Russell Norman on opening Polpo in Brighton
PUBLISHED: 10:35 14 January 2016 | UPDATED: 10:35 14 January 2016
Restaurant guru Russell Norman has 10 dining spots in the capital. He told Alexander Larman why opening Polpo, a branch of his highly successful Italian restaurant group, in Brighton was like coming home
Russell Norman, the so-called Restaurant Man – to quote the title of his recent TV series – has a deserved reputation as a modern day renaissance man. Not only is he a TV personality and bestselling author, with his cookery books Polpo and Spuntino attracting lavish praise, but his Polpo group of restaurants, with their no-bookings and small plate ethos (to say nothing of the Venetian bar-meets-New York street joint atmosphere), have made him one of Britain’s most interesting restaurateurs.
Now, for his first venture outside London, he’s headed to Brighton to open another Polpo in a prime location next to the Theatre Royal, and he’s hoping that his winning formula will thrive outside the metropolis.
I’ve met Norman a few times before, and one of his trademarks is an old-fashioned courtesy and friendliness that make him the most winning of interview subjects. As expected, when we meet again he is anything but po-faced. He turns up dressed in a NASA baseball cap (“I’ve finally fulfilled a lifelong dream of heading to Orlando on holiday”) and talks excitedly about how his young daughters are now obsessed by all things to do with space travel. However, it soon becomes clear that his latest ambition, while not involving voyaging into the far galaxy, is no less far-reaching. “I’d wanted to open in Brighton for ages, and it seemed right that it should be our first non-London venture, because the people here are cosmopolitan, adventurous and like to go out – in other words, our ideal market. But there’s no such thing as a surefire winner when it comes to restaurants. We look for indicators – good footfall, a nice part of town, theatres, cinemas and what have you – but with restaurants, a difference of 50 feet can be the difference between profit and loss. Even now, with 30 years’ experience of opening and running restaurants, I don’t have all the answers.” He smiles and shrugs. “But it felt like the right thing to do, so here we are.”
Another reason why Brighton felt like the right option was that he has a long personal history with the city. “There’s a picture of me with my grandmother, Gwen, at the beach when I was about 18 months old, and we’d do that classic English thing every year when I was a toddler; we’d sit on the beach, the men would all wear their shoes and socks and a cornered hanky on their heads – sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea, windbreakers up on a windy day, soggy fish and chips for lunch. We didn’t go on foreign holidays until I was in my 20s, so Brighton has strong associations with being away for me.” He pauses and grins conspiratorially. “You might say, actually, that memories go through me like the lettering through a stick of rock.”
One thing that Russell’s adamant about is that people shouldn’t drive vast distances from the other end of the county to visit Polpo. “Our ethos when we started was that we’re neighbourhood restaurants, not destination restaurants, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone by pretending to be something we’re not. We’re aiming at a Brighton crowd who are responsive to eating somewhere that’s low cost, good fun and serves delicious food; we’re not trying to reinvent fine dining here.”
Nonetheless, he thinks that the “buzzy” neighbourhood should be receptive to what he wants to do. “I play a game when I’m walking through a city, look at people’s faces and think ‘are you going to be a potential customer of ours?’ That’s a process I go through automatically, and 90 per cent of the people I saw in Brighton fit the bill.” The team running the restaurant are all Brighton residents – “it was very important not to just parachute people from London in, we had to have an organic link to the city” – and there are strong local connections; the restaurant’s working with local breweries to stock Brighton beers, and all the produce served is coming from local farmers, butchers and artisans. As Norman says, “Sussex has some of the best food in the country, and we want a strong supplier connection; there’s no point not using the fantastic resources that we have.”
Although he’s now one of the country’s most successful restaurateurs, he’s no overnight success. “I started my career at the big theatreland restaurant, Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden, as a waiter, and then I worked my way up to managing it.” After some time spent at Caprice Holdings as its operations director, he launched the first Polpo with his business partner Richard Beatty in Soho in 2009, and now has ten restaurants in total, seven in the Polpo group and three others, including Mishkin’s, a take on a Jewish deli, and Spuntino, “an unashamed homage to the New York diners that I love going to.” And he’s keen to look forward, talking about possible future restaurants in Sussex, including one up the road in Lewes (“a really beautiful town that could do with something fun and casual”). “The problem with central London is that the rents there are so high that it’s becoming impossible to open a restaurant, charge normal prices and expect to make a living out of it. So increasingly my attention’s moving to places outside the capital, whether it’s commuter towns, places like Brighton or further afield.”
As for his other careers as a writer (“I’m big in the Netherlands, apparently, but so’s Rick Astley, so I’m trying not to read too much into that”) and TV personality, he’s amusingly self-deprecating about how busy he is; when I ask him when he manages to sleep, he says wryly, “weekends, really.” When I ask (only half-jokingly) how he manages to keep all the balls in the air, Norman smiles and shares a story that sums up his work ethic. “I have a little house in Kent, and there’s a koi pond in the garden, and there were a couple of sterlet fish in there – really weird, prehistoric creatures, like miniature sharks. We got some blanket weed in the pond, and while I was procrastinating as to how to get rid of it, the sterlets died. After this, I realised that, like sharks, sterlets can’t reverse, or go sideways, but have to keep on going forward, as otherwise they get caught up in the weed and die.” He pauses for effect. “I suppose that I’m like a sterlet, in a sense. I’ve got to keep moving forward, otherwise I’m just going to stagnate in weed and die.”
Hopefully his latest Sussex endeavour will be the latest in a long line of successful and well-considered projects – and the restaurant man himself will continue to move forward, like his sterlets.
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