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My life in food: Russell Norman

‘I have mostly learnt to cook by stealing ideas from chefs I’ve worked with’

While teaching English and drama at a school in Stanmore, Norman spent his weekends working front of house at Joe Allen in Covent Garden. Restaurants proved his true calling and he went on to manage Circus and Zuma, later becoming operations director at Caprice Holdings. In 2009 he opened his first restaurant, Polpo, an Italian bacaro, with Richard Beatty. He now has four more, including Mishkins, “a kind of Jewish deli”.

What are your most and least used pieces of kitchen kit?

I like a very sharp knife and a very good chopping board. It needs to be heavy and the wood must yield just a little when you chop. I have several boards I use, including a real beauty that I’m still seasoning. It was a gift from my neighbour, Piers, who machined and carved it from a single piece of English oak. The least used things in my kitchen are the oven gloves. I have a dozen or so classic Irish linen bar cloths and if I need to get something out the oven I use one of those instead. 


If you only had £10 to spend on food, where would you spend it and on what?

I’m a simple soul, so I’d pop to Waitrose and spend £1.20 on a packet of spaghetti, £2.40 on a small jar of Cantabrian anchovies, 20p on two onions, £1.50 on a small rustic loaf and the remaining £4.70 on a bottle of young Soave. Then I’d go home and prepare the Venetian classic bigoli in salsa for two.


What do you eat for comfort?

I’m a monster for Double Deckers and can polish off two or three in a single sitting. I’m partial to spicy tomato Wheat Crunchies, too.


If you could only eat bread or potatoes for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

That is the Sophie’s Choice of carbohydrates. It’s impossible to answer. As Aristotle said, “A man being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.” If you held a gun to my head, though, I’d probably say bread.


What’s your desert island recipe?

Insalata caprese (excellent tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, salt, extra virgin olive oil) with bread to mop up the juices. I could happily eat this and nothing else forever, I think.


What’s your favourite restaurant?

There’s a tiny place in Venice called Alle Testiere and I really can’t think of a better restaurant anywhere. The cooking is simple and unfussy and the wine is local and inexpensive.


What’s your favourite cookbook?

I use the first and second River Café books on a regular basis. I am a fan of the Harry’s Bar Cookbook too and love Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy. But my favourite cookbook, for sentimental reasons, is Alistair Little’s Keep It Simple.

Who taught you to cook?

I learned to cook as a student by making every mistake there was and since then I have mostly learnt to cook by stealing ideas from those chefs I have worked with. Even now, I pick up tips on a weekly basis and I’d say my cooking is only as moderately successful as it is because I keep my repertoire relatively small.