Being Todd English

By Kim Atkinson | Boston Magazine |

Todd English blazes into the lobby of Las Vegas's Bellagio hotel and casino, better dressed and moving faster than anyone else at this early morning hour. He looks striking in his dark suit, dark shirt, and dark tie, nattering on his cell phone. He's not late. He just doesn't know any other way to move. He never ambles, rarely rests. He's been up since 6 and already jammed in an all-out 40-minute workout.

I've been in the lobby for the better part of an hour, waiting for English to show up. It took weeks to arrange this interview, and the Boston celebrity chef's dizzying schedule means that this Tuesday morning in Las Vegas is the only time I can catch him. Actually, we never nailed down any formal plans, but I know where he's supposed to be today, and I have one chance to hitch a ride on his windstorm. When he finally blows in, he spots me and without pausing his conversation or breaking his pace, he waves for me to catch up.

Las Vegas is a particularly appropriate setting for our meeting. It's the site of Olives Las Vegas, the first restaurant English opened outside of his hometown. The first colony of the English empire, if you will. At one time, that empire seemed invincible. But English has just passed through the most difficult year of his life, which included lawsuits, reports of shrinking earnings, a soured partnership, a rocky marriage, health-code violations at the flagship Olives, an intervention by friends alarmed at the effects of all this stress, and enough bad press to bring Rome to its knees.

Still, on this day, English, who is 42, will lead me through the whirlwind that consumes his life while fueling his ego. He'll speak on a panel at a restaurant financier's convention, make the rounds at his restaurant, and drive out to Henderson, Nevada, to witness the construction of his latest endorsement project — the Todd English Kitchen. He'll make one hopeful young chef very, very nervous in an on-the-spot four-course-meal tryout. He'll don his own chef's whites and spend hours testing recipes. And when it's very, very late, he'll down his 10th cappuccino of the day and head out to the strip for a drink or two.

Up or down, Todd English keeps his plate full and always dances at the fire's edge. It's what makes him the magnet he is. If you're going to dance close to the flame, you're eventually going to get burned. For most, the question is where you'll dance once the wounds have scarred over; for English, there's no question. Sure, he'll be a little more cautious, a little more alert, but he can't quit the fire's edge. And even he can't be sure he won't get burned again.

“I'm an adrenaline junkie,” he says, swigging from his cappuccino, “and I love the sex appeal of this business. I'm still learning how to handle it.”

Throughout his 20 years as a chef, Todd English has made no secret of his desire to be more than just a cook. He aspires to be a star, the Wolfgang Puck of the East Coast, the one who finally succeeds in infusing food with sex, just as Elvis did with pop music.

There's no denying English's magnetic, rock-star persona. Six-foot-three with jet-black hair, algae-green eyes, and an impossibly square jaw, he's cartoonishly good-looking, every feature exaggerated, overblown. In conversations, he possesses that seductive Clintonian gift of making you feel special, particularly if you're female. In our interviews, he leans in close, speaks softly, conspiratorially, always keeping eye contact.

“He just makes you want to get to know him,” says his younger sister, Wendy English.

He also has Clinton's other side — the arrogance, the standoffishness, the unapproachability. These are characteristics he is all too aware of, he says. “A lot of people think I'm arrogant,” English says. “But I'm really a shy person. This isn't natural for me. I've had to learn how to put myself out there and be the politician, kissing babies and working the room.”

Learned or not, his timing couldn't have been better. Thanks to exposure from the Food Network, the cloning of upscale restaurants in far-flung places, and six-figure book deals, chefs are famous in ways they weren't 20 years ago, when they toiled facelessly in their kitchens. Talented, photogenic, and charismatic, English was born to reap the benefits. He's appeared in countless magazines, in the ranks of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people, on Esquire's best-dressed list, and in a Harper's Bazaar spread that gushed about the sex appeal of so-called “celebrity chefs.”

