Reconsidering Todd English

Twenty years after Olives exploded onto the scene in a hail of garnishes and shaved truffle, its celebrity-chef founder has gone from golden boy to tourist-feeding hack in the eyes of Boston’s food establishment. Problem is, we’ve been judging him by the wrong measures all along.

todd english

Photograph by Ben Baker

If there’s any doubt about Todd English’s mainstream star power—any doubt after the People magazine stories and Top Chef appearances and Hollywood schmooze fests—the mood at Olives New York on this late-February afternoon would silence the skeptics. English is in the restaurant for the day, a brief stopover for this empire-builder who spends more than half his time on the road, and the bartenders and hosts have that hyperanimated, I’m-with-the-band vibe that surrounds roadies and inner-circle groupies. Even before English emerges from the back office, where he’s been changing into chef’s whites, diners are looking around as if they can tell: Someone famous! Here.

He carries himself like a celebrity, too, flashing a signature half smile that gives the impression he’s mistaken you for a camera. He has gone on record in the past admitting that he’s naturally shy, explaining that his ability to work a room was a learned skill. It’s clear he’s gotten the hang of it.

Oh, how far he’s come in the 20 years since he opened his first Olives in Charlestown in April 1989. At 48, English is a multimillionaire with a stable of 21 restaurants across the country, and even aboard the Queen Mary II and Queen Victoria cruise ships. His newest properties, the Libertine (New York) and Cha (Washington, DC), are products of a deal with the Thompson boutique hotel chain. His Latin steakhouse, Beso, which he opened in L.A. last year with Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, still attracts crowds of Hollywood pretty people (and tourist looky-loos). He makes frequent television appearances, most notably on Top Chef. And this month, the second season of his WGBH-produced series, Food Trip, will premiere. “I have so many concepts that I’m working on,” English says. “I do really get excited about that.”

todd english2

English working the grill at olives New York. “You’ve got Corporate Joe who names a pizza after a game and makes how much money? Billions. Billions for selling cardboard to America…I thought we as chefs should have that same opportunity.” (Photograph by Ben Baker)

Yet despite all that achievement, or likely because of it, the popular line on English is that he’s half the chef he used to be, a boob who’s spent the better part of the last decade distancing himself from his hometown, and, God forbid, from his kitchens. The English brand has come to eclipse English the chef, and of course this troubles the purists and media types whose adoration first brought him to fame. These days the high priests of the food bloggerati, in particular, seem to take special pleasure in framing him as the epitome of a sellout celebrity chef. “Yeah, Chowhound has beat me up a lot,” English says. “I don’t even read it anymore. It probably took me a couple of bad articles to realize that maybe I was misunderstood.”

If you think about his actual ambitions—as opposed to what we assume they should be—maybe he is misunderstood. I’ll go one further: Maybe it’s time to reconsider the accepted image of Todd English. According to him, the critics never grasped what he was after. He had no intention of sacrificing himself on the altar of haute cuisine. “I remember going back to La Côte Basque over the years,” he says of New York’s legendary French restaurant, which closed in 2004. “I watched the stars fade away and the ambition fade away. I learned from a ton of really burned-out chefs at the Culinary Institute. That’s what this business will do.”

English never wanted to end up in a precious little bistro, recalling his glory days while plating his millionth serving of steak frites. To him, that was the opposite of success. What he wanted was to be famous, to build an empire. And by that measure, certainly, things are exactly where he wants them.

 

In some ways it’s strange that English isn’t still embraced as the local darling he once was. Consider the food scene before he and then-wife Olivia opened their tiny storefront in 1989. “Boston before Todd was really just a terrible place to eat,” says GQ food critic Alan Richman. “I used to eat at Anthony’s Pier 4—and it’s not like I was giving up anything to eat at Anthony’s Pier 4.” (Even after Olives debuted, Richman had plenty of beef with Boston’s restaurants, leveling them a humiliating blow in 1997.)

Ours was a city of scrod and lobster, bad pizza and “Continental” starch. There were bright lights: Lydia Shire and Jasper White, Jody Adams and Gordon Hamersley. But English was the first on the scene with both cooking chops—honed at the Culinary Institute of America and La Côte Basque, then cemented at Michela’s in Cambridge—and the mediagenic looks to lure the cameras. It was his considerable good fortune to ascend just as fine dining was emerging as a cultural obsession.

Ask anyone who dined at Olives in those first years, and they’ll recall the line stretching around the corner. English’s food was big, both in portion and in flavor. A single dish would contain elements sweet, sour, salty, bitter, crunchy, and soft (smoked duck breast lacquered with sweet ginger-orange glaze sitting atop a crispy-salty scallion pancake, the signature fig and prosciutto pizza). He had an uncanny ability to pull it all together into something transcendent—at least most of the time. He could just as easily go off the rails, but what mattered was that this was food that Boston had never tasted before. And that was thrilling. His acclaim attracted a crew of future stars to his kitchen, among them Barbara Lynch and Marc Orfaly. “It was one of the best and one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had,” says Lynch, who spent five years with English before ultimately opening her award-winning No. 9 Park. “By 5 o’clock, I was ready to throw up in a bucket from stress.”

“I was in there, animalistic, every night,” English says. “It was crazy.” He was famous for rewriting the menu right before opening, the only time he had to brainstorm and create.

