Todd English was standing near the wood-burning oven, his big, square jaw set as he looked out through the open kitchen of his new restaurant, Olives, at the W Hotel in Union Square. It was the third night of the unofficial soft opening, and Mr. English, who is Boston’s most famous chef, seemed pretty calm for a guy who’d finally taken the ultimate culinary gamble and moved to New York. The high-ceilinged dining room, done up in casual earth tones, was bustling, packed with restaurateurs, chefs and members of the food press-all the people Mr. English will have to seduce if he is going to survive in this city. They nibbled from big white plates of foie gras, truffles, octopus and lobster as the nervous new staff navigated through the cramped room. Mr. English sent a quartet of amuse bouches over to a middle-aged woman with wild, frizzy hair and then sidled up to her table. The woman smiled, leaned in and then seemed to nestle into the chef’s imposing chest.
Mr. English is one of the country’s most ambitious chefs-and with his Tom Cruise–on-steroids good looks, one of the most likely to be nuzzled by a diner. Although he began his career cooking simple Italian fare at a small restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. English has always fancied himself far more than a small-town cook. He knew he wanted to be famous long before Emeril Lagasse fired his first “Bam!”. Through a combination of good looks, media savvy, shrewd business practices and crispy pizzas, he has been anointed one of the rising stars of the Iron Chef era, and his Olives Group is fast becoming the T.G.I. Friday’s of the Williams-Sonoma set. Now Mr. English, who thoroughly wooed both the press and the public in the bush leagues, faces his most daunting task: feeding New Yorkers. Needless to say, the guys back home are dying to see him blow it.
Mr. English has been a culinary rock star since the early 90′s, when the original Olives began to eclipse all of its competitors as a dining destination. Since then, he has built an empire of Olives and Figs (his casual pizza and pasta restaurants) in Washington, D.C., Aspen, Colo., Las Vegas and Israel, plus other restaurants in Westport, Conn., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. He appears regularly on Martha Stewart’s morning program. He just published his third cookbook in four years. In September, he opened a Figs in La Guardia Airport’s central terminal, serving wild mushroom pizza with fontina and truffle oil to bumped passengers; and on Nov. 25, he officially unveiled what he hopes will be his crowning achievement, Olives New York. “I’ve probably looked at 20 locations down here over the last 10 years,” Mr. English said. “I just turned 40 and I said, ‘You know what? Either I’m going to try it now or I’m not going to do it at all.’”
Mr. English has good reason to be nerv-ous. Over the years, many chefs who were superstars behind their native range have been attacked (or worse, ignored) by New Yorkers. Recently, Alain Ducasse-arguably the world’s greatest chef-has been savaged. And Washington, D.C.–based Jean-Louis Palladin’s midtown restaurant opened last year to barely audible fanfare and is now being replaced by Pino Luongo’s Coco Pazzo Teatro. The woes of both chefs have been largely blamed on their status as absentee landlords with big empires-and correspondingly large egos. But Mr. English-who has a pretty healthy ego himself-wants this to work so badly that last month he left the wife and kids behind and moved into his own pad in Soho. “I’m here full-time,” he said. “I think you really need to submerse yourself in this culture.”
Mr. English said that he’s on a “cuisine retreat.” “It’s like I’m headed off to study Buddhism in the Himalayas,” he said. His secular studies include hanging out with other telegenic chefs, like Bobby Flay or Douglas Rodriguez, at homey “haunts” like Frank’s steakhouse or Florent in the meatpacking district. “We go to church together,” he said, laughing. “We eat and drink at each other’s restaurants. It’s sometimes where the sermon is held-the late-night sermon.”
Over the years, there have been many rumors that Mr. English and his wife Olivia were splitting up, that his ambitions-along with the constant attention of female fans-had been too much for the couple. Reached at her home in Boston, Mrs. English closed the door on her three screaming kids and acknowledged that, yes, “in a weak moment, all of it does get to me.”
“I married him because he was a passionate hunk,” she said. “He’s out there. That’s O.K. I didn’t marry Mr. White Bread.”
Despite Mr. English’s move to New York, the couple are still together. They usually see each other twice a week. When the situation becomes a bit too much to bear for Mrs. English, Mr. English reminds her of all that his career has brought her.
“He’ll say, ‘Just think of your horse,’” she said. “He’ll remind me of the nice things that I have because he goes out there and is Mr. Charming.”
Boston is a small town with many astoundingly bad restaurants. Mr. English is sometimes credited with putting the city on the culinary map. The Boston press has devoted numerous covers and hundreds of column inches to fawning over the pretty-boy cook-if only, some say, for lack of material. Though no one in the local media or restaurant industry will go on the record to admit it, not everyone is a fan of Mr. English’s brazen, sometimes overwhelming Mediterranean creations, such as steak served over roasted eggplant creama with braised lamb-shank risotto with a black olive, feta and tomato-mint salsa. (Mr. English says that the dishes are smaller and “toned down” a bit for the New York audience.) The night of The Observer ‘s visit, the luxury items-pasta with veal and white truffle butter and a coronary-inducing black truffle and foie gras flan-were sturdy but ultimately underwhelming to the spoiled New York palate. Even the waiter suggested mostly hearty peasant dishes, like charred octopus with chickpeas.
The only writer to attempt to knock Mr. English off his truffle-studded pedestal has been GQ food critic Alan Richman. Three years ago, he wrote a scathing indictment of Beantown cuisine entitled “The Boston Glob,” in which he blamed much of the city’s “culinary masochism” on Mr. English, whose clumsy imitators had taken to preparing all sorts of absurd concoctions. Although he conceded that Mr. English’s food was largely “delicious,” he wrote that there was just far too much of it. Mr. Richman, who was once a sports writer for The Boston Globe , wrote that “basically, his style is not haute cuisine, but a heap of cuisine.” The article wreaked culinary havoc.
