Todd English in Abu Dhabi

American celebrity chef brings his restaurant empire to Abu Dhabi Discuss this article

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Chef Todd English is bringing his phenomenal cooking to the capital. Liz Totton meets the chef and his son.

Todd English is a serial James Beard award-winner, a recipient of Bon Appétit’s Restaurant of the Year, and a 2001 winner of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People. He has published countless cookbooks, hosted a PBS travel series Food Trip with Todd English and owns 20 restaurants worldwide. His newest restaurant, Olives, opens in Abu Dhabi this spring.

Your accolades include: celebrity chef, restaurateur, author, TV host, and once included in People’s 50 Most Beautiful People. Please tell us what don’t you do well? It will make our readers feel better if you have a flaw.
(Laughing) Oh, I have flaws. I just try to not get bogged down by them. I stay in the moment and stay positive. You know my business is a hard line of work. It is stressful, but it’s also an exciting one. You experience an equal number of failures to successes. Staying positive can be hard, but it’s the key to longevity.

What defines your culinary style?
I think the word ‘simplicity’ applies. I try to take simple, universal ingredients and partner them in innovative ways. I have travelled the world with my work and my PBS show, Food Trip with Todd English, and eaten many unusual things, but please just give me the simplest of ingredients: pasta and flat-bread, tomatoes and olives.

Your show must have taken you to interesting places. What was the most unusual thing you tried on your travels?
You can imagine there are hundreds of stories to be told, but I think the mountains in Northern Thailand presented the most unusual foods. I was fed more insects than you can imagine and then there was a time when I was served beehive. Oh, and monkey in Peru. They showed me the monkey, I met it and then a few hours later, it was on my plate. I didn’t like the taste of monkey.

I can imagine. Is there anything that you thought you would not like but you did?
Also in Northern Thailand, I tried snake. Now, it’s not every day you wake up and say, ‘I feel like some snake,’ but it was actually good – surprisingly good.

You moved around a bit when you were young. Do you think moving within the United States influenced your cooking style? What place has had the greatest impact on your style?
I think travel is the heart of culinary innovation and it has certainly shaped my ideas. I spent much of my childhood in Atlanta, and when I was there, it was not the bustling international city that it is now. It was old-fashioned and very southern; as in, which way do you like your grits because you will be served grits. I went on to study cooking in Italy where they use polenta very similarly to how southerners use grits, so on my menus I like to mix and match similar ingredients in unexpected ways. I love reinterpreting southern-style waffles and taking them off the breakfast menu and putting them on the dinner menu. Our philosophy is to use common ingredients served in uncommon ways.

How did your career as a chef start? Did you always know this was your calling?
Yes, since I was nine-years-old at least, I knew I loved cooking. My mother, who is Italian, loved to cook, and I loved to watch her. She told a story about how, at nine-years-old, I asked for an ice cream maker and a big bag of fresh Georgia peaches. I just wanted to make my own ice cream.

Was it good?
Yes, I remember it being extremely good, but then I was just a little boy, so who knows?

Was your path to becoming a chef an easy one?
No, absolutely not. Even nowadays when being a chef is much more respectable, if not highly desirable, it’s a hard path. So no, I went to college to become something else, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I transferred to the Culinary Institute of America north of New York City. In the ’70s, you weren’t a chef, you were a cook, and it was strictly blue collar, unless you were French – that lent you some credibility. Back then, there were only two culinary schools in America and really only two culinary scenes: New York City, where all the chefs were French and cooking mostly French food, and San Francisco where chefs, like Alice Waters and her venue Chez Panisse were doing innovative things with fresh produce. I would visit this area, compare it to other warm places, such as Italy, and feel very bad about buying my white truffles in cans.

Seriously, truffles in a can? That almost seems criminal.
(Laughing) Guilty as charged. All the chefs used them in New York. In the ’70s there was no concept yet of farm to table; it just did not exist. In 1989, I opened Olives in Charlestown – an, at the time, low-rent area of Boston, Massachusetts – to begin employing some West Coast ingredient sourcing for an East Coast audience who may never have tasted such food before.

So, please tell us the story behind Olives.
After working in a few New York City restaurants, my then wife (also a chef) and I knew it was time to open our own restaurant; we were ready. We decided to try Boston, since it only had about three fine-dining restaurants, yet the city was host to more than 60 universities and home to many nationalities. We anticipated this city was waiting for a culinary explosion, and that’s just what happened when Olives opened. Our Mediterranean food was so fresh and new, people travelled to this unknown neighbourhood and queued around the block for it. That’s how Olives started. It was an instant success.

People were obviously wowed by the quality of your food, but was there something more to the success of the restaurant?
Well yes, there always is, isn’t there? We brought style and glamour back to dining, like back in the dining rooms of ’60s and ’70s New York City where there would be celebrities dressed for dinner, like Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball. There were no paparazzi back then and eating out was an occasion. We brought this back to some extent.

What else would you like to bring back into fashion?
That’s a great question. I’d like to bring back the mixed drink with your meal and being dressed to the nines for dinner – glitz and glamour.

Do you think glamour will fly with Millennials, people Oliver’s age?
Todd: Absolutely. Oliver [English’s son and vice president] is my secret weapon. His generation is well travelled. They have grown up eating sushi and surfing the Internet. They are a worldly lot, and they demand much more from a restaurant than I ever did. What did I know? I ate truffles in a can (laughing). They care about quality over quantity. They have also grown up knowing about the healthy versus the unhealthy foods. They are not inclined to shun the so-called bad-for-you foods, like pork belly and butter, but to eat them as a special occasion. They strike the balance.
Oliver: We care about where our food comes from. We are principled, and we expect a lot. We work these ideas into the design of our restaurants. My generation goes out frequently, not just as a special occasion like dining out used to be. But Olives’ appeal is not limited to just one generation, socio-economic group or nationality. We want to bring people together at the table.

Have you developed any new items for Olives’ Abu Dhabi menu that you care to share?
Yes. I am always reinterpreting rabbit. Rabbit done three ways will be on the menu, and I think it’s absolutely exquisite.

Will you incorporate any Middle Eastern ingredients or techniques into the menu?
Absolutely. I am a big fan of mezze. I love interpreting hummus and baba ghanoush. Speaking of waffles, we do this appetiser with a very thin, crispy waffle, served with stewed chickpeas, ground lamb, hummus, yoghurt and little lamb chops. Also, the spices are a traditional Middle Eastern blend.

How do you envision the Olives Abu Dhabi scene?
Todd: We want people to be coming in all the time. This isn’t the place that you come once a year to celebrate your birthday. We would like our customers to want to be here two or three times a month to grab an appetiser at the bar or meet your friends here after work.
Oliver: We want diners to come to have fun. We are very particular when it comes to our servers and food, but we don’t take our selves too seriously. We want people to create great memories at Olives.
Todd: We would love people to come in and tell us they met their wife in this restaurant, or even better, that they proposed in Olives.
Oliver: That is the best feeling. We treat our restaurants just as we would treat guests coming into our own homes. This restaurant is all about warmth and glamour.
Olives is set to open in the spring. Stay tuned for details on its grand opening. Venetian Village, The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, for more info visit www.venetianvillage.ae

By Liz Totton
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

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