Many have described Russell Norman, whose death has shocked the entire restaurant world, as a genuinely happy, generous, and kind person. They would be right. Essentially, he was as hospitable in his everyday life as he was in business, a man who defined the very essence of what hospitality is about.
His attention to detail, his generosity of spirit, his knowledge of recipes and provenance, his appreciation of what makes the perfect cocktail, and, most importantly, the ingredients needed to make a warm and welcoming restaurant. This, after all, is the major reason why we go out to eat.
Russell had a gift to understand all the components of great hospitality and learnt his trade in illustrious company. His great friend, and fellow chef, Mark Hix remembers hiring a smartly suited and booted young man to work at The Ivy. “He was attracted to the stardust and glamour of the West End and theatreland,” says Hix, “but as good as he was in that world, he could see trends were changing, and a different way of eating out, less formal and more approachable, might be the next big thing.”
Buoyed by this conviction, Russell struck out on his own, and of course the now legendary Polpo restaurant was born. Thanks solely to Russell’s imagination and foresight, the concept of small plates, artisan producers and informal eating came to London. It would not be a grandiose claim to say that, almost single-handedly Russell changed the way we eat in restaurants, and his position in the hierarchy and history of the capital’s restaurant scene should not be under-estimated.
But it was as a human being rather than a cutting-edge restaurateur that Russell’s qualities came to the fore. He was fiercely loyal to his friends and colleagues and was always ready to lend a helping hand to those who needed it.
I was fortunate to enjoy several trips with Russell. We visited the vineyards of Alvaro Palacious in Catalonia and his beloved Venice. Our travelling companions were Angela Hartnett, John Hutton, Robin Hutson, and Tom Parker Bowles. Russell always made it fun. In Venice, he insisted that we all stay at his favourite hotel in the world, Pensione Seguso. It could never be described as the most luxurious place in the world, or even Venice, to stay, but it very much suited Russell’s character - unpretentious and genuine — and Seguso never lost its charm, even when he had to come to rescue us when we all got stuck in the hotel’s lift.
Russell thought this lift incident was so funny, that the photograph of us all there in that tiny lift graced the wall of his acclaimed restaurant, Brutto, which, in the curious way that the restaurant world has of often turning full circle, is in the same building in Clerkenwell that Mark Hix occupied for so many years.
Like his favourite cocktail, the bitter-sweet negroni, Russell Norman’s untimely death has left contrasting emotions for those of us who knew him: the vivid, joyful memories of time spent in his company and the unbearable sadness at the passing of a man taken from us, far, far too early.