Dear Todd English: It’s Not Us. It’s You.

The house is in shambles. The kids* are in rehab. The rent sure ain't paying itself. After more than two decades, it's time to end this one-way relationship. Here, then, is a five-part breakup letter with our abusive lover, Todd English.
Illustration by Hanoch Piven

Illustration by Hanoch Piven

Dear Todd:

Look, there’s no easy way to say this, so we’ll just cut to the chase: We’ve been doing some serious thinking lately. About us.

Yes, we get how majorly gross it is to do this by letter. But it’s been months since we’ve been in the same ZIP code together, much less talked. Really talked. Not so much about the kids or the credit score, or even the ridiculous restaurant you opened in Hollywood with that trashy desperate housewife. But about this relationship and where it’s headed.

Basically, things aren’t working out the way we’d hoped. You’re simply not the chef we fell in love with back in 1984; in fact, we sometimes wonder whether you even like cooking anymore. After weighing the pros and cons, we’ve made a decision. We think it’s time we both went our separate ways. Started seeing other people. Hit that old Freedom Trail once and for all.

It’s been an emotional ride. Twenty-seven years is a long time to spend with someone. But your recent antics have made it that much easier on us. So thanks for that, if nothing else.

But before we bid you farewell, we thought it would only be fair to offer some solid reasons why we’re moving on — a few nuggets of wisdom we’ve learned from our friends, not to mention a small fortune in psychotherapy. But don’t you worry that pretty chiseled head of yours for a single second. We wouldn’t dream of making you pay for it. If there’s one thing this entire charade has taught us, it’s the folly of sending you the bill.

1. Everything’s crumbling here at home. Remember one time years ago, when things were great between us and you were talking about branching out and opening a second Olives, and we were like, “Totally!” Well, that was before we knew that all we’d be left with was a couple of orphaned pizzerias and a cupcake vanity project.

This isn’t to begrudge you your dreams of building a culinary empire, an obsession you were fairly up-front about from day one, or even your interest in seeing other cities on the side. It’s just that it was a whole lot easier to cheer you on from home when you were still taking care of us. Nine years ago we were sitting pretty with the flagship Olives, four Figs locations, Bonfire steakhouse, Kingfish Hall, and Rustic Kitchen. So what if you were blazing a white-hot trail of national domination through New York, DC, Vegas? Back then you were keeping us too blissfully smitten — and too busy stuffing our faces — to care.

Today the home front has gone barren. We know, we know. We’ve had this talk before, and you don’t see it that way. But let’s take an inventory, shall we? The Wellesley Figs: closed. Bonfire: closed. Rustic Kitchen: lost in a lawsuit. Kingfish Hall: not long ago facing eviction for unpaid rent. But the unkindest cut is Olives, where we first fell in love with you: It’s closed, pending repairs after a kitchen fire. Pending and pending — incessantly pending — since May of last year. Without any acknowledgement, let alone real explanation why. That the New York and Las Vegas spinoffs are still humming is a slap in the face, but not nearly so much as our sneaking suspicion that those kitchen repairs here may actually be code for “I’ve moved on.”

So many problems here at home, yet you’ve somehow managed to find the time and the resources (and the unburned bridges?) to open the Plaza Food Hall, your newest good-time girl, which you’ve adorned with a wine bar, a bakery, and a demo kitchen where you can preen for the press. Then there’s Cross Bar, the kind of gastropub that we’ve always begged for. And, of course, Ça Va, the French brasserie. And all of it not here, but on prime Manhattan real estate. Ça va? Ça va assez merdique.

 

2. You’ve become a deadbeat dad. Look, we realize that restaurants and their sous-chef charges can be needy. (Change my menu! Pay my vendors! Stop by occasionally! Waaah!) But what can we say? Parenting’s no walk in the park. Not even when one of your long-ignored kids was raised right next to a park — the Park Plaza, a charming hotel we’re sure you would’ve grown to love had you spent a moment of time there. (Bonfire, shmonfire; we digress.)

The point is, cash management hasn’t exactly been your strong suit, as court cases have made clear. If we dismiss a couple of isolated incidents that came too early on in the relationship for us to pick up on — the Isola restaurant you opened in 1993, and quickly closed, with that hockey player; the 2002 Jim Cafarelli lawsuit that cost you Rustic Kitchen — the money troubles started a few years ago. Not that you told us. We had to read about them in the paper! Like that time we saw in the Globe that the court said you owed $4.5 million ($813,000 of your own money) in back rent for the Olives that shut down in DC. And what about the stack of lawsuits alleging you and your partners hadn’t paid $280,000 in bills from your new Manhattan crowd? A PR firm. A recording studio (huh?). A flower shop (we never saw a single stem). A luxury-apartment management company. Supposedly you owed them all. Oh, and closer to home, we heard that a couple of months ago, you were tens of thousands behind in back rent for Kingfish Hall. Real nice.

