Todd English, the chef in motion
At last count, chef Todd English is an owner or consultant at 23 restaurants across the country and two on cruise ships.
The New York Times
NEW YORK — "A guy like Todd's got 60 things going on his head," Richard Henriksen said. "So a workout clears the mind a bit."
Henriksen, a personal trainer, was waiting for the chef Todd English at a gym on West 19th Street one recent Friday morning. English is known for being perpetually in motion. When he can, he likes to set aside an hour or two to freshen the synapses and sinews with a high-velocity exercise gantlet.
"There he is," said Henriksen said as English, in black shorts, pushed his 225-pound frame through the front doors of the gym. "He's on the phone already."
English smiled more with his eyes than his mouth, shook hands, put away his handheld, grabbed a white towel at a turnstile and climbed aboard a treadmill.
As dance music thumped and the trainer coaxed him around the room, English went from running in place to lifting weights to jumping rope with barely a break to take in some air. He is 50 years old, though, and before long, he exhaled a sharp gasp and cradled his head in his arms like a wounded, winded boxer.
"It's not as easy as it used to be," he said, panting. "Is there a martini bar around here somewhere?"
If there is, English probably has a hand in it. Compulsively entrepreneurial, he has helped create so many restaurants over the course of 20 years that it can be difficult to track them all. At last count, English is an owner or consultant at 23 restaurants across the country and two on cruise ships.
In New York alone, over the past 18 months or so, he has been busy starting the global smorgasbord of the Plaza Food Hall, the Gallic fare at the Ca Va brasserie in Midtown Manhattan's InterContinental Hotel and (with the chef Ian Chalermkittichai) the Asian-American nibbles at the Ember Room in Hell's Kitchen. Last week, he opened CrossBar, a temple of porcine extravagance (among the menu items are roast suckling pig and puffed pigs' ears) in the Limelight Marketplace.
With so many plates spinning, it makes sense that English might seek sweaty relief in the gym.
But if he seemed to be pouring a surprising level of ferocity into his squats, there were other reasons, too.
"I probably should have hit the punching bag," he would later admit.
That morning's New York Post — on Friday the 13th, of course — carried a wincingly unflattering Page Six item about English, and food blogs had been a-snicker for days after Boston magazine published a lacerating "breakup letter" (http://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/articles/dear_todd_english_its_not_us_its_you/) with the chef who had once given a drab Beantown food scene a slug of extra-virgin revitalization.
"Basically, things aren't working out the way we'd hoped," the anonymous article read. "You're simply not the chef we fell in love with."
The scorn has intensified lately, but it is nothing new. From the standpoint of presence and productivity, English is one of the most successful chefs in the country (www.toddenglish.com). From a news media perspective, he is one of the most mocked and hounded, often portrayed as a party-hopping Casanova who has sacrificed his skill at the stove in a compulsive and compromise-ready hustle for brand expansion.
"I don't get it," said Jasper White, a Massachusetts chef who characterized English as "my little brother." "There's something about Todd that people take as arrogant, for some reason. Is it his look? But he's not arrogant. He's a down-to-earth, sweet man." (The Page Six item had said that local chefs were reluctant to sign a letter supporting English after the scorching from Boston magazine, but White vigorously denied that. "All the top names in Boston signed it," he said.)
English's seemingly improvisatory, flirty, phone-juggling, eager-to-please, throw-it-against-a-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks approach to empire building, accompanied by a stubborn welter of lawsuits and a flurry of critical jabs, has led some observers to wonder whether his vast network of restaurants is too diffuse and unfocused.
"From the time I first began tracking Todd, I have noted a yin-yang in his success," said Juliette Rossant, who publishes Super Chef (http://superchefblog.com), an online magazine. "He races forward, driven to expand and succeed: That's the bright, attractive side of his personality. On the darker side, he seems indiscriminate in many choices, willing to take nearly any chance, willing to partner with nearly anyone who offers."
Even some of English's friends tend to question whether one man can maintain high standards at roughly two dozen restaurants, especially from a distance.
Michael Ginor, a founder of the Hudson Valley Foie Gras company, said he has told English, a longtime pal and confidant, that he would be better off if he would simply focus on turning his pizza-oriented Figs outlets into a national franchise. While Ginor noted that "you can't be completely unfocused and accomplish everything he has in life," he said that a sense of institutional overload can lead to "problems and headaches" for English. If Ginor had to pick just one restaurant in which to eat for the rest of his life, it would be the original Olives, he said, but even a supremely skilled chef cannot make sure that 7,000 bowls of tagliatelle are perfect.
"Nobody runs 30 restaurants and does a good job of it," he said.
