Platelist: Todd English on Valentine's Day

Chef/restaurant magnate tells how to stage a can't-miss Valentine's feast.

Feb. 12, 2010 — -- A lot of people approach Valentine's Day with a level of apprehension otherwise reserved for large wildlife and abandoned Gothic architecture at night. The holiday either holds bad memories, or it highlights current loneliness, or it's just too blatantly a commercial sham to take part in.

People who do participate, packing their "milk" chocolate in garish boxes to awkward dinners in overrated restaurants, only cinch the point.

Yet there are the romantic holdouts.

"Absolutely, there is a connection between food and love. I always say, when there's love in my heart or I'm feeling particularly good, the food comes out that much better. And so I think Valentine's Day is a special day."

No, that's not Fabio in an outtake from last season's "Top Chef." That's Todd English, one of the top cooking talents of his generation, indefatigable culinary entrepreneur and diehard Cyrano.

English is perhaps best known, general-population-wise, as the marquee name attached to an empire of high-end eateries found in the country's most heavily trafficked theme parks and airports (Disney World, JFK, Boston-Logan). He also has restaurants on two cruise ships and one at Mohegan Sun, the mega Connecticut gambling venue.

But among foodies, the English legend turns on a single restaurant the young chef opened in Charlestown, Mass., in April 1989. It sat 50, it served rustic Mediterranean cuisine and it generated the kind of buzz money can't buy. The restaurant, Olives, endures as a Boston favorite (now at an expanded location) and has spawned offshoots in New York City, Las Vegas and Boca Raton, Fla.

Outside the kitchen, English won a James Beard Award (his third) and an Emmy nomination for the first season of his international travel and cooking series on PBS, "Food Trip With Todd English."

For good measure, English, whose face clearly was inventoried in the "Hot Ones" section of God's astral warehouse, was named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 2001.

In an interview at the New York Olives in the run-up to the big day, English expounded on his career, love, the restaurant business, love, baseball, love, his Italian grandma's cooking and love. He also shared some RECIPES guaranteed to provide maximum romantic saturation this Valentine's Day.

(But to dispatch with a late and delicately pertinent chapter in the English legend, before wading more deeply into his thoughts on matters of the heart: Yes, he recently endured a break-up with his fiancee, and yes, reports circulated widely that she found out about it on The Big Day itself, and yes, contradictory reports also emerged, and no, he doesn't want to talk about it.)

In any case, the chef doesn't appear to be spent on love.

'I'm Thinking About the Pheromones'

English gamely shared his personal crib sheet for creating a mealtime plateau of nuclear-grade romantic lethality.

"To serve when you want to seduce someone?" he said. "There are certain things that always romanticize the night -- something bubbly certainly always works. So Champagne is always a good start. When I'm cooking I'm thinking about the pheromones and what will give beauty to that sensuous moment. I believe in oysters, citruses, things that will spark a memory.

"Texture also plays a big part as well. I've done dinners where you blindfold the person so that all that is left is the sense of touch. Hot and cold are very important. When it hits your palate it all has to come together. You need to think about music and candlelight and all the things that bring it all together. Hopefully you won't spend all night in the kitchen!"

And for those headed in the opposite direction:

"I've never used food to break up with someone, but if I needed to, it'd have to be something that doesn't evoke all those great things. What, do you open up a can of cat food? I don't know."

English was born in Texas to a full-blooded Italian mother and a "Texan and German and English" father. His parents split up when he was young, and he went to live "with the Italians" in Atlanta. It was a family that did food right.

"[My mother was] an amazing cook and my grandmother was an amazing cook as well," English said. "And I even got to know my great-grandmother, from Calabria [Italy], who I watched make pasta. You know the old stories of her rolling out the pasta and leaving it on the bed. So, I certainly think somewhere in there subconsciously it's a very big part of me."

As a teen, English lived in Connecticut and spent a lot of time in New York City, where his father worked in television production. When it came time for college, however, he chose the South, attending Guilford College in North Carolina on a baseball scholarship.

"I thought baseball, that's all I thought about," English said. "I slept with my glove as a kid. That was what I wanted to do and be. But it's funny, I look back and I think, 'Wow, it would've been such a different life, and I'm really enjoying what I'm doing now.' I love that it's so diverse and there are so many opportunities. But fortunately, I have a couple boys and I get in the field with them and I coach them, so it's still in my life."

After college -- and following a period of "many mishaps" -- English was admitted to the Culinary Institute of America. He graduated with honors in 1982, did some time in Italy and, after a stint at Michela's in Cambridge, Mass., opened Olives. (Mediterranean finger food figures prominently in the English restaurant nomenclature; another of his places is called Figs.)

