Read an Excerpt
TODD PUTS HIS WORDS ON A PLATE
Sally: Where did you start in order to end up where you are today?
Todd: One night, when I was fourteen, I stopped by to see my friend Ivan. He was working at a little Mexican place in Branford, Connecticut, and he asked if I had plans for the evening thinking he had something great in mind, I said that I had none. Instead, he said that his dishwasher was sick and asked if I could help out. There was no "dishwasher"; you washed pots and plates and silverware by hand. I just jumped right in and for some strange reason, I really loved it. I don't know why well, okay, you got as much free beer as you wanted.
Todd: There was a family feeling that I liked. There was energy and camaraderie and at the end of the night, a great sense of accomplishment. I liked it so much that when Ivan offered me the job, I took it and washed dishes for three to four months. When I turned fifteen, I got promoted to prep cook and made chips and meat sauce and chopped whatever was needed for the next day. I continued working all through high school.
Sally: Is cooking in your blood?
Todd: Definitely. Well, I haven't always had the confidence to believe that it was there because I'm the kind of person who watches and observes and learns but in the end, I have to do it my own way. That's scary, because I'm always throwing myself out there rather than relying on the tried and true.
When I was a child we used to visit my great-grandmother, Bettina, and my great-grandfather, Rosario, in their home in Kent [Connecticut]. I remember going in their small, dark bedroom and seeing pasta drying on her bed. She rolled pasta dough around a knitting needle to make tubular pasta. She also made little ravioli and gnocchi. She let me stand on a stool next to her and show me what she was doing. Bettina was from Calabria and there were always lots of tomato-based meat braises and roasts. We ate antipasto first, then a pasta dish, and then a roast or a meat. Quintessential Italian cooking. She used to let me sip off the wooden spoon I can still taste those sauces in my mind.
I took home economics in high school, but I only went to two classes. We made cakes from boxes, and I went straight to the counselor and said, "This class is not for me, I don't make cakes from boxes." I knew in my heart that it wasn't right.
Sally: Why did you go to cooking school?
Todd: I took cooking very seriously. It made sense to formalize what I had learned, but I didn't really know what I was getting into. I learned early on that you get out what you put in and I happened to be ready to go in 100 percent. Actually, I realized how little I really knew.
I went to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] because it had the best reputation. What you can gain in ten years of experience, you can get in two years of schooling. But it's not practical experience. They have state-of-the-art equipment, especially at Greystone [the new facility in Napa Valley] but, let's face it, it's not reality. Chances are that you graduate and get a job in a really nice restaurant and work on a range that you have to light with a piece of paper or the burners get clogged or your mise en place is floating in a pool of melted ice. The reality is that you're not working in perfect conditions but you have to perform as if you were.
Sally: When you hire a cook, do you care whether they've gone to cooking school?
Todd: It helps, but it's not absolutely essential. It shows a commitment to cooking as a profession, but I don't think that the only good cooks come out of cooking school. The more perspective you have, the better. Cooking is an interpretation of one's experiences and one's knowledge.
Without schooling, what I'm interested in is that they've had some experience and are willing to learn. I also want people who have an athletic background, because it enables them to have an understanding of teamwork. It also means they have stamina, good hand-eye coordination, agility, and the drive to be in shape, all qualities that help in a kitchen. At least in mine.
Sally: What's the difference between an okay cook and a great one?
Todd: You've got to love being a cook. You either dive into it and you live it and breathe it and dream about it or you don't. You have to have the drive and you have to have something to prove. Part of being a great cook or chef is knowing who you are and what you're about.
Sally: There was a time when being a chef was not as appealing as it is now. Now, being a chef is not only well respected but glamorous, even sexy.
Todd: There's a certain energy you get while cooking. It probably makes you exude endorphins. It's a high that's kind of sexy when things are really pumping and you're feeling creative. Other than great sex, there's nothing like it. It's a kind of excitement that's addictive. I've talked to a lot of chefs about this-we're all junkies on this high, which is probably why we do what we do and work the kind of hours we work.
Sally: Are you talking about the thrill that comes from being in the limelight?
Todd: No. I hope that glamour isn't what attracts people to becoming chefs. If you're in it for the glamour, that's the wrong reason. You're not going to last; you've got to love it.
Sally: What was it like working at La Câote Basque [in Manhattan] in its heyday?
