Burying the Hatchet Job

In September 1997, GQ published “The Boston Glob,” a hilariously scathing takedown of the city’s food scene by restaurant critic Alan Richman, a one-time Globe scribe. In it, Richman blamed the faults he perceived squarely on Todd English’s Olives, which he credited with launching “a deviant food trend that threatens to engulf New England.” In honor of Olives’ 20th anniversary, we got English and Richman to sit down for a postmortem. (Though first, we hid all the knives.) A.T.

[sidebar]English: Okay, “The Boston Glob.”

Richman: Wasn’t that a great headline? Here’s what happened. First of all, it was impossible to get into the restaurant. I can’t remember a place harder to get into than Olives. It took me about a year. And out comes this ridiculous food, this clam with cornbread and bacon. There are seven things on the plate, everything’s on top of everything else…and I thought, This can’t be good. But it was spectacularly good. I think you probably have perfect pitch for flavors. But there were no other role models in Boston at the time—I guess nobody was copying Lydia [Shire], I don’t know why—and everybody was copying you. And nobody could do it. You’d go to every restaurant and they were piling stuff on the plate and it was garbage.

I really liked that dish! It was New England on a plate: We took the quahog and baked a creamy corn spoon bread pudding in the shell and it would overflow. Okay, it was a little globby—but it was cool!

All these other restaurants were imitating your style and it ruined Boston food. It took another 10 years for the restaurant scene to come out of it.

I certainly don’t want to take credit for that. I’d like to take credit for the idea that maybe it put Boston on the map…

Which it did.

And that’s not to take away at all from Lydia and Jasper [White], who were certainly pioneers. We had an all-star kitchen. I ran it from the gut. I didn’t know what labor costs were. I didn’t know what my food costs were. I just ran it.

I want you back there. I want you in the kitchen, poor and forgotten and unknown, and I want you to suffer for my food.

I had some of the best days of my life in the kitchen, grinding it out. It was a beautiful time. But anything that you do on that level for that long will beat you up. So I expanded; I couldn’t be stuck in a kitchen for the rest of my life.

But what about people who ask, “Is this your food, Todd English?”

When I came out of culinary school, I got the idea that we should expand what we do, that it was our responsibility to make America a better place to eat on all levels. Not to say that I have this great cross to bear, but I felt like we should drive that. Julia [Child] used to ask, “Why couldn’t there be something good out there, Todd?”

When you put it that way, it even convinces me. I’m sure in a day or two, I’ll come to my senses. People like me who have never worked in a restaurant, we’re entranced by the romance of something that isn’t romantic. We’re like people who watch the ballet and see the beautiful ballerinas and don’t see the bloody feet.

To read an extended version of Todd English’s sit-down with food critic Alan Richman, click here.