Celebrity chef Todd English opens up about Abu Dhabi restaurant

“I try to be pioneering,” proclaimed Todd English, as he reached out for his fourth cup of coffee that afternoon

Sudeshna Ghosh
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“I try to be pioneering,” proclaimed Todd English as he reached out for his fourth cup of coffee that afternoon, in a bid to get over his jet lag after a long-haul flight from Boston. We were chatting in a Dubai Media City café, ahead of a few days’ stint in his Abu Dhabi restaurant, Olives, for Todd. “I like to get in on the ground floor and this setting was a great backdrop,” he continued, on the regional outpost of his flagship concept. Olives, which opened in Venetian Village in June 2015, offers Italian-meets-Mediterranean-meets-American cuisine, with dishes ranging from pastas and brick-oven pizzas, to steak and rotisserie grills.

His pioneering spirit is probably what’s behind this American celebrity chef’s decision to make his Middle Eastern foray via the UAE capital, rather than its starrier neighbor Dubai. “The UAE is a real melting pot, and I find the Middle East to be very open to new ideas,” he explains. He also has two restaurants in Kuwait.

He definitely seems to have enjoyed his 18 odd months of having a presence in the region, as, with the imminent opening of a new outlet in Abu Dhabi airport and further down the line, a food hall in Dubai Mall, it looks like he’s here to stay.

This may be the furthest afield the multiple James Beard-award winning chef has come, but he is a global chef if there ever was one. While his roots lie in Italian-inspired Mediterranean food, he’s turned his hand to many other cuisines, from Mexican to European-style pub grub.

When I quiz him about staying true to a cuisine through all this diversity, he explains, “it’s more about authenticity in technique rather than ingredients, really. I achieve this by making sure I have the right people in my team [i.e: from a specific region that the cuisine belongs to] and also with lots of study.”

What remains common through all his restaurants is his faithfulness to “heart-warming food” and passion for quality ingredients. Here too, he is reinforcing his commitment to the region by exploring options of sourcing produce locally for Olives, saying, “we are starting to get local, hydroponically produced ingredients here now, which is impressive. It’s a process though, but I’m definitely interested in looking into it.

“I love seeing the young chefs in smaller towns in the US, doing things with inspiration of that region,” he continues, once I’ve started him talking about ingredients and produce, something he’s clearly passionate about.

As one of the veterans of the celeb chef business, he started out in the late 1980s, long before being a chef was as fashionable as it is today. He’s seen and done it all, from heading up a restaurant empire spanning the US and beyond, to selling kitchen gear, writing cookbooks and being on TV. Many times over. And the new frontier for anyone in food is, of course, social media, which too he seems all set to take on.

“It’s a motivator to constantly pursue glory,” he muses. “But social media glory will never replace awards. Or, what is even more important for me, a customer leaving my restaurant happy.”

On that note, I leave him to down his coffee, and head back to his restaurant to make sure that his UAE customers continue to stay happy.

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