The news that Russell Norman has died suddenly saddens me greatly, as I’m sure it will all of those who knew and respected him in the industry.
As a restaurateur, Norman was among the very best. As well as his celebrated eye for detail that led to the creation of some beautiful and striking restaurants, he had a wonderful magpie tendency that saw him take inspiration from numerous places and bring them together with alacrity and purpose, in a way that was neither gimmicky or crass. He was a man who truly understood that a restaurant was more than the sum of its parts and created spaces in which people not just chose to eat in but loved to be in.
I first met Norman in 2009 when he had quit his role as operations director at Caprice Holdings to open Polpo alongside his friend Richard Beatty. Polpo would become a seminal restaurant, kickstarting the small plates movement in London beyond tapas as well as creating the trend for no reservations that led to long queues outside the restaurant, an aspect of New York’s dining scene that he admired. Later on, I was given the task of chairing a discussion with Norman alongside Tom Adams, Scott Collins, and David Strauss about reservations for The MEATliquor Chronicles book, where he expressed bemusement that such a simple approach generated so much interest. “Our places should be defined by what they serve, how they serve it, and the environment in which they serve it, not by something as mundane and incidental as the way they seat customers,” he said.
Norman’s most recent restaurant, Brutto, has indeed been defined as he wished. Named after the Italian word for ugly - a beautiful irony for someone who was such an aesthete - in reference to his restaurant putting flavour before looks, Brutto has become something of a London institution for its excellent and accessible cooking and welcoming and buzzy environment. It is heartening to hear that the restaurant will remain open under the custodianship of Norman’s son Ollie and wife Jules, I wish them every success in upholding his legacy.
It came as no surprise when Norman became ‘The Restaurant Man’ when he hosted a documentary of the same name on BBC2 in 2014. As a former English teacher, Norman had an empathy with people as well as a calmness that made him perfectly suited to the role. There was also a humbleness to his approach in the show, and a reluctance to put himself on a pedestal as an expert who could provide advice, which made his relationship with the struggling restaurateurs all the more interesting and humane. I remember Norman responding in person to every single comment made to him on what was then Twitter during the programme’s run, which shows the class of the man.
London is home to numerous successful restaurateurs, but few have had the impact that Norman has had on the restaurant scene over the past 14 years. Intelligent, witty, kind, focused, charming, stylish, super-creative and indefatigable, he opened restaurants and closed them but was never afraid to try new things, tap into new trends and ideas and experiment. Whether it be Polpetto, which brought to light the skills of Florence Knight, ‘scruffy small plate joint’ Spuntino that channelled a grungy Lower East Side edge, Jewish deli-inspired Mishkin’s, or pub and dining room Ape & Bird, every venue had a character and charm that mirrored the man himself.
Norman’s sudden and untimely passing is a blow for the restaurant sector, and for people who love eating out. Like the low-hanging filament light bulb lamps for which he started a trend in restaurants across the country, he shone brightly. His light will be missed greatly.