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10 minutes with Russell Norman

by Sarah Alcock

TV's The Restaurant Man and brains behind the small-plate trend and informal restaurants like the London phenomenon Polpo talks to us about the successful restaurant formula, and why starting your own eatery should remain a pipe dream...

What made you want to open your own restaurant business?

The epiphany for me was a meal I had on my own about 30 years ago at a restaurant called La Caprice. I was eating something really non-descript like a Caesar salad and I remember thinking, "this is a really great experience" and it's not because of the salad. I realised then that restaurants were places where a certain magic happens.

Do you think the formula for a successful restaurant has changed?

There are a lot more casual restaurants and restaurants that only do one thing, but do it very well. I think dining out has become a lot more democratised, people vote with their feet. Ten years ago we would only go out for a special occasion, now, as the prices have come down and are still coming down, eating out is very reasonable. I think that has had the biggest effect on the restaurant world.

So is that the reason why you decided to focus on small plates and casual dining?

It was actually just one of those coincidences - just when the business plan was finalised, and we'd thought about the menu and got the price point right, the financial crisis hit. And so there was a little bit of a blip when I thought, "is this the right time to be doing this", but actually this idea might be more relevant now in a recession than it was before.

Polpo was first - then where did the inspiration for Mishkin's and Spuntino come from?

We started to look for new restaurant sites and we knew that we wanted to open a place in Soho. We came across a site on Catherine Street and I thought to myself, 'what do I really enjoy eating', and the answer to that was I really enjoy eating Jewish comfort food. I love eating a massive Reuben sandwich or a massive bowl of matzo ball chicken soup and that's how the idea for Mishkin's started - a mash-up between an east London cafe and a Jewish deli with gin cocktails.

What about the décor - your restaurants are quite stripped back?

I knew we didn't have much budget with Polpo so I literally drew the designs myself on the back of envelopes. As that style has proved popular, when it came to opening restaurant number two there seemed no point in trying to do anything different.

A lot of people dream of opening their own restaurant – what would you say to them?

I'd start with the question, why do you want to do it? People usually say it's so they can lean at the bar and say this is my place. They usually say that because they have hosted great dinner parties or because people tell them they are really great cooks. They think it's as simple as that: you sit down, you eat the food and you pay money for what you have eaten. But it isn't. There's a machine behind every restaurant that's being incredibly well kept and well oiled, not just in terms of the human mechanics and the economics of getting the food to the tables but also in terms of the mathematics.

Do you have plans to expand outside of London?

We are working on a Brighton location at the moment. I guess you would describe it as a 'safe risk' as it's full of like-minded people. It's got the London aesthetic, there's a university crowd and there's a reasonably cool bohemian population. So yes I do think my style of restaurant has life outside of London as well but I need to choose places carefully.

Sum up your restaurant experience in one sentence

80 hours a week- no sleep, no friends, but I love it.

Russell's new book, Spuntino is out today, (10th September) Bloomsbury, £25

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