Theirs is a peculiar celebrity, however. Because unlike celluloid heroes and rock stars, chefs merely provide a dressed-up version of a basic human need.

“I hate the term 'celebrity chef,'” says English's friend Bobby Flay, himself the owner of two acclaimed New York restaurants and host of a Food Network show. “Robert De Niro — that's a celebrity. He can't leave the house. I have a fine time getting on the subway.”

English agrees — with some caveats. “Sometimes I think, Did you like the lamb shank or not? What does that have to do with what I look like? But you have to use what you've got.”

Since the late '90s, English has parlayed what he's got into 13 restaurants. It is a dizzying number of businesses to maintain, and many wonder if one chef can possibly keep an eye on so many pots. Most other chefs choose not to.

“I don't want to have an empire,” says Clio's Ken Oringer, who himself felt the klieg lights when People named him to its most-eligible-bachelors list last year. “I want to be in the kitchen, and if I weren't, [the restaurant] wouldn't have the same personality.”

William Todd English was born in Amarillo, Texas, but grew up in Sandy Springs, Georgia. Today, Sandy Springs has been swallowed by Atlanta's suburban sprawl, but in the '60s, it was a quiet, pastoral hamlet, where brick houses dotted the gently rolling pine-treed hills.

English's parents divorced when he was eight, and his mother, Patty, who came from a large Italian family with roots in the Bronx, raised Todd and younger sister Wendy on her own. It was a happy childhood with plenty of adventures to be had for a brother and sister who have always been close. One of their favorite activities was playing baseball with their Great Dane, Beau. Todd was consumed with baseball. He idolized Ted Williams and Johnny Bench and played all the time. He dreamed of going pro himself, and, true to his reckless persona, was fearless at the plate. “Even when he was little, he'd come to bat, and everyone in the outfield would just back up,” recalls Wendy. “He'd always either hit it on the fence or out of the park.” After high school, he landed a baseball scholarship to Guilford College in North Carolina.

Off the diamond, English enjoyed a very different passion, but he approached it with equal abandon. Cooking was part of the family's bonding routine from the beginning, and originality was always praised.

“Todd was always with my mother in the kitchen,” Wendy says. “Our mom was always creating something. There was an ice storm and we were stuck in the house, but [our grandmother] made a huge pot of chicken cacciatore in the fireplace and we just stayed in and ate from it for two days.”

By the time he was 20, English was ready to drop his bat and swing a carving knife. In 1980, he quit Guilford and entered the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in upstate New York, graduating with honors two years later. He immediately got a job in the kitchen of Jean-Jacques Rachou's La Câ„¢te Basque, in Manhattan, the haute cuisine haunt of New York's “ladies who lunch.”

It was at CIA that English met Olivia Disch, an energetic, whip-thin New Jerseyite with curly brown hair and a flair for self-reinvention. The two soon began dating, and Olivia was with him in 1984 when English encountered Boston restaurateur Michela Larson. Larson had plans for a different kind of Italian restaurant, one that served authentic, rustic Northern Italian fare. She invited English to audition for the chef's position, asking him to cook for a dinner party one night at her house. Olivia served as an engaging hostess, but the results, legend has it, were far from stellar. Still, Larson recognized a spark of talent and dispatched English to Italy for a two-month crash course in Northern Italian cooking. After he returned, she opened Michela's in Cambridge with English in the kitchen and Olivia running the dining room.

Michela's was a smash, quickly becoming the center of Boston's blossoming food scene. By 1988, though, Todd and Olivia, now husband and wife, were ready to strike out on their own. They found a space near their home in Charlestown — then still an ungentrified townie neighborhood — and started looking for financing. They approached Jack Sidell, for whom they had catered dinner parties.

“I knew Todd was a talented chef, but I was hesitant about the location,” says Sidell, former president and CEO of the United States Trust Corporation. “I said, 'The only thing in Charlestown are bank robbers.' [Olivia] told me 'It's an up-and-coming place, and whether you give us the money or not, we're going to do it.' It was really under her persuasion that I did.”

