Russell Norman owner of Polpo – a back street bàcaro with a menu straight from Venice
No matter how authentic neat white triangular sandwiches are, they just won’t cut in a London restaurant and apparently there is no such thing as too much parmesan.
Russell Norman, has, along with his business partner Richard Beatty brought to the world the fun dining experience (and success story) that is Polpo, a back street bàcaro with a menu straight from Venice. This small group of restaurants primarily in London (they have one in Brighton as well) like the rest of the high street has had a tough few years with some openings and closures, but since its inception 10 years ago they have become a feature of London’s gastro landscape. And he has put Venetian cooking very firmly on the map. Russell’s obsession with Venice started at a young age (he’s at pains to point out he loves all of Italy, more on that later) and he now has the good fortune to visit very often. He practically lived there for a year when he was writing his highly successful Venice: Four Season of Home Cooking. Holed up in a modest apartment in the Castello region with basic cooking equipment he scouted the streets for inspiration, talked to neighbours and generally soaked up one of the last strongholds of Venice with genuine locals. With less than 50,000 people living on the islands it is in danger of dying. I think that maybe that’s what behind the drive of Russell, talking to him it’s clear he adores tradition, authenticity and the taste of the place.
When and where did you open your first restaurant and what would you do differently today?
My first restaurant was Polpo in Sept 2009. My business partner Richard and I scrapped together a relatively small amount of money and found a scruffy vacant site in Beak Street, Soho. I’d opened other restaurants for other people as I was operations director for Caprice Holdings such as J Sheekey Oyster Bar, Scotts on Mount Street, Mayfair both in London so I’d had quite a bit of experience by this point. It was a chance to do things the way I wanted to do and not the way my paymasters wanted me to. At that time I was a contemporary of Mark Hix who was Chef Director at Caprice Holdings. He then went on to open his own restaurant at much the same time.
We opened several restaurants after that one, another branch of Polpo, a burger place called Spuntini and a few others but what I would do if it were 2009 again is just open one! It was the time I was the happiest, it was profitable, we had no overheads apart from staff costs of that individual site, no head office, no infrastructure. What I learnt the hard way is as you expand in the area of dining I’m in that you enter a severe state of diminishing returns as you open more branches. Your overheads get bigger, staff costs go through the roof. You are always chasing the simplicity of the original and generous profits of the first restaurant with every subsequent opening.
What do you think modern diners are really looking for when they visit one of your restaurants?
They are after a casual, quick, no frill experience. When I opened Polop I struggled, I wanted to open a bàcaro, certainly not a restaurant. There’s a pecking order in Italy, Ristorante, Trattoria, Osteria and bottom of the pile at the very first run is the bàcaro, a wine bar that serves food. Many of the most famous of the bàcari in Venice only have standing room, you stand at the counter have a glass or two of wine and point at snacks that are behind the bar. You eat them quickly and it’s off to the next place. That was my model. So in the first restaurant I had about 60 covers in the back and I wanted the front to run like a bàcari. Within a day or so it proved popular and everybody wanted to eat the full menu at the bar, so I had to go out and buy stools. Within a week the counter was gone and it was running like the rest of the restaurant. An interesting baptism of fire and quick u-turn on the original vision.
Your love of Venice is always with you in your cooking, how often do you go there?
I’m very fortunate, I go to Venice 12 – 15 times a year. When I was writing my most recent book I was there pretty much full time for over a year. It was important to spend that time there to write the book. I was in a humble flat on the first floor, no air con, washing hanging on lines across the street, very basic heating, very small stove top, I rented another apartment to use the oven! I wanted to live like locals of Castello, one of the last residential districts of Venice. There are only 50,000 people living there and it’s dwindling by 1000 a year. People with blue collar jobs live there, postmen, vaporetti drivers, hotel workers etc. I wanted to learn to cook like them, live among them. I spent 14 months in Venice learning to cook like a 90-year-old granny.
Define Venetian cooking for me.
