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.