Within days of opening, the tiny 50-seat Olives was a hit. People lined up outside a full hour before the 5 o'clock opening time like groupies waiting for tickets to a rock show. Todd and Olivia were instant celebrities, and English's brand of casual Mediterranean cooking, with rich sauces and huge portions, was a hit with local gourmands and national critics. English was named one of America's best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine. In 1992, the Englishes moved the restaurant to its current City Square location, expanding on English's now-trademark “open kitchen,” which lets patrons watch him cook as if he were an actor on a stage. The first Figs, a gourmet-pizza concept, went into the old space. It seemed English couldn't lose.

Keeping pace is nearly impossible. As English strides past the Bellagio's luxury boutiques, I have to double-time to stay with him. He wants to stop in at Olives Las Vegas before heading to the financier's convention.

The restaurant is on a corridor that includes Gucci, Tiffany & Co., and Chanel. Its patio hangs over the Bellagio's lagoon, an arm's length from the resort's impressive water show, a timed dance of towering geysers whose phallic imagery echoes the underlying macho sexuality of English's restaurants.

English alights at the bar and orders a triple cappuccino. He tells me he'd like to change this restaurant's décor from its current whimsical frenzy of sorbet colors and circus-themed sculptures. Open the kitchen, he thinks, add a new bar area, come up with a line of packaged products to sell at the hotel. Maybe start a cooking show based on his travels. Or a cookbook. Or revive the bakery concept he launched in the mid '90s but abandoned when it proved to be a money pit.

To hear insiders tell it, working for English is like trying to catch a runaway train. He's always on to the next thing, often without finishing the initial project, leaving his staff to clean up the mess.

As if on cue, the bartender dumps another double shot into English's cappuccino. “I figured you were probably ready to get jacked up,” he says.

English laughs. At this point in his life, his restaurant staffs — cooks, waiters, bartenders — may be the only people he trusts aside from his family. Like a manufacturing magnate who's more comfortable with the greasers than with the lawyers, English would rather be in the kitchen than the boardroom. Because in the boardroom, things get complicated.

In 1993, the Englishes entered into business with Bruins star Cam Neely and his partners, Glenn Close and Michael J. Fox, in a Martha's Vineyard restaurant that, since opening two years earlier, had failed to turn a profit. Olivia, expecting their second child that summer, moved out to the island to run the restaurant, which they renamed Isola, while Todd commuted and kept watch at Olives and Figs. Open only for the short summer season and subject to the high price of doing business on the Vineyard, the restaurant failed. Lawsuits followed over who was responsible for the financial losses, the Englishes' friendship with Neely crumbled, and just about everyone involved lost money, including vendors on the island who were allegedly left with delinquent bills.

Regrouping in 1995, the Englishes said they'd learned their lesson. They secured new investors, opened two Figs locations, one in Beacon Hill that year and one in Wellesley the next, and set about raising their three children. “Having not come from a business background and being driven by our passion, we've had to take a few steps backward,” Olivia told this magazine in 1995. “I am always the one who is pulling Todd back. I always have to slow him down.”

But slowing down is not in Todd English's nature. By 1998, he was swinging for the fences again, partnering with restaurant developer James Cafarelli. The two had met years earlier when the company Cafarelli co-owned, Cafco Construction, was hired to build the original Olives and subsequent Boston ventures. In 1992, Cafarelli sold his share of Cafco and turned his attention to consulting for restaurant projects, including the House of Blues chain and magician David Copperfield's doomed Times Square theme restaurant, a $34 million debacle that never opened.

English's partnership with Cafarelli, the Olive Group Corporation (which did not include Olives Charlestown and the Figs chain), was 75 percent owned by English, with Cafarelli owning the rest and serving as president. Cafarelli would be responsible for developing new projects, drumming up endorsements, and running the day-to-day operations while English tended to his publicity obligations.

