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 HSN.com.
Amy Traverso is Boston magazine’s food editor.