Todd: I have never been so nervous in my life. I used to wake up sick to my stomach. I was terrified that I couldn't perform. I had never stepped foot in a kitchen quite like it. Either you ran and jumped on the fast train or you got off. So I ran and ran.
La Câote Basque had just reopened with Jean-Jacques Rachou as the chef and he was doing a combination of nouvelle and classical cuisine. At that time, nouvelle was Rolled and Poached Sole with Kiwi Slices and lots of raspberry sauces. Salmon with Mango Beurre Blanc. I liked his rustic dishes best. Like cassoulet, osso buco, and simple roasted chicken. I loved his sense of aesthetics. I got a lot of practical training, not only in the classical sense but also in production, because we really had to crank it out.
Sally: Were you married then?
Todd: No, Olivia and I got married in 1986. We met in 1982, when we were both students at the CIA. I took her picture for her school ID. You know, love at first snap. She cooked for a while but I don't think she ever really loved it. We moved to Boston in 1984 to work with Michela [Larson, owner of the former Michela's in Cambridge, Massachusetts] and when the opportunity came for her to run the front, she grabbed it. Olivia knew that it was the better fit for her and with our personalities, it was better for us not to compete. I got the job as the sous chef and went off to Italy for a while to study Italian cooking.
Sally: Cooking in restaurants in Italy must have been an incredible experience in every way.
Todd: When I came back from Italy, I knew that even though I wanted to be authentic, it wasn't going to work for the American palate. I used northern regional cooking as a base and went on to discover my own interpretation of what I had seen and tasted. For example, we would take a simple roast loin of rabbit with a balsamic vinegar glaze, then serve it over polenta and with roasted radicchio and some sort of green. In Italy you would be served these dishes on three separate plates, but we served them all on one, layering the flavors.
Sally: So when people see your food, they think it's very wacky when in fact...
Todd:...it's traditional. When I cook, I believe in evoking some sort of memories. Some people are more adventurous and some are more staid. Some people live to eat and some eat to live, but when it comes down to it, everyone is looking for a certain sensation: food is to satisfy your soul. But it has to have a combination of comfort, refinement, and newness.
Sally: And yet today you made a great simple grilled scallop dish and you had to add another level to it, a walnut paste, and then put that on top of something else. Each element may be simple, but what you do is not exactly simple when it's all said and done.
Todd: Olives is about the foods that you don't eat on a normal basis. Recognizable and yet foreign. The scallop dish: chances are, if I'm eating the scallops at home I'm going to eat them alone, but in the context of Olives and this cookbook, it's making things that are a little more special.
Sally: You don't want people to eat at Olives and walk away and say, "! could do that," and yet aren't you instructing them to with this cookbook?
Todd: Well, there's still nothing like eating out. But more seriously, the more knowledge we have of food (or anything), the more sophisticated we become and the better things will be. I want this book to enable people to take simple ingredients and make them more interesting, more elaborate, more fun.
Sally: How did Olives evolve?
Todd: It was time to leave Michela's. It had been three years and I knew I wanted to do my own thing. I left in October and we had a thousand dollars in the bank; we had one month to figure out what we were going to do. We started catering, and by December we had made enough money to go to Europe for two weeks. We gathered ideas and things for the restaurant, including three thousand dollars' worth of copper pots, although we still didn't have money or a location. By February we found a location and we got a bank loan, and on April twenty-seventh we opened up.
Sally: Why the name Olives?
Todd: I had just seen my uncle and he talked about the olive farms in Italy that my great-great-grandparents had owned. At first we thought we might call it Oliva ("olives" in Italian) or Olivia (after Olivia), but we decided on Olives and to keep the name American because we were in America. The whole concept of Olives was of cooking food from where olives grow. The whole Mediterranean belt.
This idea had been brewing inside me for a long time. I had dreamed about it. I wanted to do a wood-burning stove and a rotisserie. We wanted to model it after the neighborhood bistros in France and the family trattorias in Italy. The places I remember the most are not the three-star restaurants, but the ones off the beaten path the secret, undiscovered places with quality food and excitement.
Sally: You may have modeled yourself after that but that's not really Olives, is it?
Todd : We were for a while, and in a way, we still are. I think of myself that way. What makes these restaurants great is that they have a clear definition of what they are, and I believe that it gives them longevity. And that is what Olives is.