For a while, it seemed that nothing could go wrong. The first project outside Boston, Olives Las Vegas, was a can't-lose deal. The restaurant would carry the Olives name but it would be run by the Bellagio, the strip's most extravagant hotel. English was allowed to handpick the restaurant's chefs, and he spent lots of time supervising the show.

More restaurants followed. An Olives opened in Washington, DC, in November 1999 and another at the St. Regis in Aspen a month later. The following summer, English's longtime dream of opening a seafood restaurant was realized with KingFish Hall at Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

Money was always an issue. Costly mistakes sucked cash from the company. When KingFish Hall opened, recalls a former Olive Group employee, Cafarelli insisted on a huge, showy sign. Despite warnings from the management company that such a display was forbidden on the historic building, the sign was installed, and just as quickly ordered removed. The press had a field day, and the publicity was embarrassing for English. Today, the $35,000 sign languishes in a warehouse.

What's more, construction delays put KingFish Hall $450,000 over budget by the time it opened. In court papers, Cafarelli contended that the costs were due to changes English ordered after construction began, and the delays were because the former tenant, an Origins store, did not move out in time.

“I am the king of bootstrapping,” English says now. “I rob Peter to pay Paul all the time.”

But the turning point, by all accounts, was the opening of Olives New York in November 2000. Despite lukewarm reviews, Olives New York overflowed most nights, and English's celebrity reached its zenith. He began to spend more time in Manhattan, putting in long hours in the kitchen and even longer hours after work with pals like Bobby Flay. “He worked really hard, concentrating on pleasing the New York critics,” Flay says. “We would go out at midnight each night and advise each other.”

“I knew I had to devote my time to the New York Olives,” says English. “It was my Mount Everest, and I had to see if I could reach the top. I knew I had to be a part of the scene to make it work.”

Regular appearances on friend Martha Stewart's TV show brought English to the world at large. The nod from People came in 2001, and later that year, he appeared on Iron Chef, winning the competition on the first American version of the Japanese reality cooking show. Meanwhile, two Figs restaurants opened at New York's LaGuardia Airport, and Rustic Kitchen debuted at Faneuil Hall. English appeared unstoppable.

But it's easy to lose control of momentum like this. Todd's marriage to Olivia had unraveled years before, and he was spending more time in New York with girlfriend Caryl Chinn, a special-events manager at Bon Appétit magazine. Most nights he was on the town, putting in appearances at charity events, rubbing elbows with the glitterati, or jetting off to high-profile shindigs like Oscars parties in Los Angeles and the Cannes Film Festival. When in Boston, he would take a room at the Park Plaza, where he was preparing to open Bonfire, a Latin-themed steakhouse. But when Bonfire opened in October 2001, service was abysmal and reviews were mediocre at best. His fans began complaining about his long absences from Boston. Employees worried he was spending too much time being a celebrity and not enough time running the business. English was too close to the flame again. And this time he was burning out.

Things exploded in March. After complaints from Olives' neighbors in Charlestown over trash collection and a noisy ventilation system, city health inspectors were called in. What they reported was embarrassing: According to city Inspectional Services Department records, the inspectors found improperly stored meat and chemicals, insufficiently sanitized utensils, evidence of rodent droppings, and several maintenance violations. The restaurant was shuttered twice in eight days. Two months later, health inspectors in New York cited English's Figs restaurant at LaGuardia, where workers were found preparing food without gloves.

“I learned that people expect things from me, and that I'd better pay attention to things,” English says now about the firestorm surrounding the closings. “Suddenly, I had news crews there. I didn't think people cared as much as they did, but you gotta realize that you have to stay on top of it.”

He addressed the problems, but the damage was already done. Diners had other places to go with their money — ironically, often to eateries run by chefs who'd gotten their starts at Olives: Barbara Lynch's No. 9 Park, Marc Orfaly's Pigalle, Paul O'Connell's Chez Henri.

“This is a trial-and-error thing,” English says. “There's no 101 course on how to expand a restaurant business.”

