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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Amelia Hill

Restaurateur and author Russell Norman dies aged 57

Russell Norman
Russell Norman ‘could genuinely be said to have changed the way we ate in restaurants’, one critic said. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Russell Norman, the award-winning restaurateur, author and Saturday Kitchen chef has died after a short illness, aged 57.

A former English teacher, Norman founded the Italian restaurant Brutto and cofounded Polpo and Spuntino in London. His first cookbook, Polpo: a Venetian Cookbook (of Sorts) won the inaugural Waterstones book of the year in 2012.

In 2014, he presented The Restaurant Man, a six-part primetime documentary for BBC Two. His second book, Spuntino: Comfort Food (New York Style), won the 2016 Guild of Food Writers award for best food and travel.

He lived in Italy for a year so that, he said, he could “learn to cook like a 90-year-old Venetian granny” for his third book, Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking. His latest book, Brutto: a (Simple) Florentine Cookbook, was published this month.

Russell is survived by his partner, Dr Genevieve Verdigel, an art historian specialising in the Italian Renaissance, and three children.

Norman and Verdigel were due to travel to Venice on Tuesday for a celebratory trip after the publication of Brutto. He died on Thursday evening.

Verdigel said Norman had been so excited about the trip and his new book that he had already packed a bag with signed copies to give to his Italian friends.

“It was the book he was most proud of,” she said. “He’s been so happy since it came out, so full of life. That book is testimony to how much he loved Italy and its spirit, and how he and his photographer Jenny Zarins could capture that.

“He loved seeking the offbeat place; the places frequented by the locals and in which you feel like you are escaping from the conventional worldview.”

Verdigel and Norman travelled to Italy at least once a month, she said. Norman loved Venice in particular.

“We would compete to see who knew the city best,” she said. “We would race each other to see who knew the fastest route – the secret, local shortcuts – to different places.”

Stefan Chomka, a friend and the editor of Restaurant magazine, spoke of Norman’s warmth. “He loved restaurants that were like him: that had lots of charm and great character,” he said.

“He had a real sense of hospitality, as well as joy, intelligence, generosity and an eye for detail. He had a magpie tendency: he would take inspiration from restaurants in Italy, New York and London and bring them all together.”

Norman was at the forefront of the “small plates” and “no reservation” movements. “When he opened Polpo, he realised they were having to turn people away because they were booked up, so he decided not to take any reservations at all,” said Chomka. “It struck a chord and other restaurants quickly followed suit.”

Tom Parker Bowles, a friend, food writer and food critic, said Norman’s death was a “particular shock” because he was “always so much larger than life”.

“He was highly intelligent, very beautiful and just a really good man,” he said. “I have so many memories of sitting with him and our friends in tiny Venetian bars, drinking Aperol spritz and talking to the people who owned the bar after all having had a good lunch. He was a great friend to so many people.”

Norman was also, Parker Bowles said, a “consummate professional”. “He had a passion and he could talk to you about it, write about it, do it and make it: he was a chef, a restaurateur. There was no pretence there. No artifice. He was a proper person.”

Norman was due to eat at the River Café on Friday night with his friend the restaurateur Ruth Rogers. She said: “Russell Norman was a friend to us all in the River Café. He made London a better city for food, inspiring and encouraging a love of Italian food. We shall miss him.”

Marina O’Loughlin, the writer and restaurant critic, said: “Hospitality is in total shock. Russell was one of the rare characters in the industry who could genuinely be said to have changed the way we ate in restaurants.

“Travel the length of the country and in almost every town, there’s a chic little trattoria or osteria that owes a debt to Norman’s vision.

“To lose him when Brutto has been gaining plaudit after plaudit and he’s just launched his latest book is little short of tragic. He – and his irreplaceable warmth and welcome – will be so missed.”

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