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A fascination for Venice may have inspired his previous restaurant Polpo, and a love of Tuscany has resulted in his latest venture Brutto, but it’s the city of London that Russell calls home
The past year or two have obviously been tough on everyone, not least those working in hospitality. ‘I’d left Polpo with nothing,’ says Russell Norman, ‘and spent lockdown thinking, what am I going to do? The one thing I did know was that I’d never open another restaurant as long as I live.’
He looks around slowly and laughs. We’re sitting in Brutto, the restaurant that opened this autumn. ‘That was October 2020,’ he recalls. ‘By December 2020 I was on the phone to my property agent saying, “Anything coming up?” and one of the first sites he showed me was this.’
Brutto continues Russell’s love affair with Italy. While Polpo celebrated Venice and cicchetti, Brutto celebrates the kind of straightforward trattoria that dots the streets of Tuscan towns. ‘It’s not fancy,’ he explains. ‘It’s red and white tablecloths, low lighting, dark ceilings, dark timber… It’s one of many ideas I’d had throughout my career and, after Polpo, I thought, yeah, there’s nothing like this in London.’
That’s clearly important to Russell, partly as a restaurateur looking for a project that will soar, but also as a Londoner. It is, after all, Russell’s birthplace, his hometown, his workplace and his playground. As he says, ‘I’ve been part of the London landscape since December 1965.
‘My family was living in Southall, and I was born in Perivale, at this purpose-built maternity hospital. It’s been demolished since – it was a horrible concrete building – but I remember it from my childhood, as it had these two amazing ramps that came up to the bay, where they took emergencies.
‘At the age of four or five, my family and my very young brothers moved to Hounslow, so I spent my formative years there, only leaving to go to Sunderland Polytechnic. I studied there for three years and worked in the North East for a year, as a community arts officer in East Durham. It didn’t suit me at all and I came back to London, looking for work.’
And thus Russell stumbled – ‘by accident, like most people, I suspect’ – into hospitality.
‘I thought the easiest job to get would be in a bar or a restaurant and I ended up at a chain restaurant called Old Orleans in Covent Garden. It was 1989, just after the film Cocktail, with Tom Cruise, came out, and I was employed as – undoubtedly – the world’s worst flair bartender. But we had a Happy Hour in the afternoon and all the waiters from Joe Allen, which was in the basement, would come up and drink and then go back to work.
Harriet, the head waitress at the time, said, “What are you doing here? You could earn much more money downstairs. We have a job…” I applied and got it, and spent ten years at Joe Allen. That was my first introduction to proper hospitality. Everything I’ve done since, I learned in those ten years. It was a brilliant training ground.’
From there, Russell’s ‘accidental CV’ grew impressively. ‘I was headhunted a few times, worked for Conran for a bit, worked for Marian Scrutton, the major-domo of places like Circus and The Avenue. I was headhunted again by Rainer Becker to step in at Zuma.’ From there, Russell found himself as operations director at Caprice Holdings for four years.
‘Then the financial crash happened, and my job stopped being creative and began to be about business development,’ he says. ‘It was about managing costs and talking to suppliers and using a calculator and spreadsheets, which wasn’t me at all. Around that time my best friend asked, “What about that restaurant idea you’ve had for a long time?” And that became Polpo.’
Over the same period, Russell’s living arrangements changed a lot, too. ‘I settled back in Willesden Green, but spent the next 20 years in short-term rents through Kilburn, West Hampstead, Hampstead, Belsize Park.’ Russell laughs. ‘I must have lived in every street in northwest London!
‘Then my wife Jules and I started to have children and we ran out of space, so we bought a flat in Swiss Cottage. I had a bedroom for my son Ollie from a previous relationship and then we had a daughter, Martha, and then, unexpectedly, our second daughter Mabel came along. I got it into my head that we needed a bigger house and did this nerdy thing of looking at the map of London and going online, and working out where I could afford a four-bedroom Victorian terrace, which, for some reason, was the property I had in my head. We found a very nice house in Hither Green in southeast London. Then, when my daughter started attending school in Blackheath Village, we bought a house in Blackheath.’
