Todd English’s wild ride
In between the closings and the canceled wedding, the unpaid bills and the ugly lawsuits, Boston’s biggest chef seemed to lose interest in the city that made him famous. So why can’t we let him go?
LATE LAST SUMMER, chef Todd English threw himself a private birthday party at Olives New York, the opulently decorated in-house eatery of the W hotel in Union Square named for the Boston restaurant that made him famous. After English welcomed hundreds of his closest friends, many Manhattan notables among them, with air kisses and booming heyyyys, everyone sat down for an English-style dinner: lamb chops in a citrus sabayon, fillet of branzino with zucchini puree and crab vinaigrette. English’s girlfriend, fashion designer Candice Sonneman, was there, as was his teenage daughter, Isabelle. Longtime pal Colin Cowie, event planner to celebrities like Oprah, JLo, and Tom Cruise, stood up to give a toast.
A few hours and some drinks later, English appeared up in the DJ booth wearing dark sunglasses that matched his trademark dark suit and dark shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, not to mention the full head of dark hair people love to note when inevitably describing the chef’s comeliness; that and his “impossibly square jaw.” Though English is now past 50, his movie star good looks — which once earned him a spot on People’s Most Beautiful list — have not faded; cameras and women love him, and he loves them both right back.
He held a microphone. “Wait, hold on a second while I light my—” he said, leaning over to let a friend help him fire up whatever it was he pinched between the thumb and index finger of his other hand. “I don’t care if you can sing,” he announced to partygoers, seemingly nonsensically. “I don’t care if you got tats . . .”
Then he turned back to the partygoers to dance with himself, grinning maniacally while waving both middle fingers in the air. “Happy birthdaaaaaaaay!” he sang to the crowd.
On what happened next: It’s unclear when or from where English got the gun, but suddenly there it was, nestled in his right hand. With a hoot, he raised it and fired toward the restaurant’s ceiling. The crowd was silent. Even English himself appeared shocked. Then he fired again.
The best, and worst, part of this story, however, was that you didn’t need to be any sort of inner circle Friend of Todd English in order to have witnessed this scene. It was captured on camera and appeared in the premiere episode of the E! chef reality series Playing With Fire. “Yeah, hmm . . . ” English says to the camera in the days after the party. “Are we gonna show that?”
This is exactly the sort of What was he thinking? moment that has helped English secure his position as one of the food industry’s favorite punching bags, why for so many years writers and gossip columnists have largely chosen to overlook his talents as a chef, mentor, and marketer in favor of gleefully reporting on his fumbles, mishaps, and personal foibles, of which there are no shortage: lawsuits, a jilted bride, playboying, posing. And yet while the disdain seems to run deep, especially here in Boston, people also can’t seem to let him go. Especially here in Boston.
WHEN OLIVES OPENED in Charlestown in 1989, it was nothing short of revolutionary. English was a pioneer of generous portions — from the beginning he had, as New York magazine later put it, “a genius for artful Hungry Man dishes” — while his innovative open-kitchen concept capitalized on the face and charisma that would help propel him to stardom. People lined up night after night on the shady sidewalks of pre-gentrified Charlestown for butternut squash tortelli and the chance to glimpse English at work. (“I have joked more than once that every realtor in Charlestown owes him a percent of their sales,” says local industry vet Annie Copps, who worked on the line at Olives in the ’90s. He and his then wife, Olivia, “brought more future homeowners to that neighborhood than anyone could have imagined.”) As restaurateur Marcus Palmer, who spent almost three years working for English at Olives, says: “When he was cooking, everyone turned their head to the kitchen. He added an energy to the room. People came for him.”
But English was never content to limit himself to Boston, especially not once his cooking began getting national recognition from the likes of Food & Wine and Gourmet. In 2001, Bon Appetit named him Restaurateur of the Year. He won a James Beard award. He was obsessed with looking to the next thing. As Olivia told a magazine in 1995, “I am always the one who is pulling Todd back. I always have to slow him down,” though some accounts say she enjoyed her husband’s growing fame just as much as he did. Says Copps: “He has always been driven. He has always been a dreamer.”
