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history repeating

History Repeating: Tip of the toque to Todd English

1986.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

1986.

To see the before and after graphic, click here.

The recent announcement that Olives in Charlestown would be closing its doors came with the inevitability — and to some, the schadenfreude — of a Greek tragedy’s last act. Todd English, the restaurant’s founding chef and owner, appears in the role of hero undone by hubris.

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Actually, that image doesn’t quite fit. If we must consider English in metaphorical terms, the most apt comparison might be Teflon. English’s financial, personal, and culinary woes have been widely documented, and the closing of Olives, where it all started for him, seems freighted with significance. But shed no tears for English: Troubles aside, his empire churns on. (Paula Deen, take note.)

Still, the role Olives played in Boston’s dining revolution is worth remembering. When the place opened, in 1989, it lit a fire under the stodgy stalwarts of the city’s restaurant scene. Remember when roasted garlic, risotto, and fallen chocolate cake seemed bold and new? You can thank, or blame, English for their subsequent ubiquity, at least in part.

Those with longer memories will recall that Boston’s dining evolution might actually have begun when Michela Larson opened Michela’s a few years earlier, with a charismatic, preposterously handsome young chef at the helm — a 25-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America named Todd English (that’s the two of them together in the photo above, with Wolfgang Puck). Not long after, he opened his own place in Charlestown; Olives was a sensation from day one.

Back around 1996 (the same year as the second photo above), at, of all places, Epcot Center, I ate an incredible meal. The Disney team had brought in English, by this time a chef and a celebrity, to man the kitchen, and the food was shockingly good: robust and harmonious and somehow very expressive of the chef’s ideas. Lost in all the kerfuffle today about English’s bad behavior is the fact that the guy really could cook.

He won’t win any popularity contests in Boston. And English’s declaration that Olives will reopen at a “new and shiny” location in Boston is irrelevant. The Olives that made a difference is long gone. Love him or loathe him, the guy was doing roast suckling pig and tuna tartare 20 years ago. Surely that merits a tiny tip of the toque.

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.
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