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.

It hasn’t helped that several of his restaurants have been flops: A Tokyo branch of Olives, opened in 2003, was short-lived, and in 2005 New York Times critic Frank Bruni gave a dubiously named venture, English Is Italian, an almost-mocking zero-star review. But part of English’s genius is his ability to regroup. He hired some management help, became more selective about his ventures, and cultivated loyal deputies. (Mike Crain, the lead chef at Olives New York, has such solid chops that a meal from him is quite nearly as good as one from the boss himself.) Developing these kinds of skilled proxies is a challenge, given English’s cooking style. At his best, he can push a dish to the edge of flavor’s boundaries—one more teaspoon of fat or grain of salt and you’d have overkill. That style, so rich and heavily seasoned, is a tough one to pull off with any nuance.

But even on one of the not-infrequent off nights when his kitchens do cross that line, the butternut squash tortelli is still going to be infinitely better than anything you’d get at Maggiano’s or the Olive Garden. And can’t that be enough? Much as it may offend the foodie elites—no doubt because they do recognize his prodigious talent—English simply isn’t aiming to please them anymore. He did his time in the kitchen and has the James Beard awards to show for it. Now he’s aiming for the (upscale) masses, for the people who’d otherwise be eating at the Cheesecake Factory or McCormick & Schmick’s. In this, he feels he is performing a sort of public service. “Go to Dallas. Go to Tampa,” he says. “I go to Tampa once a month because of my Home Shopping Network gig”—he sells a line of nonstick cookware—”and it’s chain city. I don’t eat for three days.” By his logic, if you’re going to eat at a chain, why not a good chain? Why not his chain? Or, for that matter, one of his dutifully English-branded one-off restaurants like Kingfish Hall and Tuscany at Mohegan Sun? “You have all these chefs who dedicated their lives to being in the kitchen, sweating it out and suffering,” he says. “And 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 if those people can do it, then we as chefs should have that same opportunity.” The way English sees it, he didn’t sell out. He merely carved a niche.


Todd English wants you to understand that. Not you the Boston gourmand, but you the Bostonian, period. Because the man does have some pride, and it would be nice to be appreciated in the place he still calls home.

“I’m Boston-based,” he says, a tad chagrined to be asked. “Absolutely. My kids are here and my Sox seats are too good, right on third base.” He’s in the final stages of renovating a $3 million carriage house on Beacon Hill. “It has a huge atrium feel,” he says. “Thirty-five-foot ceilings, three fireplaces. We opened it up and put the kitchen in the center.” The space, he says, will serve as his new test kitchen. Indeed, the globetrotter finds a special solace in this city. He attends his kids’ sports games—daughter Isabelle and son Simon are in school in Chestnut Hill (the oldest, Oliver, is at Cornell)—and has Sunday dinner at his mom’s house in Charlestown a couple of times a month.

There are no new Boston projects in the works. Two years ago plans were scuttled for a burger joint called Oliver’s in Post Office Square, and that may have been all to the good. Maybe avoiding another brand extension spared him some eye-rolling from the critics—which would have further distracted from the legacy he’s owed for creating Olives and catalyzing the Boston food scene. Granted, his trajectory in the intervening years may offend purist (not to mention parochial) sensibilities, but it doesn’t negate his singular contributions. Why not raise a glass to a local boy made good? Better yet, an English-branded “Italian Elegance” coffee mug? The full dinnerware set is $69.95, plus shipping and handling, at


Amy Traverso is Boston magazine’s food editor.


  • 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.


  • 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.