English tried to end his business relationship with Cafarelli, says his lawyer. But the Olive Group train was still rolling. Cafarelli negotiated a deal with the Cunard Cruise Line to open a Todd English restaurant aboard the new Queen Mary 2 when it launches next year. A new concept, Tuscany, opened at the Mohegan Sun casino. Negotiations were under way to put a second KingFish Hall in an upscale mall in Coral Gables, Florida, that is owned by the Rouse Company, the same management group that runs Faneuil Hall Marketplace. In early summer, the relationship between English and Cafarelli came to an explosive end.

“This was not a good people fit,” says Jack Sidell. “Todd is very heady, and he learned he's got to become a better listener.”

In June, Cafarelli filed suit, alleging that he had not been paid since April and was effectively being frozen out of the company. Cafarelli's lawyers claimed the company was bleeding money and that Cafarelli was owed back pay of $24,111 and deferred compensation of $291,666. They also alleged that English was spending up to $150,000 a year on expenses for himself, his wife, and his girlfriend. On the same day, an important Olive Group lender, Chesapeake Investment Services, whose president is telecom magnate Frank Gangi, also filed suit, arguing that its $450,000 loan to help build KingFish Hall was insecure. Chesapeake's lawsuit sought to put Cafarelli in complete control of KingFish Hall.

English's lawyer, Vincent Pisegna, says Cafarelli and Gangi were trying “to usurp Todd's control of this business.”

Not so, Cafarelli's camp responds. “Jim was told by Todd that he didn't want to be in business with him anymore,” says Jim Rudolph, Cafarelli's attorney. “Jim had pledged his house to guarantee the loan from Fleet National Bank, and he felt exposed even though he was only a 25 percent stockholder. He wasn't being paid.”

The mudslinging was intense. Cafarelli's lawsuit accused English of brokering profitable deals for himself outside their partnership without paying money to the company, and of floating Olives Charlestown from cash earned at KingFish.

“The Charlestown restaurant seemed to be a black hole,” says Rudolph. “Money from the successful restaurant, KingFish, was being siphoned off to pay for the bad restaurant, which one estimate said was losing $10,000 a month.”

English maintains that Olives Charlestown was, and is, doing fine. “Olives is debt-free,” he says. “Why is everyone saying it's losing money?”

The media firestorm began to swirl. Olivia confirmed to the press that English's family and friends had staged an intervention and whisked him away to a retreat in the Southwest. English says the intervention was simply to get him away from the pressures of his professional life, but, again, the damage was already done.

Those pressures were no accident. According to one source, before going public, Cafarelli's lawyers hired a public relations firm to manage what was sure to be intense media coverage of the case. “Cafarelli probably felt that Todd wasn't taking his complaints seriously, and he was hoping to get some publicity to bring the case to the negotiating table,” this source says. “He wanted KingFish for himself. He felt it was the jewel in the crown.”

Either way, Cafarelli's lawsuits got off to a bad start when Judge Allan van Gestel denied his request for a preliminary injunction. The ruling also said that Cafarelli was simply an employee of the Olive Group and, therefore, under English's direction. That may have been true, but against English's wishes, Cafarelli continued to develop the Florida KingFish Hall, and English sought a restraining order to stop all work on the project. The order was denied, but the judge ruled that Cafarelli could not use English's name, the name KingFish Hall, or the Olive Group's resources. In August the two parties quietly settled out of court, ending Cafarelli's association with the Olive Group in exchange for Rustic Kitchen at Faneuil Hall and full control of the Florida project.

“Todd stood up to Cafarelli, and Cafarelli couldn't deal with it,” says Pisegna. “Todd stood up to extreme pressure on what he believed his right to be. I think they thought they could get away with it. But that happens a lot to Todd because he is one of the half dozen or so celebrity chefs in the country.”