It’s perhaps those experiences, professional and domestic, across so many London boroughs that’s coloured Russell’s view of the city, and why he suggests visitors get off the beaten track. ‘If your list includes Madame Tussauds, Buckingham Palace, any of that, cross them off.’ He laughs. ‘Sorry, that sounds a bit negative, and I apologise to Buckingham Palace. You may need to go to get them out of your system, but there’s so much more that’s authentic out there. Like going to Postman’s Park, just the other side of Charterhouse Square. It’s a wonderful, spiritual and inspiring place where people who sacrificed themselves to selfless acts of kindness are remembered – things like trying to save someone from the Thames and drowning in the process. It’s not something mentioned in many guide books, but I’d heartily recommend going there.
‘And you have to go to a few galleries, of course. You’ve got to see the Rothkos at the Tate, and pop in to see Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire at The National Gallery, but a visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of the most wonderful two hours you can spend anywhere.’
Food wise, well, any visitor to London must surely have fish and chips on their list? I’d send them to The Seashell of Lisson Grove.
'It may be cheesy, and they already get a lot of tourist trade, but that’s for a very good reason. ‘As for newer restaurants – I don’t keep up with them! It’s not an intentional decision, it’s because I’m busy, usually. And I have a rather perverse thought that, if I’m going out I’d prefer to support an established restaurant that needs business.
‘Over the past 10 years there’s been a feverish obsession with the new. People have to go to restaurants before they’re fully open, and I think it’s great there are new places, but what about Andrew Edmunds? Oslo Court (the only restaurant I know that still has carpet)? Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion? Ciao Bella? (Not that Ciao Bella needs my business when it’s always rammed but you get the idea). I did go to Sessions Art Club [by former Polpo chef Florence Knight] after work recently. I sat at the bar, had a coffee and a few dishes, and it’s beautiful. What a stunning dining room, a wonderful addition to London. But I think it’s important also to remember the old guys.’
It’s a philosophy that Russell seems to have taken to heart as, alongside the opening of Brutto, he’s had another ‘new’ project in hand: the relaunch of Joe Allen, the restaurant that started his career and one that, of late, hadn’t been hitting the standards of a few years ago. ‘Exactly that,’ agrees Russell, ‘but it’s a nice return; it brings the story full circle.
‘We’re working with Gary Lee of The Ivy. I consulted with them and they invited me to join the board, so this time I’m a director and a shareholder. We’ve built a new bar at the front, and we opened in October.’ He looks around with a smile at newly opened Brutto, also needing his attention. ‘Great timing! But I’ve worked out how I can do it all. I’ll be tired, but it’ll be great fun.’
The Rookery and Hazlitt’s hotel
Sister hotels in Clerkenwell and Soho, in lovingly restored Georgian buildings. They work hard to make everything look like it’s been there for 150 years – their bathrooms have these Victorian bathing machines that look terrifying but are genuine antiques.
When Charlie Chaplin landed at Heathrow, he’d instruct his driver to go straight to this joint in Chalk Farm. It’s still a lovely London experience offered by an Italian family.
The Guinea Grill
For me, this typifies the top end of what British cooking is about. It’s a pub in a back street in Mayfair. It’s unpretentious, has amazing pies, and Oisín Rogers is one of the best landlords in the country. I pop in for a drink when I’m in the area and make sure I have a meal there once a year.
All the excellent pastries are made on site at this Soho patisserie. Sit outside, shiver in the London weather, have a coffee and a Dijon Slice, with onions, peppers, and masses of mustard. You get this real tang of spice and garlic.
A proper greasy spoon in Wardour Street. Sit next to construction workers in high vis, have a bacon sandwich on white bread with a mug of tea and pay a fiver. 020 7734 3750
Words by Neil Davies.
This interview was taken from the Christmas 2021 issue of Food and Travel magazine. To subscribe today, click here.
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