
We’re using Norma as a jumping off point. Before settling on something concrete we want to see how well the restaurant works, and from there we’ll decide whether we want to remain in the same space or explore other concepts; perhaps a Spanish one, for example. But there’s certainly a big appetite to grow The Stafford brand, both here and internationally.
You’ve been a part of London’s restaurant scene for more than decade, how has it developed in your view?
For me London is one of the best gastronomic cities in the world, second perhaps only to New York. And as it has continued to develop, I think we’ve seen a huge shift towards offering greater accessibility and significantly better-quality food to diners. Of course, there are clearly commercial and financial hardships being felt in the capital at the moment. However, I do genuinely think that if you’re investing properly into a restaurant – with the right team in place, and the concept firmly established – you’ve got a damn good shot of making it work in London. People are looking for restaurants that offer great value for money, and if that’s what they perceive when reading your menu – even if it’s priced at a premium – then there’s plenty of opportunity.