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.

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. See “Burying the Hatchet Job.”)

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.


  • 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.