What hurts more than how you’ve dealt with your bigshot landlords, though, is the way you’ve treated our friends — the little guys who were blinded by your star and found out the hard way what happens when you ride celebrity coattails. “He never seemed to want to put anything in writing,” one local contractor told us when we admitted to him that we were having second thoughts about you. “But people would give him all kinds of credit based on the strength of his name. ‘He’s Todd English; he’s good for it.’ Yet here I am, long after the job is over, and the guy still owes me a chunk of money.” Todd, this kind of thing happens enough, and it’s not just your name that’s going down the drain…it’s our name, too! We both know things haven’t been the same for a long time now, but there are a lot of people out there who still think of us every time they think of you.

But back to parenting. Being a dad, of course, means more than just paying for the diapers, design work, and D’Artagnan duck breasts. (So we’re clear: It means all of that, too.) There’s the nonmonetary aspect: mentorship. Just look at those photo albums from our early days. Don’t laugh! They’re chock-full of shots of you and the little cheflings — Barbara, Suzy, Marc — all in the kitchen together. By comparison, the skimpy picture books from when the latest generation came along look simply anemic. The poor things: They still look up to you, so they have a much harder time facing the truth.

Joseph continues to defend you, of course. “He was there more than has been written about,” he told us when we complained about how you left him alone managing Olives the past 15 years…while you frolicked around the globe. “Chef English is very human.”

Okay, fine. But a mother knows.

3. You stuck us with that Faneuil Hall tourist trap.
You, more than anyone, know we’re total history buffs. How could you forget it? We have been for centuries. We love it, breathe it, can’t get enough of it. Which may be why we take extra-personally that sorry seafood-themed exhibit Kingfish Hall you had going the last time we checked at Faneuil Hall.

Yeah, it looks right — like the kind of restaurant frequented by those fin-de-siècle “settlers” you used to goof on when you first discovered them in Tribeca in the ’90s — if it happened to be built in a themed Las Vegas casino. And there was even a time when we might have enjoyed dining amid the stylized fishing-lodge décor, grooving on the New Age jungle beats and the oscillating spotlights doling out dizzying blasts of magenta, then blue, then green, then red — but that was back in the Sex and the City era.

Anyway, we could get beyond all that. But the food is another story. That miso-glazed sea bass appetizer? Cute! We get it! For an exhibit like this, we would have been ashamed had you not referenced Nobu. But tripling the portion and serving it as lettuce wraps — totally P. F. Chang’s. And the crispy lobster with scallion pancakes? Maybe the Gotham, Mr. Chow, Russian Tea Room, and IHOP riffs belong in four separate dishes. Just an idea….

Hey, we think museums are fab. But when they’re the only remaining vestige of fine dining from the culinary superstar we nurtured for decades, they just piss us off.

 

4. You’ve been a lousy role model. We never loved you because there was some chance you’d become a celebrity like Wolfgang Puck or Jean-Georges. That’s not in our nature. You know that. But honestly, is it absolutely necessary to make us look like utter buffoons every time you’re outside the city limits — which is pretty much constantly?

Every time you launch another lousy project it reflects poorly on us. The painful uninspiredness of English Is Italian. The plastic-knife-tender steak choked down by travelers connecting through Logan or JFK at Todd English’s Bonfire. The aching mediocrity of Bluezoo and the Libertine and Fish Club and Beso that left the critics writing about how your restaurant “lasted about nine minutes,” or was a “Midtown fiasco.” It’s altogether embarrassing. And that’s to say nothing of how we’ve felt about your line of pots and pans, your Home Shopping Network gig, your cooking show, your cookbooks, your cruise-ship ventures — and everything else you’re spending time doing instead of showing any love to your restaurants…or us!

Last February we read a post by Esquire food writer John Mariani that included “Ways to Tell a Restaurant Is Bad.” It wasn’t the best writing we’ve seen, but No. 12 on the list was a doozy. “It’s one of Todd English’s restaurants.” Awesome. Just great. Oh, isn’t he that chef from Boston?

Yup. He’s our guy.

 

5. You embarrass us in front of our friends. Part of why we fell for you in the first place is because we know how you love a good time. But lately you’ve been making yourself a laughingstock. You appear in ads for Michelob, the, ahem, “Gourmet Lager” (July 2005). And you claim you got clocked in the eye by a wristwatch-wielding fiancée (September 2009). You get caught “sucking serious face” by Page Six spies in New York’s Meatpacking District (November 2009), and host Miss Universe pageant contestants in Las Vegas at Todd English P.U.B. (August 2010). We just loved it when you told that reporter that “If heaven is like this, sign me up! I’m going!” You throw yourself a lavish, all-night 50th birthday bash in Nantucket, complete with a frosted cake bearing your likeness and a burlesque performance by scantily clad ladies (August 2010). You ask the lead singer of a blues band performing at the NYC Wine and Food Festival to step aside and give you a turn at the mike (October 2010). Oh, and you tell Martha Stewart, on-air, about a lingerie-shopping tutorial you’ve got planned with your 20-year-old son (February 2011).

You know, Todd, it really is time we moved on. We wish you well.

 

*We speak metaphorically here of the restaurants we so lovingly raised with our once-beloved.