Cafarelli is pleased with the outcome and wishes English well, according to his lawyer, Rudolph. Interestingly, Rustic Kitchen, which lies not 50 feet from KingFish Hall, still offers a suspiciously Todd English-style menu, and the Coral Gables restaurant, now called Pescado, has an open rotisserie grill similar to KingFish Hall's.

Still at issue is English's pending legal fight with Chesapeake Investment. “There is a provision in one of the loan documents with Chesapeake that says if Chesapeake deems itself insecure, it could foreclose on the loan,” Pisegna says. Chesapeake's case depends on a provision in the Olive Group's loan from Fleet National Bank, the group's primary lender. According to the Fleet agreement, the Olive Group's failure to pay any of its bills could put its account in technical default. Chesapeake's agreement with the Olive Group says that a default on the group's Fleet loan would constitute a default of its loan to the Olive Group. Chesapeake is arguing that certain outstanding expenses at KingFish constitute such a default, entitling it to take control of the restaurant.

Pisegna says the loan to Chesapeake has a balance of $309,000. He says that although English has made the payments every month, Chesapeake has sent the checks back.

“We're hoping that Chesapeake will abide by the loan documents and that the judge will agree that all [Gangi] is entitled to is to get his money back,” Pisegna says.

As for his own reaction, English says: “There were a lot of accusations made in the papers that were extremely painful.”

Hustling through the lobby of the Rio after speaking on a panel at the financier's convention, English comes to a dead stop.

“Jean-Louis's restaurant Napa was here,” English says, referring to famed French chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who died last year of cancer. Palladin's illustrious Las Vegas restaurant opened just six years ago and is already gone.

Melancholy hangs in the air at the Rio like cheap perfume. A few potbellied tourists shovel quarters into the slot machines and smoke menthols. Ringing the perimeter of the casino floor are several no-name restaurants, more Olive Garden than Olives. The Rio was once a star-quality joint but no longer. A restaurant doesn't last if the star isn't there to keep it bright. There is always someone ready to take over the kitchen. For example, Bellagio developer Steve Wynn already has plans for something bigger and better, the luxury resort Le R쳌ve. Daniel Boulud has signed up to clone his famed New York restaurant, Daniel, and rumors abound that an Alain Ducasse restaurant isn't far behind.

How will Olives and the Todd English brand stay fresh and tasty among such heavy competition? One way is with regular “chef summits,” at which cooks from all the English properties get together to go over recipes and techniques and tweak problems. Another is by putting into place a new, more experienced business team.

“I didn't have the organization I thought I had to grow the way I wanted to,” English says. “A great entrepreneur hires smart people who are experts in areas he is not. I'm not a financial genius, and I need to have the right team to be able to do what I do, which is the creative process.”

Jack Sidell agrees. “Thanks to his talent and his celebrity status, he's been able to secure some good deals and good backing,” Sidell says of English. “The jury is out on how good an administrator Todd can be and how he can sustain these restaurants that are so spread out geographically.”

English has hired Kenneth Cox, former chief operating officer of Papa Gino's and Vinny Testa's, to get his company's finances under control and help rein in development. “I want things to be a little less about being a celebrity chef and more about running a great restaurant group,” Cox says. “We're focusing on pursuing disciplined growth with our existing operations and being judicious on how to best use Todd's name.”

Maybe so, but English is still busy cooking up new projects. A restaurant in Tokyo is in the works, along with the signature kitchen project, developed with interior-design firm Avery Brooks & Associates and Timberlake Cabinet Company.

“Todd has competitive juices in him,” says Bobby Flay. “He was a competitive athlete, and you see it in the way he takes the good with the bad and goes for the next inning.”

By now it's 8 p.m., and we've been on our feet for 12 hours. Still, English dons his chef's whites and heads into the Olives Las Vegas kitchen to test new recipes, stir those creative juices.

The past year has changed Todd English. He claims he's learned his lessons, whether or not anyone believes him. Only time will tell.

“I always say that the restaurant business is like sex,” he muses, looking toward the water dance outside the window. “Having sex is great, but then you have to raise the baby.”