“I think he was still pissed off about being fired from The Globe ,” said Mr. English.
Reached at his home in Westchester, Mr. Richman was asked what he thought now that the poster boy for the “Boston Glob” had set up shop in Manhattan. “I don’t think this guy can miss,” admitted Mr. Richman. “I don’t know that New York is looking for his kind of food, but they’re going to like it. He’s like some sort of sculptor putting together modern art that is almost incomprehensible but somehow works. There is some genius to his cooking.”
Mr. English is dreading the verdict of New York Times reviewer William Grimes. “In Boston, I never really get great reviews,” said Mr. English. “I mean, I get pretty decent reviews. I never get the top reviews, because we don’t have tablecloths-we don’t have a lot of the things reviewers want.” Despite a history of critical mediocrity, Mr. English still puts himself in the culinary pantheon alongside masters like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud. He is LeRoy Neiman to their Monet. His real genius is not so much in his cooking as it is in his proess as mass marketer of the Todd English Phenomenon. “Olives is far more of a middle-class restaurant,” said Mr. Richman. “It’s not what we in the old days would call a ‘gourmet room.’”
Years ago, before he started cooking, Mr. English dreamed of becoming a major- league baseball star. He fell into a career in food after he dropped out of college; he was kicked off the baseball team for poor grades. Mr. English’s first real cooking job was at a seafood shack on Martha’s Vineyard. “I didn’t put it on my résumé,” he said. “All we did was smoke bongs and cook. It was awesome.” In the early 80′s, Mr. English graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and then moved to Manhattan, where he worked at La Côte Basque under legendary chef Jean-Jacques Rachou. He worked alongside such future stars as David Bouley, Rick Moonen and Waldy Malouf. While his colleagues stayed in New York to toil in temporary obscurity, he headed off to conquer the provinces. “It’s like the difference between Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio,” said Mr. English. “Ted Williams had a higher batting average, yet DiMaggio got all the press. DiMaggio was the bad boy and Williams was the sweetheart. That’s the difference between New York and Boston.”
In Boston, Mr. English became the Ted Williams of the food world. His first restaurant, which opened in 1989, was an overnight success, and the affable Mr. English quickly became a local celebrity. Annie Copps, a food writer who once cooked for Mr. English and now helps in the production of his television appearances, said that he has been ambitious since the beginning. “He definitely knew that he wanted to cook his food for a lot of people,” she said. “He was self- confident, but he was never arrogant.”
Some beg to differ. Ken Oringer, one of the new crop of top chefs in Boston, said that Mr. English has never been “lacking” when it comes to arrogance, that his brashness has as much to do with his success as his cooking. “Some people are content in improving their own restaurants in their own city,” he said. “I guess Todd wanted to take the show on the road. It will be interesting to see how the reviews go in New York. I think he’s going to be hard-pressed to get three stars.”
Mr. English said that he has always known he wouldn’t spend his career confined to a quirky little restaurant in the culinary backwaters. For inspiration, he looked to Los Angeles chef Wolfgang Puck, the man widely credited for starting the celebrity-chef phenomenon. There are many parallels between the two men. Both have built empires on pizza: Mr. Puck’s are small and delicate; Mr. English’s are large, rustic and often bizarre. He likes to serve a sauerkraut pizza with cheese, kielbasa and mustard. (“It sounds gross, but it’s truly a great pie,” said Mr. English. “It’s basically a Reuben.”) By the time Mr. English opened the first of his five pizza restaurants, Mr. Puck’s pies were in every grocery store, and fast-food joints bearing his name were in shopping malls all over the West Coast. Mr. English hopes to open Figs in airports across the country, and is currently at work on his own line of packaged foods. “People have called me the East Coast Wolfgang,” he said. “He certainly was one of my heroes.”
In the early 90′s, Mr. English tried to plug into the Hollywood machine that has been so integral to Mr. Puck’s success. He was brought on board by Glenn Close, Michael J. Fox and Boston hockey legend Cam Neely to be the public face for a summer restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. English said the project was an unmitigated “disaster.” “I was very young, and I got wooed by the whole celebrity thing,” he said. “I jumped in without first finding out that there were some really serious problems.” The restaurant quickly sank, and Mr. Neely threatened to sue. Although no legal action was ever taken, Mr. English is no longer talking to any of his former business partners.
Since that early fiasco, Mr. English’s ascent has been pretty golden. Before his move to New York, he’d been shifting away from fine dining toward new concepts like his pizza chain or the Olives stores, where he hopes to sell jewelry, martini glasses, soap and fresh-pressed olive oil. He’s also at work on a new program for the star-making Food Network. Many Boston chefs are envious-even bitter-about Mr. English’s success, but only Mr. Neely, the disgruntled former business partner, was willing to take the chef down a notch. “Todd likes to look after the big three: me, myself and I,” he said. “I don’t respect the guy as a businessman. He’s a great chef, but at the end of the day he’s just a cook.”
But in the age of Todd English, mere cooks are becoming a thing of the past, much as D.J.’s used to be guys who just played records in the dark. Ask any female diner-perhaps his true target audience. “I get lots of weird letters,” said Mr. English as he sipped espresso and furrowed his thick brow. “My wife’s not too happy about it. I’ve been proposed to; they send me pictures, rose petals. I think it’s flattering, it’s fun-it’s part of the deal now.”