Success spawned opportunity. Soon came the Figs pizza chain, the Olives outposts, more restaurants, the cruise-ship deals. By 2002, English was pursuing everything from frozen pasta to model kitchens made by a Las Vegas design firm. “When I met him, he was interested in a Todd English cologne and a Todd English watch,” says Juliette Rossant, author of the 2004 book Super Chef. To a growing chorus of detractors, he was losing sight of his food. There were very public fallings-out with business partners and charges of absenteeism. During one two-week span in 2002, the city of Boston twice shuttered Olives Charlestown for health-code violations. The negative impressions formed then have been tough to shake, even years later.

ADVERTISMENT

  • Baily

    Just want to know if Mr. English paid Boston Magazine for the that propaganda piece, it was pathetic at best. There are more worthy people to dedicate that type of non news coverage for. Mr. English's Empire is crumbling at best as he continues to shutter restaurants and loose key personnel. His food has sank to below most chain restaurants, Olive Garden is better and cheaper. Honestly does anybody care to eat in any of his overhyped restaurants… Poor Todd, so misunderstood, please!!!I doubt with his narrsistic personality that there is room for anbody in his life least of all his mother. Let's hope the next chef piece is worthy of your lofty praise.

  • Todd

    I thought the piece was very insightful, interesting…and fair. Contrary to the comment by Anonymous, the article reported a lot of the criticism of English, yet also gave us his view of things as well. That's not "propaganda" — that is magazine journalism at its best. Very creatively written, with lots of entertaining info about cuisine, Boston, and the celebrity chef biz. Thanks mucho!

  • Kathleen

    Todd inspired many of the talented chefs who have restaurants in Boston today. Many more then any other big name chef in this city. You mentioned two, but there are a lot more. Paul O'Connell, Bob Sargent, Christos Tsardounis, Tony Susi to name a few. Even Suzanne Goin, a mega celebrity chef in her own right now, did a stint with Todd back in the day. It was an amazing time. All these young talented chefs working in that super charged atmosphere with a larger then life chef they were all devoted to. Barbara Lynch described it best they worked their butts off and Todd didn't pay very well, but they did it because they were inspired by his passion. Maybe his brand isn't what it used to be but his contribution to the Boston food scene was huge. It is hard to grow an empire and keep quality control, look at Wolfgang Puck. The meal I had at Chinois on Main 15 years ago was amazing and none of the things I have eaten with his name on them at Logan or Museum of Science have had quite the same

  • sally

    i hv been to todd english's many restaurants in boston,new york and las vegas.i was happy everytime when i had meal in those restaurants, not only with the quality of the food but also the service i received everytime.the waiters always come back check on me and my fellow guests,to see if we like our food, if we need more drinks, more waters, more breads.while in las vegas last dec, we ate outside while it was a bit cold because of the huge fountain, our waiter helped us move our whole group,food and drinks while we were already halfway through our meal inside so the ladies won't feel chill.what is not good about todd english or his restaurants may i ask?i think it is pure JEALOUSY.what a shame, the human nature,some people just can not stand a local boy made it good for himself.

  • sally

    I guess u r the owner of Olive Garden?Or were u ever fired by Todd English from on of his restaurants?:) Amy Traverso worte an UNBIASED article about a talented chef and that is good jornalism !!!!

  • Craig

    I love the travel show…for travel only. This guy is a piece of work and gains insight during his travels, the returns to his Charlestown kitchen and contructs SLOP! He must be a bully type chef because talent isn't his forte.

  • Allison

    The man has a gift Which I personally am deeply greatful he has shared with the rest of us, mere mortals.An artist with all things edible. My world is a bit more beautiful having enjoyed TO’s scrumtious creations :tuna/beef carpaccio,(his RAW is RIGHTEOUS)!buttenut squash tortelloni,melt in your mouth crab cakes, spicy chicken sausage pizza with carmelized onions….I could go on and on and on and on…actually, I have!!BTW, if on deathrow my final meal would start with Olive’s Beef Carpaccio and end with Fig’s white chocolate bread pudding. The perfect ending to a FULL LIFE.
    PS I’m a vegetarian & don’t even like white chocolate!!

  • koch

    I don’t care how good or bad his restaurants are, I ll never go there again.
    This guy divorced his wife Olivia who supported him and helped to have a sucessful business.
    He abandoned their 3 kids who were all under 10 at the time.
    He engaged another 3 times in ten years.
    Dumped all of the women.
    The only thing he loves in his life is, I,ME, and myself.

    he

  • Boston

    Boston has a wonderful and compelling food scene that continues to flourish with great chefs like Jamie Bissonette and Barry Maiden, but Todd English is a terrible blast from 80s past. Over-wrought food and poorly conceived flavor profiles are for people who think they know food, but really just like to eat. There’s a big difference here and sadly English and his supporters don’t know it.

    It’s time for him to retire, his waning looks, out-of-date food and otherwise creepy demeanor mean that people are finally seeing him for what he is: a bad cook who fooled people for a while, but is outmatched in today’s industry.

  • jim

    Maybe Todd should stop running around and pay attention to his Restaurants in Boston and pay the People that provide Emergency service’s to the Restaurants like Olives, Figs and King Fish…..WE HAVE TO PAY OUR BILLS ALSO.

  • Toodleoo

    From seeing him on tv, he’s clearly an enormous douchebag. Sorry about that.