Like most regional cooking, be it in Italy or other parts of the world you usually find necessity is the mother of invention. So for example Venetian classics like sarde in saor, which is sardines layered with melted onions and vinegar, nuts and raisins. You cook the sardines in flour and oil, let them cool then in a large bowl start layering with the other ingredients add white wine. Leave it in the fridge for at least 24 hours then serve it at room temperature on rectangles of grilled polenta. It’s a dish that goes back many centuries, it was a dish that was able to carried to sea before refrigeration. The vinegar preserves it for several weeks. The fish was healthy and the vitamin C from the onions and raisins prevented scurvy. The dish still persists in being proof that necessity is the mother of invention. Those are the things that fascinate me. It’s a combination of tradition, using seasonal ingredients, which is generally cheaper and making the most of them. Everybody has their own version of it, one of my neighbours said venetian cooking starts with an onion, and he’s absolutely right. Another thing that typifies venetian cooking is alcohol, in a city with no roads people drink all day long and put as much as they can in their food. In a word its simplicity.
Who has influenced you the most?
Martin Wilson was the head chef at Joe Allen when I was a waiter there. Although I’ve never professionally cooked Martin taught me a tremendous amount, at the end of shifts we’d talk about food. I’d ask him how to make certain dishes like risotto, he would give me tips and the next day asked me “How did it go?” The first time I made risotto I thought it had gone quite well but I said I thought I had used too much parmesan, he replied “Russell, let me tell you something, there is no such thing as too much parmesan”.
You have several successful cookbooks under your belt, what are you working on at the moment?
A couple of things at the moment. A book about the small snacks that are served in bàcari called cicchetti, 100 recipes or so in a small format book. And another idea I’ve got is a book about Italian regional salads that will take across the country.
How did you start out in the industry, and what has kept you in it for so long?
It was an accident, I started out as a bar tender. An American cocktail bar owner gave me a job in Covent Garden and expected me to be something like Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail. I was a disaster, I dropped far more than I caught, my drinks were terrible but they kept me on for some reason. There I met the waiters from Joe Allen’s who were downstairs, one thing led to another and I was offered a job as a waiter there and that was my beginning in hospitality. I also tried teaching in this period but the only thing I really enjoyed was working in hospitality.
How do you divide the workload with your business partner?
Richard is very much in the driving seat. We had a managing director who took the business in the wrong direction, taking a corporate attitude, he hired many, many, extraneous agencies which put a strain on the resources and available money. We found we were spending far more money on the business than it was earning. As managing director, he didn’t seem to think this was a problem. His vision was to have us in every high street, which will only work if you have incredibly deep pockets or an investor, we had neither. We got rid of him immediately we realised it was happening. And Richard put himself in the managing director role. I became the public face of the operation. Really taking it back to our original inspiration which was Venice but also reflecting the seasons in this country. Richard describes it as he’s the producer and I’m the director.
I often think a good evening in a restaurant is like watching a ballet, with everyone working in unison, which part of the performance do you enjoy the most?
As Heston Bluemthal once said, “You can rescue a poor food experience in a restaurant with fantastic service, but no amount of brilliant food will ever rescue a bad service experience” And he’s right, the element of the ‘ballet’ I enjoy the most is the human interaction.
What was the greatest lesson you learned in your first year of being a restaurateur?
What I learnt or rather I’m still learning but I’m aware of is that I don’t have to fix everything. I still suffer from the fallacy that no one can do it better than I can do it…. It’s a fallacy, it’s the way to an early grave. I have to step back from things and let people make mistakes and they learn not to do it the next time. In the first year I was doing everything myself, first in, last out every night. I thought with the safety valve of not opening on Sundays I would have a day off to recover. I am now no longer in that position and don’t work at the coal face, it would confuse staff, distract the customers so it’s better this way.
Did you ever want to give up, if so, what made you continue to the heights you’ve reached now?
I’ve still got a mortgage! Young family … I require money for them, you know I’m unemployable… I don’t really have any option.
What are the most misunderstood aspects of the job of a proprietor?
People think it’s a piece of cake, like having a big dinner party and that’s it’s easy money. Another misconception is the money that is made is selling for example a £6 bottle of wine for £20 you’re making £14 profit. The real story is that even a very good restaurant that’s doing everything it should tends to convert every pound spent into 7p pre-tax profits sometimes as low as 5p. I don’t think many people understand restaurant mathematics.
What insight would you pass on to the young generation in the industry?
You’ve got to have that passion for your idea, the restaurant going public will see through it if you’re not. The business side of things is essential, but it should come after the passion.
Can you suggest any simple recipes or techniques that could improve anyone’s home cooking?
