Restaurateur Russell Norman on why he's about to take on Harvey Nics

Russell Norman is one of the most successful restaurateurs of his time and he is bringing his Polpo brand to Leeds in his first move out of the South. Catherine Scott met him.

Russell Norman has chosen Leeds for the first northern opening of his restaurant chain Polpo.
Russell Norman has chosen Leeds for the first northern opening of his restaurant chain Polpo.

Russell Norman is excited about bringing his Polpo restaurant to Leeds for a number of reasons.

Firstly, he says, he has been looking to expand the brand beyond London and Brighton. Secondly he is looking forward to bringing something new to Harvey Nichols. Thirdly it is where his son Ollie, now 24, went to university.

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“I came up to Leeds a lot when Ollie was here and I was really impressed with the city,” says Norman. “The food scene in particular. There is so much happening in Leeds with amazing chefs like Michael O’Hare at The Man Behind the Curtain who has just received his first Michelin star. He is pushing boundaries, which would be challenging even in London.

“But overall I think people are moving towards a more casual type of eating out. Anthony Flynn (of Anthony’s) was a great talent, but it just wasn’t what Leeds wanted at that time and I think that’s why it ended up failing. The dining scene is changing and people want something less formal. You just have to look at the success of places like Friends of Ham to see what people want these days. It made me realise that a Polpo would work really well in Leeds.”

Norman has clearly done his homework and he is a man who knows the restaurant business inside out. However the decision to open his first Polpo outside of the South (it will be number nine) in a top end department store like Harvey Nichols is an interesting one.

“We were in talks with Harvey Nichols about their London store and then Yo Sushi moved out of the Leeds store and it seemed the perfect synergy,” explains Norman. Polpo opened in Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge at the beginning of this month.

The ‘perfect synergy’ may not be clear for all to see at first. Norman came up with the idea for Polpo after he was inspired by the spit and sawdust restaurants in the back streets of Venice with their small, well priced plates of tasty seasonal food.

The first Polpo opened on Beak Street in Soho in September 2009. The building was fittingly once home to the Venetian painter Canaletto and it is all bare brick walls and exposed light bulbs. It is hard to see how this style will fit the sleek and shiny Harvey Nichols.

Not a problem, says Norman.

“I agree there could be a danger if we tried to replicate that style completely that it could look like a film set, which is not what we want at all. Polpo is all about authenticity from its food to its decor. All our Polpos are slightly different as they have to fit in with their surroundings. The Polpo in Harvey Nichols Leeds will be different again.”

To this end Norman has modified the design somewhat. Gone are the exposed industrial light bulbs, in are dainty Venetian lace lamp shades.

“It is a design which is actually more typical of the cafes in Venice,” he says.

The decor may be slightly different, but the food, says Norman, will be the same standard as the southern Polpos although, where possible, produce will be sourced locally.

“As with the decor the food is all about authenticity, food that is in season tastes better and is authentic. The whole concept of Polpo is its simplicity, when you only have three ingredients to a dish there is nowhere to hide. It is all about the ingredients.”

Russell Norman didn’t really start out as a foodie. After studying at Sunderland Polytechnic and taking a “disastrous job” in arts administration he jumped in his car and drove back to London. But he had no idea what he wanted to do.

He ended up working as a bartender in a cocktail bar in the West End just to pay the bills.

The job didn’t last long and he moved on to the American restaurant Joe Allen’s where he felt much more at home, but he still thought he should get a ‘proper’ job. He went back to college and became a drama teacher, but all the while still working in restaurants.

“I realised that I liked the evening job more than the day job.” So he went to work for Caprice Holding, the group which runs the famous Ivy, where he ended up as operations director.

He particularly liked the business development and creative side of his job, but when the recession hit decided to give up the lucrative role. “I thought maybe this is the time to start my own business.”

With support from his ‘best friend’ Richard Beatty, who he met at Sunderland Poly, Polpo was launched in London’s Soho in 2008.

“I realised that the financial situation meant that people wanted something different from the fancy expensive restaurants,” explains Norman. “People were still eating out and entertaining but they didn’t want to be seen to be flashing the cash. They wanted something much more informal. Polpo was the child of its time.”

Norman was also inspired by something more romantic, his frequent trips to Italy.

“I was inspired by the wine bars of Venice where they stand up and eat small plates of delicious food. I had thought of replicating that in London, but I’m so glad I didn’t. There are some cultural differences which meant it just wouldn’t have worked here. We like to sit down while we are eating and I just think it would have been a step too far.”

So he allowed tables, but the overall effect is still very rustic and in keeping with its Venetian muse.

Polpo Leeds will launch on the Fourth Floor of Harvey Nichols on Friday following a press launch on Thursday. It will be the first restaurant north of London and the restaurant group’s second restaurant outside of London and number nine in the ‘chain’.

Harvey Nichols is clearly pleased with the arrival of Polpo.

Marion Carpentier, group food and hospitality director at Harvey Nichols says: “We’ve long been admirers of Polpo and so we’re thrilled to be working with the restaurant group.”

Signature dishes on the menu will include cicheti such as fried stuffed olives, zucchini arancini and fig and prosciutto crostini (from £3). Small plates include cod cheeks with lentils & salsa verde, pizzetta with spicy pork and pickled peppers, deep fried polenta-crusted meatballs, and sliced flank steak with porcini (from £6) while the dessert list features flourless chocolate & hazelnut cake, blackberry panna cotta and Tiramisu pot (from £5).

His interest in Italian culture is seems to be reflected in the way he is a passionate family man. Ollie is a chip off the old block, having set up his own pop up restaurant although he now has a ‘proper job’.

Norman also has two young daughters, Mabel and Martha. He is married to Jules, a teacher, and the family live in Blackheath.

“I do work very long hours during the week but the weekends are for family. It works for us.”

Although never having been a chef himself, the father of three knows about good food and ironically he says his way of relaxing is to cook.

“I spend my entire days in restaurants and then come home and cook, it’s funny when you think about it.” And what does he cook ? “Italian of course.”

l Polpo opens on the Fourth Floor of Harvey Nichols, Leeds on Friday and will open Tuesday – Saturday 12pm – 10.30pm and Sunday & Monday 12pm – 6pm.