When it came to the Olives brand, the expansion seemed to come overnight. First there was Olives Las Vegas in 1998, then Olives in D.C. and Aspen, Colorado, the next year, and New York the year after that. Along the way there were many more: other restaurants in Martha’s Vineyard, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Disney World, JFK Airport, aboard the Queen Mary 2. Boston got its fair share: Kingfish Hall and Rustic Kitchen in Faneuil Hall and Bonfire in the Park Plaza; a few casual pizza joints called Figs. There were TV appearances, including a win on the first American version of Iron Chef, best-selling cookbooks, a line of cookware, and more restaurants: His name was attached to some 25 at one point.
As a chef and a boss, English was impulsive and high energy. Though secretly shy, and not always articulate when speaking to the press — “He could be disarmingly honest, yet never quite answer the question you were asking,” says food writer and former Boston Globe restaurant critic Alison Arnett — he was precise in what he wanted from his cooks. “It’s ironic, but as a cook he was constantly teaching focus focus focus, staying laser-locked into what you’re doing,” says Sweet Cheeks Q owner Tiffani Faison, who spent time in the kitchen at Bonfire and Olives before helping English open restaurants elsewhere. “He has a personal fortitude that’s infectious. And when he cranks up the difficulty level for himself, and for you, and then you succeed — there’s something about understanding what that does to a cook and a person that’s really valuable.” He would create dishes on the fly and challenge his kitchens to do the same.
“He was always pushing us, on a daily basis,” says chef Tony Susi, who spent several years working with English. “Do it better. Get more creative. Do it again. He’d be like, ‘Tony, you’re coming up with a pasta special for tomorrow.’ If I went into work the next day without at least a couple of ideas, he would chew me out. Being a great chef is bringing the best out in people.” And most times, he did. Surviving an English kitchen became a rite of passage and a mark of talent, and over the years his restaurants turned out notable chefs, including Susi, Faison, Barbara Lynch, and Marc Orfaly, and that’s just in Boston. For the executive chef post at his Vine Brook Tavern in Lexington, Palmer sought out Chris Frothingham, a chef who’d spent five years working at Kingfish Hall, Bonfire, and Fish Club in Seattle. “When I see that someone’s put in significant time in one of Todd’s kitchens,” says Palmer, “I know this guy’s gonna be able to cook.”
But as early as 2002 there were signs of trouble: business partnerships gone south, often over money owed; restaurants closed, often with money owed. He and Olivia separated. He was opening multiple restaurants a year and lending his name to more, developing along the way a reputation for having a roving eye, for getting into something new before totally closing the door on the last. “I am,” English told a reporter in 2003, “the king of bootstrapping. I rob Peter to pay Paul all the time,” and he wasn’t employing hyperbole.
Arnett, who spent time as a restaurant consultant after leaving her post as a critic, says that “stretching” vendor payment is a common restaurant-industry habit. “Everyone pushes the boundaries; 90 days, then another 90 days,” she says. “Restaurants that want to stay in business know they eventually have to pay.”
But English seemed particularly prone to it, becoming known as someone you had to chase after to collect your rent, or perhaps the fee for those tomatoes you sold him last summer.
He closed restaurants and opened others. Olives in Charlestown was temporarily shut down in 2002 for health code violations that included evidence of rodents. A lawsuit a few months later accused him of misspending $150,000 in company funds on himself, Olivia, and his girlfriend while rent and salaries sometimes went unpaid. (The suit was soon dismissed, and the chef ultimately handed over Rustic Kitchen to Jim Cafarelli, the former business partner who filed it.) People in Boston — diners, critics — started to complain that he was never around, that the food was suffering, that he was too busy working in other cities or, worse, having fun. “The way it was sometimes portrayed was that it was Todd’s duty to stick around Boston,” says Arnett. “Boston is parochial in that way. How dare you not make a restaurant we like? We made you.” Says Susi: “I don’t always subscribe to it, but there’s the mind-set that when you’re on top someone’s always looking to knock you down. Todd was the first Boston chef who expanded on the scale that he did.”