When we opened we were like a ma-and-pa restaurant: open kitchen, fifty seats, me cooking. Olivia in front, one other cook, and two waiters. We started out with very rustic, undertoned country cooking. As our clientele base grew, they demanded more and more refinement and it made me discover just how far I could go with the food.
Sally: What was on the first menu and how did you decide upon it?
Todd: There were a few classic things that I just wanted to have like spitroasted chicken and it just grew from there: tortelli with butternut squash and the Olives tart. Pizza. Roasts and whole fish. I had never worked with a brick oven before and I was really excited about it and I just cooked and cooked and cooked.
Sally: What happened the first day that you opened?
Todd: The first day, we invited neighborhood people and friends in as our guests. I think it was a Saturday and we closed Sunday and Monday and finished painting the walls. We opened on Tuesday to about a hundred people and it just never stopped. It was wild.
I'll never forget our first really big night. Just Paul [O'Connell, now the chef/owner of Providence, in Brookline, and Chez Henri, in Cambridge] and I were cooking. We cooked for about a hundred and forty people. Michela and Jasper [White, chef and owner of the former Jasper's, in Boston] and Jimmy [Burke, chef and owner of the Tuscan Grill, in Waltham] all came in. It seemed like the whole restaurant community was there.
Sally: You weren't prepared for that?
Todd: No. In fact, I designed the kitchen so that I could do it myself. If no one came, it wasn't going to be a big problem. I could reach everything standing anywhere. I could reach the grill, the stove, the oven.
Sally: Who do you respect in the food industry?
Todd: Fredy Girardet [a famous three-star chef in Switzerland], because he has a reputation for being the best at what he does. The Troisgros brothers. Some of the older chefs who have practiced their craft for so many years. People who are always changing and evolving.
Sally: What do you like to eat?
Todd: Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Dark-roasted coffee. Sandwiches-there's something cool about eating foods with your hands. Smoked salmon and poached eggs on Sunday morning, although not necessarily together. I'm intrigued with mustards. I always try to keep pasta and good canned beans around. Grilling fish in the summer. I love peanut butter and jelly.
Sally: Welch's grape?
Todd: High-quality cherry preserves. Blueberry preserves.
Sally: What's dinner like in your house?
Todd: Chaotic. The truth is, I'm never there. I don't know. I mean I hear it's chaotic.
Sally: What's your favorite thing to cook?
Todd : Rabbit. It is the most elegant meat there is.
Sally: Your favorite thing to eat in a restaurant?
Todd: Sushi. Number one, because it's so different from what I do. I've always had a fantasy of opening up a sushi restaurant. And number two, it's pure, clean, and simple, in a certain way.
Sally: What influences you the most?
Todd: I don't know. I get a lot of ideas from traveling. I recently went to Israel and when I came back, I started cooking a lot of different hummus dishes. I reinterpreted a lot of what I saw or infused it with my own style.
I love reading old cookbooks. And the cookbooks of my peers, but I try to envision my own thing.
Sally: Which is? Can you describe it?
Todd: How do you answer that question? It's Mediterranean-inspired. It's layered, complex. It's refined rustic.
Sally: A contradiction in terms.
Todd: I like to reinterpret, but I think that what is most important in cooking is the personal side. That's the beauty and the art of it. You can't be afraid of it I'm more able to express myself that way and take more chances. The thing about cooking is that you really put your heart and soul on the plate.
It's interpretive Mediterranean cooking. The ingredients are from here, but I rework them with a Mediterranean sensibility: taking what you have from down the road and cooking it.
Sally: Can you cook Mediterranean food without Mediterranean ingredients?
Todd: Absolutely, although I don't think you can cook it without olive oil.
Sally: How do you feel about people who say that something you make isn't authentic and traditional?
Todd: Tradition provides guidelines. It's a good start and there are reasons things were done a certain way. But...I can make something authentic and it may not taste good. If it's authentic and it's good, then I will make it authentic, but if it's authentic and I think I can make it better, then I will.
Sally: So, what's the bottom line?
Todd: I've been studying for fifteen years, I've traveled to many places and sampled lots of cultures and cuisines. The true heart and soul of food should not be overintellectualized to the point where food becomes cerebral. The most important thing is that food should taste good, and that's something you just feel. Once you begin to feel it, you won't ever have to think about it again and it just becomes natural. After all, it's only food.
Text copyright © 1997 by Todd English and Sally Sampson