I’ve always been a fan of Todd English, ever since attending the opening party for his D.C. restaurant, MXDC. It was there, oh so many years ago, that I met the famous chef as he made his way through his adoring guests at the tequila-fueled bash.
I liked his style—his restaurants have an energy and a sense of sophisticated fun, but the food is not overwhelmingly pretentious in its presentation or taste. And, let’s be real, his parties tip-toe the edge of wild revelry. So I was delighted to be invited to check out Ça Va Brasserie, his restaurant just off Times Square, for a special charitable pre-fixe dinner and a chance to chat.
You see, Chef Todd lost his sister, Wendy, to breast cancer nearly a decade ago, and so he devotes the month of October to raising money for the foundation that he started in her honor, The Wendy English Cancer Research Foundation. Of course, he does this the best way he knows how—through his kitchen, where he whipped up the most creative and delectable pink dishes for a five-course dinner of which 10 percent of the proceeds were donated.
The dinner was full of delights, and every course was like a pink painting—from the seared foie gras that had a rolled-up pink lady apple balanced on top, to the raspberry-stuffed rose macarons with riesling ice wine. We especially loved the brioche crusted wild salmon, with lobster beurre blanc and caviar.
But to top off the meal, we got a visit from the chef himself. Not just a quick table-skirting media-smiley chat and handshake, but a sit-down, order-tequila-cocktails hour-long love fest. I was thrilled. It was real, quality time with Chef Todd, and we talked about life and love and food and the tragedy of siblings with cancer (my brother battled, as well).
Here’s just a bit of our incredible conversation over cocktails.
How often are you in New York? I know you live here, but how often are you actually here?
I know I travel a lot, but one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is to consolidate it. When I go away, I get the most out of it. If I go to Vegas or LA, I consolidate it to four or five days a week and come back, and I’m back for three or four weeks at a time.
I really like being in New York. I like being here in my restaurants; I like working with my chefs; I like going to the markets and I like the seasons. I’ve really learned how to manage it over time.
What do you think is different about the culture of restaurants New York as opposed to where you’re opening up restaurants elsewhere? Why are your restaurants here different?
Wow. Okay. Let’s just talk about New York as a market. You’re obviously New Yorkers; you understand that New York is about very high demands and very serious competition. I would never say that New York is better; I don’t think that in any sense. New York is about trendsetting in a fashionable sense. And food, fashion, whatever you want to say, does it always happen here first? I don’t know that anymore.
I think that it could happen on the West Coast. I think it could happen in many different places. It could happen in Europe, Barcelona, or Denmark. I will say that New York has a very short attention span with everything. So, one needs to capture New York quickly. That is the difference with the rest of the world.
I would say New York is probably less forgiving than the rest of the world, so you need to wow them very quickly. And I would say that’s the beauty and excitement of New York. The decision is made very quickly; it can be design of a restaurant, it can be the way they’re greeted, or the way the service is. It’s not just one aspect of the whole dining experience. That’s what makes New York the leader of the dining world in many ways.
With new restaurants outside of New York, do you feel like you’re bringing that New York sensibility or are you evolving your restaurants there to be more acclimated to the culture they’re in?
One of the most intuitive questions I’ve ever been asked! It’s a great question. So here’s how it works: New York is the most amazing billboard for a restaurant. I think a lot cultures look to New York as an example of what they feel they want, wherever it is. It can be things like Tao or Lavo and now they say, “We want to create this at a casino, we want to create this in our world here. We want to bring that edge of whatever it is that we created in New York to our culture.”
But, I believe—and I’m going to step out on a limb a little bit—that a lot of people want that, but those that want it can come to New York and get it; they can afford to do that, so they don’t want to diss their local culture. They want to be able to absorb whatever it is.
For a long time when I began expanding into other markets, it was sort of a little bit of resentment from the locals in certain cities. When we went to Chicago it took Chicagoans a long time, and I’m still not even 100 percent sure they want to have a New York chef or an LA chef. Wolfgang opened in Chicago and it was the hottest place, then all of a sudden not.