The best tip I can pass on to anyone especially serving a cold dish is to take your ingredients out 30 mins before you need them. The number of times I’ve been to good restaurants and they ruin a simple tomato salad because it’s too cold. Be aware of temperature. The other thing is seasoning, taste your food as you’re making it, adjusting as you go. Interact with your food as it’s being prepared, it’s essential.
Who are your suppliers and why do you use them? Is it price, choice, availability?
It’s down to price, quality and availability. For fruit and veg we use Rushton’s of New Covent Garden, He’s a great supplier, I quite often deal with Mr Rushton himself, delivering or ordering and he’s responsive, if it’s not right he will replace things. He cares about what he does. He’s a great old-fashioned greengrocer. Every tomato in every restaurant comes from Kent. I always try to buy the sensible option. We are not one of those restaurants that fly Mozzarella over from Italy twice a week… we use the best ingredients close to us.
What spices, tools and techniques do you use that might be little known around the world?
I take my cue from the old Venetian ways of using their trade routes to the east and accumulate rare and unusual spices which they started using in their food, because they could, a display of wealth. Things like saffron, cinnamon and nutmeg as still used today. Pink peppercorns with fish for example.
What excites you in the world of restaurants at the moment, any notable openings or trends?
I sort of got left behind a couple of years ago when so many restaurants started to open, and they were all fantastic. There was a period of about two years where every restaurant that opened was better than the one before. I leave all the queueing and the fever pitch anticipation to the youngsters. I’ve started going back to the really established, traditional restaurants, and experience them again before they disappear completely. So, I’m going around London visiting restaurants that I’ve never been to or that I haven’t been to for a very long time.
Venetian food is your staple, how do you see it developing in your restaurants?
It’s difficult because the point about Venetian food is that is that it’s traditional, and I don’t really want to veer away from that. I don’t want to be reinventing the wheel, it’s difficult to evolve and make it fresh, however, sometimes I come across a recipe or book that surprises me, recently I read a book of recollections of a Venetian man from the 1950s. It’s not a recipe book as such but each dish is as he remembers it, what went into it etc. It’s fascinating, there are some very challenging dishes and I’m quite keen to see one of them on the menu, and keen to see the reaction. It’s rectum, it’s in the classic nose to tail tradition. There may be a strong case for how we describe it obviously.
What are you looking for in a new chef working for you, do you have a training programme?
I’m not a chef so I have to be careful in explaining what I need from one. In a way it’s made easy as all the dishes are traditional. But I do enjoy my interactions with the chefs. I find that when they are younger or inexperienced, they tend to put too many ingredients on the plate. I say to them “this is great but what can we take away to keep the essence of the dish, they always know the right answer.
How flexible are your menus? For example if something you are really passionate about doesn’t sell would you keep it on but develop it?
No, no definitely not, one of the Venetian dishes I adore is travetsinni, which are crustless little triangular white sandwiches with various fillings like tuna mayonnaise with a whole boiled egg sliced into sections. And when you look at the sandwich it’s overfilled in the middle and comes down at the edges. We put that on the menu at Polpo and we were laughed out of town, people were saying what? A white bread sandwich, what the fuck’s this? It just didn’t sell at all. It just didn’t travel, lost in translation. It’s important to listen to your customers.
Where in the world would you most like to work with food?
Almost certainly Italy, and I’ve got to grips with Venice, so Sicily and the southern regions are somewhere I’d like to see more of. I love the food as it’s even simpler than the north.
What would you say is the most valuable asset of the kitchen and why?
Human resources are always the most valuable asset.
What’s the most exciting new ingredient you’ve used recently?
I’ve started since living in Kent growing my own vegetables; last year I planted Castel Franco, a bitter pretty leaf from the north of Italy. Not knowing whether they would work or not, but they were absolutely amazing, wonderful size, pink and yellow inside – beautiful. Great winter salad ingredient perfect with slices of blood orange, raw fennel and good olive oil.
What are you upcoming goals for you and your team?
We want to see a bit more stability, surety of where we are as a divorced part of Europe for example how this will affect our staff and personnel, will they be welcome to stay and work here etc. There’s a lack of clarity that needs to be sorted out. Our wines and bitters come from Europe, over the last two years the products have remained the same price, but the exchange rate has meant in real terms we are making less by doing the same, and we can’t pass those costs onto our customers. I’d like to see more confidence in the economy.
Thank you Russel!