"It was a time when being a chef was not part of things we thought about in our society," English said of his pre-professional days. "It was late '70s, early '80s. [Professional cooking] was just beginning to happen, definitely much more on the West Coast. I guess it was just luck that I got into it."

'We Have to Do It Every Day'

Now the cooking landscape has shifted.

"It's interesting, the whole celeb chef thing," said English. "It's certainly part of promoting what you do, and [the way] I look at it, we're artists, we're craftsmen, we're craftspeople and we have to stay true to our trade and stay true to what we do, and we have to do it every day. That's the thing: We have go in every day and produce the same thing every day, day in and day out. We're only as good as our last meal.

"It's very true: As a Broadway actor would say, they're only as good as their last show, or as a musician, only as their last performance," he said. "So in the same sense, that's what he has to do every day on a consistent basis. So the celeb part, it's certainly great when you can use it in a way that helps society, that helps charitable organizations. In that sense, if you can get someone to auction a dinner off for a great charity, which I have a few that I deal with, that, to me, is what makes it worthwhile."

Even in today's business-oriented cooking world, English is notable for the aggressiveness with which he has pursued new restaurants in new locations.

"I have everything from 32 seats, a pizzeria, to a 240-seat restaurant in Vegas, so it's all over the board," he said. "But I still love that 32-seat restaurant as much as I love the 240-seat restaurant. I always get jazzed when I go and I see that the pizza is crispy and everything's going alright.

"It's very interesting; you talk about slapping your name on a restaurant or on something. You have to be careful. The expectation levels are much higher now, people come in with a certain vision of what they're going to get and you have to deliver. And I used to think at some point this business is going to get easier and I thought, 'Oh, in 10 years I won't be working as hard.' But the whole thing keeps getting dialed up and there's more and more and more expectation, and this sense of trying to see what people want and to deliver on that.

"As a former athlete, you're always challenging yourself to be better, and as a cook, I'm always challenging myself to be better, never to be a dinosaur, never to rest on my laurels, and to continue to reinvent yourself and to stay ahead of the curve as much as possible."

'I'm an Adrenaline Junkie'

English conceded that keeping so many balls in the air might look exhausting. But for him, he said, staying just a little busier than possible is the point.

"There's that crazy, frenetic energy that we thrive on," English said. "I'm an adrenaline junkie -- I love the high of the business. That's what keeps me coming back, and the idea that it's nurturing and it's an immediate thing. People are very happy. They take a bite and you can see that they're having a great time; it's something good, it's something they're excited about. I love the fact that restaurants -- I try to create this in my restaurants -- it's a place where people can get away. It's a little bit of a vacation from everybody's hectic life and their day. ... I think that's what food and wine bring to us as a human culture -- that sense of nurturing, that sense of place, that sense of grounding sensibility. And I love that that's what I do for a living."

English said success depends on having an accurate view of the self and on finding capable lieutenants.

"As a chef, you need to have a really good strong sense of the business," he said. "You also need to know what you're good at and what you're not good at. As an entrepreneur and as a chef, I need to have people that work with me that are good at that and can handle it. I can sort of guide the business, but I need someone that's going to be there and that can drive it every day. And I like to be the dreamer, the one that thinks about what's next. And if I bog myself down in things that aren't what I do best, then it ends up really kind of stifling what I do."

There's a simple test for whether a restaurant's working, said English: Are the clients enjoying themselves?

"There's a sense that [diners are] having a good time, and that's what it's always been about for me," the chef said. "I don't want people sitting in their suit and tie in a stiff eating experience around the table. It's about rolling up your sleeves. I think I get this from my Italian side or even working in Italy for awhile. It is about relaxing and enjoying yourself and letting your guard down. Have a glass of wine and chill out and relax don't worry about it. That, to me, is how I judge if I'm accomplishing the goals that I want to accomplish, and that's what it's about."

For all his professional success, there is one goal, English said, that still is out of reach.

"I have a lot of restaurants," English said, "and I keep thinking I can just have that one restaurant and have eight tables that I open up twice a week and that's it, and not run around the country with my head cut off trying to keep everything going and ... um, be careful what you wish for."

A final question, once more Cupid-related: We asked English about his reputation as a babe magnet.

"It's funny, because I don't think of myself that way," English said. "It's about more of what I do, and that's the allure of it to me. I think cooking is sexy when it's done right. There's this English chef I love who sucks her finger when she's tasting something, and I think that's so sexy. So I think it's more about what I do than me.

"And I will always profess that when you cook from your heart and not your head, that's when it's best."