You opened a restaurant in D.C. …
Yes, and we were very hot for a long time, but we were very local. I think you have to absorb the local culture. That’s the most important thing. And that’s what has been making it harder to expand, because you have to really embrace whomever it is your customer is.
Are they going to go to the local chef or me who’s from New York? What am I offering that’s different than the local chef? And guess what? The local chef is probably in his restaurant. So you have to be very careful these days.
You have to be very strategic about what is the concept you’re putting in and how do you deliver that concept. Is it different enough? Is it generally accepted? My food halls are generally accepted and can be accepted in many cultures, as long as you bring in enough of the local. That’s the tricky part right now. That’s where it’s all changing.
Tell us about your love for olives and figs. You’ve named two restaurants after them.
Not to be confused with Fig & Olive, right? I just love the cultures around where olives and figs traditionally grow. So Mediterranean, though you could say California, Mexico, or even China, but that’s not the point. I love Mediterranean cooking. I feel it’s the food of the people, the people I love, and it’s a food I love eating on a daily, lifestyle basis. It can be very simple, and most the time it is. It’s one of the healthiest cuisines.
I used to work with the Harvard School of Public Health and they used to talk about the culture around Mediterranean cuisine and these remote villages in Greece that would have the longest life longevity. They’d be 98 years old, and it had to do with a cup of olive oil and two glasses of wine every day—and not a lot of stress.
That’s what I love. It’s not fussy. I come from the school of working in classical French restaurants because that’s how I grew up. But how do you take these techniques from all over the world and the cultures and put them on the plate to create something that is interesting and simpatico? It’s not easy, and I think our work is getting harder and harder to continue to create what’s next.
I have to ask you about brunch. Where do you brunch in New York?
I was thinking about that, because I knew you’d ask. I go to the Rainbow Room.
What do you love about it?
It’s classic and traditional. Obviously great views. It has music playing. It has sushi. It’s international. I was just overwhelmed.
What do you look for when you’re looking for brunch?
I want a focused style. I want a fun time. I want it to be about family. I want it to be about the simplicity of that. Though I must say, when I’m traveling in Asia and go to brunch there, there are a lot of things going on, but I just want to sit down and I want to have a great time; I don’t want to have to think about it. I don’t think Sundays are about thinking.
I was brought up in the South. I’m a Georgia boy; I grew up in Atlanta. I used to go with a friend of mine to this little town in south Georgia. It was very religious and southern and it was a Sunday supper. All the relatives would put stuff on the table: a roast ham and a roast turkey. It was about the feeling of that and that sense of community—that, to me, is what brunch is about.
Brunch is about the community of having fun. It’s about each other’s company and whatever it turns out to be. In New York it can be a party, but it’s just the community of fun.
So when you’re crafting your brunch menus, what are you telling your chefs?
Make it fun, simple, local, and seasonal. Don’t kill yourself; brunch is not about this gastronomic crazy experience. It’s not about 12 courses. It’s a little bite of that. It’s the best peach cobbler you ever had in your life. The best creamed corn. That’s what brunch is. And being with your friends and your family.
So what’s next for you?
There are always a million things going on. I believe there’s this health movement. I believe there’s this fountain of youth thing that’s going on in our lives. I think there’s this world of us trying to figure out how to cook at home. I think everyone is very busy.
I’m worried that there’s a whole generation that’s going to be not cooking. I don’t think a lot of people are cooking. Everyone is working really hard. Who’s cooking? Nobody!
I’m worried that we’re losing our identity as cooks. Who is going to remember a meatball recipe that our grandmother taught us? My kids just recently said, “Dad, I don’t think I’ve ever made your meatballs!” So I taught them.
When do people cook and have dinner parties? I do them as often as I can. Who knows how to make a proper pancake or French toast? Have you ever made a real omelet?
I’ve tried to…
I was in Boston with my daughter, and she’s doing this catering business and we cooked all day. It was great! Family and food, that’s what it’s all about.