Former Caprice Holdings poster boy Russell Norman has a new look and a trio of new restaurants inspired by Italy and New York. Bravo, dude, says William Sitwell
I HAD THOUGHT I was familiar with most coffee styles. The mocha, the cappuccino, the latte, the macchiato, the espresso and so forth. So trust restaurateur Russell Norman to open my eyes to a new variant. ‘I’ll have a cortado, please,’ he says to the waiter towards the end of dinner. The man’s eyes light up. He’s Spanish, so he knows and enjoys taking this rare order.
‘It’s an espresso cut with milk,’ Russell explains, ‘so the top is half foam, half milk. It cuts the bitterness of the coffee.’
Needless to say, Russell is a little disappointed with what he gets. It doesn’t quite meet his exacting standards. After all, the perfect cortado has to have a ratio of milk to coffee at between 1:1 and 1:2. Anything else and you might as well have ordered a macchiato.
As with most subjects he touches upon, Russell Norman is precise, exacting and confident. As he talks he spells out the more complicated words and expressions. I’m sure it’s for my journalistic benefit, but you get the feeling he would do it anyway.
He has a thespian flair about him, too. His attire — brown brogues, collarless red shirt, baggy trousers, scarf — is studiously put together along with his quiff, circular tortoiseshell glasses and stubble. It’s a look, I gather, that he has put considerable thought into and he does it for business reasons. For Russell, for many years an acclaimed front-of-house for some of the capital’s smartest restaurants and employee of the biggest names in the London dining scene, is now a restaurant owner and employer himself.
Habitués, over the years, of places like Joe Allen, Avenue, Circus, Zuma and Scott’s will be familiar with Russell, his assured, professional welcome and attendance delivered with sincerity. He was always dressed immaculately, he says, in a ‘dark, impeccable business suit, white shirt, tightly knotted tie’. And, I would add, some carefully trimmed, Jason Statham-type London gangster stubble.
Indeed, while he was working as operations director of Caprice Holdings all the senior staff started dressing like that, including Des McDonald, the CEO. ‘The look came from me,’ insists Russell. But it is a look he has now discarded as the owner, proponent and pioneer of a less formal style of dining.
There was a considerable amount of amused chatter when his look changed. He scruffed up, his hair got shaggy. Was this a midlife crisis? Was this father of three trying to hang with the very young and cute kids he seemed to be employing at his new place?
Apparently not. Although today, as we dine at Covent Garden’s Les Deux Salons, he expresses concerns about his age. ‘I’m 45 now and that gives me mixed feelings. I loved being 44 — 44 is sexy. But 45 is more landmark. I think it might be middle-aged.’
As to the post-Caprice Holdings dress-down: ‘I had to make a bold statement about who I was and who I wanted to be,’ he explains. ‘Taking off my suit, growing my hair and beard wasn’t accidental.’ It also went hand-in-hand with his plans to launch Polpo, a Venetian-style eatery that would combine the traditional fare of an Italian bacaro with the feel of scruffy downtown New York.
‘I went to New York to research,’ he explains. ‘And while I was in Brooklyn everything fell into place. I saw the feel, the vibe and the design. I saw these Brooklyn hipsters — overweight, bearded and scruffy. And I thought, “That’s how I’ve got to look.” So I started my Brooklyn hipster transformation before realising I was becoming too vain.’ His wife Jules was bemused, he stopped the full conversion and refrained from adding four stone.
This change of costume for the new stage of Polpo is unsurprising when you learn that he actually taught drama for three and a half years at a girls’ school in Harrow. Thus far the audience is applauding and demanding encores. Polpo’s fare of small plates of exquisite food, from anchovy and chickpea crostino to pizette bianca and fritto misto, see the place heaving, with a queue outside the door and around the block reflecting an empathy with its no-reservations policy.
NOW RUSSELL HAS added a sister restaurant, Polpetto, above the French House on Dean Street, and January will see the opening of Spuntino on Rupert Street. With just 26 covers, all on stools around a bar, the place will resemble a late-19th-century Italian-American snack bar.
‘We’ll do sliders [meat balls in a bun] — nothing sophisticated — and hard liquor, men’s cocktails,’ he says. ‘And there’ll be no bookings, no website, no phone number. I might not even put a sign outside. It’ll be right in the middle of real, live, seedy Soho, which I absolutely adore.’
Russell conceived the idea while being perfectly happy with his job at Caprice Holdings. ‘I thought that was the job I would retire from,’ he reflects. ‘I was at the top of my tree. But what I didn’t expect was that the time I spent working in the type of environment you get at London’s high end would prejudice me against it. I fell in love with a style of dining that existed in Europe but not in London. I left on impeccable terms and thought if my idea didn’t work I could always crawl back.’
But in retrospect it marked yet another twist in the many turns of a life that begun in humble Ealing. His parents split when he was four — with two younger brothers — his mother taking up with an old friend recently released from prison who worked in demolition. His father, a toolmaker at the iconic Hoover factory, had done little to encourage the boys and Russell’s siblings spent their time ‘playing football and robbing coins from the launderette’.
But while the brothers ran out of the house kicking a ball, Russell preferred to smuggle books.
‘I love my brothers. You love blood,’ he says, ‘but it is odd. We don’t seem to be connected. In fact I often had a weird feeling during childhood that I was at the centre of some weird conspiratorial experiment.’
Despite no adult interest in his schoolwork he excelled, achieving straight As in his A-levels. And while his stepfather indicated that he should then start working he applied for an English course at Sunderland Polytechnic: ‘I’m ashamed to say it seemed the furthest place from home that I could go.’
His later arrival in the restaurant world was equally unplanned when he took a job as a flair bartender (à la Tom Cruise/Cocktail) in Covent Garden, where he was a disaster. But his boss liked him and kept him on in the dispense bar. He then graduated downstairs to a job in the main restaurant, Joe Allen, and it was there he started his trade and for nine happy years was mentored by the owner, Richard Polo.
Now a boss himself, he rewards that youthful enthusiasm in others, seeking to employ those not with a track record but with good attitude: ‘If you have good English and a smile, I know I can take you on and train you.’
Russell finishes his cortado and checks his watch. Time to nip back to Polpo to check on his trendy youth and, no doubt, his slightly trendy self.
Illustration by Richard Beacham