In 2010, Olives closed following a grease fire. For two years, resentment grew as English went about his usual business opening restaurants, signing cookbooks, and putting his name on olive oil and oven mitts while his flagship restaurant, its windows papered over, remained a neighborhood eyesore. After the restaurant finally reopened in 2012 with much hype (including a party attended by friends like Jasper White, Andy Husbands, Lydia Shire, and Herb Chambers), promises to be in the restaurant more often, and a menu that included many of the old favorites (the tartare, that butternut squash tortelli), the place got lukewarm reviews. “It was not bad but not great, and everything was far too heavy,” says Arnett. “But then that was always the complaint about Todd — he was always over the top.”
The second coming of Olives lasted just about a year, with the restaurant closing suddenly but quietly this past June amid allegations of nonpayment of $723,000 in back rent. The landlord had gotten permission from a judge to shut the doors. Kingfish Hall, too, had gone dark, and English was accused of leaving the place still owing landlords $1 million. The obvious question became: If he wasn’t going to pay his rent, why reopen Olives at all? Friends suspect sentimentality, stubbornness, and a sometimes debilitating desire to please people all played a role. English’s own admission from years ago that “I’m not a financial genius” likely had something to do with it, too. “He is one of the most hospitable people I have met in my entire life,” says Faison. “But he’s impulsive. That’s shown up in how he teaches, how he cooks, how he approaches business, and how he lives his life.” As Palmer says: “Olives had an amazing run. Twenty years is a very long time. I think when it closed the first time, most of us figured we’d never see it again.”
THE GUN, it turns out, was a prop, if a fairly realistic one, and the partygoers’ reaction eventually morphed into nervous chatter before, awash in booze, they forgot the episode completely, at least until the buzz had worn off. “Todd definitely knows how to throw a party,” one friend, the night-life entrepreneur Derek Koch, said later. But as far as the gun, “Whose idea was that?” added his twin brother and business partner, Daniel, echoing a by now common refrain when it comes to the chronicling of Todd English. “Todd’s personality is like the Wild West, you know what I mean? Yee-haw!”
As of early next year, there will be three remaining Olives: in New York, Mexico City, and the Bahamas. Earlier this fall, the Bellagio hotel announced it would not be renewing its contract with English for the Las Vegas Olives.
And yet: This is not the end of Todd English. At least some of his remaining dozen or so restaurants — like the Todd English Food Hall at the Plaza Hotel in New York City — are wildly successful. In 2012, he ranked seventh on Forbes’s list of top-earning chefs, with an estimated annual salary of $11 million. A new Olives restaurant is planned for Abu Dhabi. And a couple of Christmases ago, he ran a $25,000 Groupon deal that included a private cooking class, dinner at one of his restaurants, a three-night hotel stay in New York, a signed cookbook, and, naturally, an oven mitt, presumably from the Todd English Collection. People made fun of him, of course. But someone bought it.
The official line from English’s PR team is that Boston is and will always be home. “He is definitely not ‘moving on’ from Boston anytime soon,” his Miami-based brand strategist Roch Nakajima wrote in an e-mail, being sure to point out the two remaining local Figs, as well as the Bonfire at Logan. Yet some friends say they’d be surprised to see anything more happen here, though not because Boston, even after all of this, wouldn’t have him. “Anyone can redeem themselves if they want to be redeemed,” says Susi. “If Todd wants to win back Boston, he can set up shop, spend the majority of his time here, and do the right thing with his finances. Does he want to? Probably not.” That’s because there’s really no reason to. Boston’s not where the money is, or the opportunity, and if it’s about securing his legacy, we don’t need a Todd English Food Hall for that. Over 20 years, he has built Boston’s dining scene in a way that cannot be destroyed or diminished, paving the way for countless others, pushing his chefs to be better for years after they no longer remain his chefs. He is, if slowly, transferring some power to his children, helping Isabelle open a Beacon Hill cupcake shop, and bringing his elder son, Cornell grad Oliver, into the company as a vice president to run strategy and shape up the front of the house.
And his food endures, even as trends and palates change, even in a business where reinvention is regarded as the secret to longevity. Recently, Palmer and Frothingham offered a tasting menu at Vine Brook Tavern. “I didn’t know what Chris had cooked up until I began bringing dishes out,” says Palmer. “There was this one, I looked down and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was, verbatim, a Todd English dish.” A butternut squash pasta. “But what can you do? The guests loved it.”
Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer and editor in Newburyport. Send comments to email@example.com.