It is worth pointing out, as English does, that he owns only six of the restaurants that bear his stamp.
"The rest are consulting, licensing deals," he said. "That's how I really do it."
In those situations, he will hire the chefs and map out the ambience of a restaurant, but there is no expectation of his steady presence.
But does it work? For much of his career, English has been dogged by suggestions that both in striking deals and in trying to manage all of those problems and headaches, he might be taking on too much.
"He's a rainmaker," Ginor said. "What you need, then, is somebody to hold a bucket and gather that rain and make sure it fertilizes something. He knows that. He's been struggling with that forever. He's a good friend, and I love the guy dearly. I would love for him to fix whatever it is that needs to be fixed."
At times, the rapid boil of activity around English has bubbled over into legal claims. While he does not have as many lawsuits against him as he has restaurants, there is a striking variety of them.
He is being sued by Resolution Pictures, a company based in Pennsylvania that did production work on his PBS show, "Food Trip With Todd English." He is being sued by Dan Klores Communications, a company that did publicity work for him in 2008. He is being sued by Bestall Management, formerly known as Atlantic Talent Management, which was enlisted to assist English in hatching new restaurant deals.
In each case, and several others past and present, the plaintiffs said that English owed them money: about $30,000 to Resolution Pictures, $20,000 to Dan Klores Communications, and $100,000 to Bestall Management.
Gabriel Green, a lawyer representing Bestall Management, said that his clients helped English secure restaurant deals in Seattle, Florida and elsewhere and were supposed to receive royalties from those enterprises. In a 2003 settlement agreement, English promised to make payments, but they stopped in 2008. For a while, English and his team "just ignored us," Green said.
"My clients harbor no animosity towards him," he continued. "They just want to get paid what is owed. Frankly, they're kind of dumbfounded."
They are not the only ones who say they are confused. In a few cases, English's legal engagement has been so minimal that it has resulted in default judgments — in essence, being ordered to pay up because nobody showed up.
English took issue with Green's account.
"Those guys didn't help me one iota," he said. "Every one of those deals I got because of my relationships."
He said that in both the Bestall case and the Resolution Pictures case, he had paid the parties in question "hundreds of thousands of dollars" over time and that payments had ceased only because of disagreements over how much was owed.
"All these are in negotiations for settlement — that's what's going to happen," English said. "I mean, it's not like I'm not going to pay them."
You might say that the manic drive and the sporadic disarray of English's career could be traced to his childhood.
Although he made his name in the Northeast, he was born in Amarillo, Texas, and raised largely in Atlanta. He has a surname that suggests bangers and mash, but the main influence on his upbringing was his mother, Patrizia Arcuni-English, whose family came to the United States from Sicily and Calabria. English's parents parted ways when he was in grade school, and his mother raised him and his sister on her own. Today, English is disinclined to talk about his father, although he does not deny that growing up without that paternal presence might have given him a propulsive, Bill Clintonesque surplus of ambition.
"You have a little something to prove," he said.
He started proving it early. One day, as a boy, English begged his mother for an old-fashioned ice cream maker — and catapulted into his future career by whipping up bowls of fresh vanilla ice cream served with Georgia peaches.
"When he was 15, he had a whole vegetable garden," Arcuni-English said. "He tilled it."
There were sports, too, and guitar lessons.
"He has to be involved in everything," she said. "He's been like that since he was young."
English attended Guilford College in North Carolina and played catcher on the baseball team.
"It was great for my ADD," he said. "Because I'm sure if I was in right field, I'd be spacing out, watching the butterflies go by." When injuries forced him to give up the sport, he dropped out of college and wound his way to the Culinary Institute of America and a period of marination in Italy.
It might be hard for his critics to believe this now, but back in 1989, when English opened his first restaurant, Olives, in Boston's then-scrappy Charlestown neighborhood, it was seen as a beacon of culinary cool.
"The food he was cooking was so unlike anything else in this city at the time," said Barbara Lynch, a chef in Boston who got her start in his kitchen. "Nobody else was doing fig pizza with prosciutto, or a nice, simple olive tart."
"I was cooking octopus in 1990," English said. "Nobody was. It was that little joint you couldn't get into. We'd play the music really loud. It was fun."
In the two decades that followed, there were James Beard awards and a spot on People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list. His empire expanded; his first marriage imploded. (In 2009, another marriage was scheduled to happen, but English backed out hours before the ceremony, which stirred up a tabloid feeding frenzy.)
In 1998, he was part of a power-cluster of chefs and restaurateurs who were invited to bring their cuisine to the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas. It was the onset of a rapacious strain of franchise fever in the food business, and English caught it. Pretty soon, he was opening restaurants in hotels, in theme parks, on cruise ships.
