Anyone who’s been to the greenmarket lately knows that the quality and variety of locally grown produce has never been better. But climate and geography dictate that you can’t have everything. Even in late summer, when farm stands overflow with Brandywine tomatoes and mirabelle plums, we still depend on imports to satisfy our eclectic appetites. Fruit like olives and figs just doesn’t grow around here.
But restaurants like Olives and Figs do, and this season, Todd English, the Boston chef who created them, cloned them, and is building an empire on their enduring popularity, is planting seeds and hoping they’ll sprout in fertile New York soil.
We know what you’re thinking: Don’t we have enough homegrown, high-powered chef operating officers right here, with their cookbooks and their TV shows and their cottage industries? What can an out-of-towner possibly offer the most discriminating diners in the world? Alain Ducasse might have a few choice words on the subject.
But so do the Bostonians who faithfully flock every night to the original Olives in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to eat oversize portions of English’s lusty, robust, Mediterranean-inspired food, spit-roasted and wood-grilled and chock-full of butter and cheese, fat and flavor. And while he’s been preoccupied the past few years attaching his name (or lending his expertise) to a dozen restaurants, from Las Vegas to Eilat, Israel, his devoted clientele hasn’t felt at all neglected. He’s a local hero, Boston’s version of Danny Meyer in chef’s whites. They love him, and he loves them right back.
On a bustling Thursday night last month at the flagship Charlestown Olives, he keeps a watchful eye on the dining room while describing his two-pronged plan to penetrate the New York market: a fifth Olives in the W hotel opening this November at Union Square, and – even more ambitiously, or absurdly, depending on your point of view – a branch of Figs, the more casual brick-oven pizzeria, famous for its hearty pastas and spectacular, thin-crusted fig-Gorgonzola-and-prosciutto pie, at La Guardia Airport’s central terminal. (“I’m either really stupid,” he says about venturing where no serious East Coast chef has gone before, between the Coffee Beanery and the Sunglass Hut, “or I have steel nuts.”)
At the next table, sneaking sidelong glances at English, whose chiseled features and dark good looks (picture a hunkier Matthew Kenney, after an appointment at Frédéric Fekkai) attract as much attention as his black-truffle-and-foie-gras flan, a starstruck mother and daughter study the menu. “Bring them a rabbit terrine to start,” he whispers to their waitress. A happily well-fed middle-aged couple wend their way through the convivial crowd occupying the lively, unpretentious dining room, and the husband claps English on the back. “Good luck in New York,” he says chummily, as if English played for the Red Sox and the team bus was idling at the curb, headed for the Bronx.
In fact, this won’t be English’s first time in the high-pressured confines of a New York kitchen. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he worked at La Côte Basque, under the renowned Jean-Jacques Rachou, and lived out at “the ranch,” a house in Woodside where the cooks slept between shifts. “When I got there, Charlie Palmer was working the line,” says English. “Rick Moonen, Waldy Malouf, Henry Meer. David Bouley. It was amazing.” He stayed just over two years, then left for Italy, where he immersed himself in the old-world traditions and techniques that would distinguish his cooking style when he finally opened Olives in the only place where he could afford the rent – a cramped storefront in Charlestown.
“The first two years, I never came out of the kitchen,” he says. “I was scared to death.” He got over it, thanks to positive reinforcement like long lines at the door and two James Beard awards, first for Rising Star Chef and then for Best Chef in the Northeast. He soon outgrew the restaurant’s 45 seats, moved Olives to its present location down the block, and opened Figs in its place.
From those humble beginnings, the English empire has grown to include four Figs, four Olives, Miramar in Westport, the new KingFish Hall in downtown Boston, and a Myrtle Beach golf-resort restaurant he co-owns with Greg Norman. At 40, English has entered the ranks of celebrity chef, those extraterrestrial tocques who touch down on earth for the occasional book signing or restaurant opening or cooking segment on Good Morning America, leaving their ever-proliferating kitchens in the capable hands of devoted disciples. But, English insists, “New York will be different.” Not only is he raiding his Westport and Las Vegas kitchens for top talent – “the two guys who’ve been with me the longest” – but he’ll be right alongside them, for the first six months, anyway, turning out Olives classics like butternut-squash tortelli and going deliciously overboard with trademark garnishes like mascarpone and foie gras cremas, infusing everything with truffle essence.
At 201 Park Avenue South, inside the handsome 1911 Renaissance Revival landmark building that Starwood Hotels & Resorts is converting into the fourth in its luxury W line, David Rockwell is building English the sort of open kitchen he’s accustomed to, with a two-story hearth. And since a W just wouldn’t be a W without a trendy bar, English will also oversee Opm, an atmospheric candlelit lounge with curtained nooks where customers pull light cords to get a waitress’s attention.
No such device is needed to entice English, who can’t wait to get here. “At this stage, to push myself to the next level, I need New York, the energy, the pressure – whatever it is – to really shine,” he says. But it’s hard to see how rubbing elbows with the culinary giants can possibly improve English’s singular style, which tends to involve one rich, luscious ingredient wrapped around or stuffed inside another, bathed in flavored oil or aromatic cream – crispy fried Ipswich-clam tart and warm corn custard with jalapeño aïoli, for instance.
And then there’s his pizza. Who knows how New York’s slice savants will take to his iconoclastic approach at Figs, or if they’ll even bother to make a detour on the mad dash to the departure gate. English isn’t worried. “I don’t know anyone who’s doing pizza like us,” he says, and it’s true: pies like the “poor man’s reuben,” with corned beef and Gruyère, and his fried-onion-ring-with-goat-cheese-and-arugula, might sound misguided to purists weaned on Patsy’s and Totonno’s, but the superior crust, the quality of ingredients, and the sheer inventiveness elevate them to bizarre new heights. And we have to give the guy credit for trying to make flying a little less fearsome, and a lot tastier, by designing pizza boxes to fit on seat-back trays.
No doubt, keeping everyone happy, himself included, can get complicated. “They want you to cook their food, be at their table talking to them, and present it to them, all at the same time,” he sighs. “I haven’t quite figured it out yet.” But, as English was reminded one sunny Wednesday afternoon last month, as he strolled around the Union Square Greenmarket, investigating what he’ll have to work with, it boils down to something pretty simple.
“I’m looking at these heirloom tomatoes, and I’m thinking, Oh my God, they’re so unbelievable, and that to me is so exciting,” he gushes, caught up in whatever passion put him on this path to begin with. “It brings you back home.”
And this fall, luckily for us, it brings him to ours.