"I turn down way more than I say yes to," English said. "We get approached daily. I wouldn't do them unless I was psyched about them."
Some soared. Some sank.
"It's like losing a big game," he said of the failures. "You've got to look at what you did wrong and make it better, and not do it that way the next time. But you're out there playing, man. You tried."
His career has been so radiantly scattershot that we might need an astrophysicist to track down all the supernovas and black holes. The original Olives might qualify as both. After a grease fire, it has been closed for a year, leading to confusion about when, or whether, it will reopen. English said "insurance matters and code matters" had caused the delay, but that the restaurant will be renovated and running again by late summer.
And he said that Kingfish Hall, his restaurant in the Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston, would go through a similar makeover after business slipped during the recession and the restaurant nearly faced eviction.
"Restaurants have cycles," he said. "We made hard decisions on what to do to keep the business going, and we're still here, still rockin' and rollin'." Kingfish, he said, would be repositioned as "a beer-hall kind of thing."++++
Perhaps it is telling that when Miki Naftali, the president and chief executive officer of Elad Properties, began meeting with English about creating a lively European-style gastro-bacchanal in the Plaza Hotel, he insisted on something rather fundamental.
"In negotiating with Todd, I made it very clear that it's extremely important — it's part of the deal — that he would be personally involved," Naftali said. "And I have to say, he did everything that he promised to do. When he is there, when he is passionate about it, when he is spending the time, he is very good."
It was in the Plaza Food Hall, after ordering a demolition derby of dishes, crowding a table with sushi, prosciutto-and-fig flatbreads, sliders, lobster rolls, Todd English chocolate bars and cupcakes, that English finally alluded to the pounding he had been taking in the press.
He said that he is capable of handling everything on his heaping plate and characterized his association with creative chaos as a bit of a myth.
"I'm way under control," he said. "We have so much good stuff, so many good people."
Nevertheless, it seems as though he dodges the slings and arrows in classic Todd English fashion: Just keep moving.
"Unfortunately, when things go wrong, I'm the guy who takes the brunt of it," he said. "I take the bullets. And I'm a big, tough guy. But you know, I get tired of taking those bullets. Today was an example of that. It wasn't fair.
"Look, it's uncalled for. If I were molesting babies, I get it. But I'm not. I'm a guy with a dream trying to make it all happen."
A WIDESPREAD INGREDIENT
The chef Todd English has been an owner or a consultant at scores of restaurants.
• Olives, Charlestown, Mass. (being renovated after a fire)
• Figs, Charlestown, Mass.
• Isola, Martha's Vineyard, Mass. (no longer involved)
• Beacon Hill, Boston
• Figs, Wellesley, Mass. (closed)
• Figs, Chestnut Hill, Mass. (closed)
• Miramar, Westport, Conn. (closed)
• Olives, Las Vegas
• Onda, Las Vegas (closed)
• Greg Norman's Australian Grille, North Myrtle Beach, S.C. (no longer involved)
• Olives, Aspen, Colo. (closed)
• Olives, Washington (closed)
• Tamarind, Eilat, Israel (no longer involved)
• Figs, La Guardia Airport, New York
• Olives, New York
• Kingfish Hall, Boston
• Bonfire, Boston (closed)
• Rustic Kitchen, Boston (no longer involved)
• Todd English's Tuscany, Mohegan Sun Casino, Uncasville, Conn.
• Fish Club, Seattle (closed)
• Olives, Tokyo (closed)
• Todd English's Bluezoo at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
• Todd English Restaurant, on board the Queen Mary 2
• English Is Italian, New York (closed)
• Olives, Biloxi, Miss. (closed)
• Riche, New Orleans (closed)
• Todd English's Bonfire, Kennedy Airport, New York, and Logan Airport, Boston
• Todd English Restaurant, on board the Queen Victoria
• Beso Hollywood, Los Angeles (no longer involved)
• Da Campo Osteria, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
• Figs by Todd English, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
• The Libertine by Todd English, New York (no longer involved)
• Beso Las Vegas, Las Vegas (no longer involved)
• Figs at 29 Fair by Todd English, Nantucket, Mass.
• Juliet Supperclub, New York (no longer involved)
• Wild Olives by Todd English, Boca Raton, Fla.
• Beachside Bistro and Summer House, Nantucket, Mass.
• Ca Va Todd English, New York
• Isabelle's Curly Cakes, Boston
• The Plaza Food Hall, New York
• Todd English P.U.B., Las Vegas
• Wild Olives Cafe, West Palm Beach, Fla.
• CrossBar, New York
• Ember Room, New York
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