Interview with Chef Todd English of Kingfish Hall – Boston, MA

October 2011

Tina Fiore: When you were younger, you had dreams of being a baseball player…
Todd English: I played from the time I was seven years old. My father was my first baseman coach. I had opportunities that I never really pursued — with some Miami teams and a few larger colleges, and then I ended up bailing and began cooking.

TF: What was it about cooking that you loved most?
TE: I liked the energy, the action, the camaraderie… I often compare the kitchen to sports and compare the chef to a coach. There are a lot of similarities to it.

TF: You’re coaching a huge team!
TE: Yeah, although really I only coach a few, but it’s definitely a trip and a challenge to get everybody going in the same direction.

TF: Have you had a lot of the same people working for you over the years?
TE: I have actually been very fortunate having the same people. The cooks come and go, but basically the management has stayed the same.

TF: One of your biggest challenges must be hiring… how have you found your core staff over the years?
TE: Sometimes it’s recruiting; sometimes it’s bringing them up through the ranks. They come in as either bussers or line cooks, and then as they progress, I move them up to give them new challenges. That’s part of what I’m doing too — with the growth (restaurant expansion), I have the opportunity to give people new challenges.

TF: Do you have any kind of incentive or benefit programs for your staff?
TE: Yeah, we definitely do. Certain key people are tied to profit-sharing… and lots of trips. We try to do a lot of extra-curricular activities. We went over to Italy for a big wine expo - there were about 7 or 8 of the chefs and a couple of wine guys. We were in a van and we drove around and we ate and we drank until we couldn’t do it anymore. It was fun. We visited some wineries and went to markets — a little culinary tour of Venice and Fruili.

TF: What was your original inspiration when you started out? Why Olives? Why Charlestown, MA?
TE: We opened up in 1989. The economy wasn’t great. Boston seemed to be ready, but I wasn’t sure about having new restaurants. How I landed in Boston, I don’t know. I lived and worked in New York for years, but I just got a job (in Boston) and ended up realizing there’s a great market here and it’s a nice lifestyle and there are a lot of interesting people that I thought could be customers. Having been to Europe and working and traveling there, the restaurants my wife and I remember were always off the beaten trail restaurants. So I tried to seek a little "off the beaten trail," but cool area. Boston is made up of a bunch of neighborhoods really, so we found Charlestown - they were just redoing it and there was an interesting little main street with gas lamps. It was quaint; it had a really nice thing going on there. So, I had the opportunity. I opened up the restaurant… and the rest is history.

TF: What were some of the challenges you faced starting out, some of the lessons you learned?
TE: Well, I had always been in the kitchen and had some management experience, but I never ran the front nor ran a whole restaurant. Some of the things I think I learned from that were very educational as far as just paying bills - the basics in dealing with a restaurant like that. It was just life — the education involved in running the organization, even on a small level. I always say that I feel like I’m in my own case study at the Harvard Business School. I’ve learned by trial and error; I’ve made some mistakes, and decisions on paying bills, learning how to buy and put in kitchen equipment, learning how the cash flow works or how to read a P & L, negotiating leases, and learning how to do all those things — you don’t really know (when starting out). Those are all important things from the business standpoint. So the thing I think I’ve probably learned most about (running) a business is continuing to also learn about cooking and what people want.

TF: Many of our younger users aspire to become professional chefs, but wonder what route to take… what would your advice be to them? If you were to do it over, would you have taken the same path?
TE: I think you have to find your favorite restaurant, or find a restaurant you like, get to know the people, and ask them if you can volunteer. Most people will let you do that, observe, hang out in the kitchen, see what you’re getting into. Tell them the reason why you want to do it. I think a lot of people have a misconception of what the kitchen is about, but you know the grueling part of it is also the pleasure of it. That’s why I think you have to have a certain mentality to understand what that is and be able to handle it. It’s like professional athletes — when you see a great golfer swing a golf club or a great tennis player swing a racquet - they make it look so easy. The kitchen is the same thing — if it’s a professional kitchen, they can make it look a lot easier than it is, and when you really get in there you realize that it’s not that easy.

TF: You are always experimenting with different types of ingredient combinations… Do you still go into the kitchen with a bunch of ingredients simply to see what you can do with them?
TE: Absolutely. That’s always a passion — it’s what keeps me going everyday. There are visions that come at different times. The other day I was thinking of tuna, and then I was thinking of Tuna au Poivre - I was thinking about aromatic flavors. So, I thought, what if we take tuna steaks and bury them in peppercorns, coriander and red peppers and roast it that way. I haven’t done it yet, but things like that come to mind. It’s almost like salt-roasting, but it’s pepper-roasting.

I’m hoping to do a lot of experimentation at the W (Hotel) in New York at Union Square where we’re going to be doing the breakfast. It’ll be opening in November. It’s designed by David Rockwell. I’m very excited about the opportunity, but I’m thinking also of the idea of writing breakfast menus, which I really haven’t done a lot of because I’ve been working in restaurants and not necessarily hotels. I’m looking forward to it — I don’t like to cook eggs — but I like the idea of doing some different things and to get people psyched up for breakfast in a new light.

TF: Do you find it a little intimidating opening Olives in New York - the most competitive restaurant city in the world?
TE: Yeah, I’m definitely nervous and excited. I feel like I’ve been playing off-Broadway, not to say that Boston doesn’t have a great theatre district or great theatre, but it’s not going to Broadway; it’s just a different city.

TF: It has been said that your name has become a brand in itself… Describe the philosophy behind this "brand" in your cuisine, service, etc.
TE: Someone asked me that the other day… and it kind of struck me as odd, but in a way that’s sort of what the mission of this is. It really is about creating a system or a structure or a signature that’s your signature, your trademark — your brand, so to speak — that people recognize as a certain style or quality. So that when people hear your name or your product, one thing comes to their minds — usually, hopefully, it means quality or it’s something that people understand. As in anything, like people say Kleenex, and everybody knows what that is. That’s what the inspiration is - by creating this brand, you’re creating this institution of whatever this Todd English thing is and that’s what people will associate as a certain level of quality, a certain level of prestige — whatever registers in their minds. It really is about being able to build a bigger foundation and a bigger company, and tap into other markets besides just cooking the food plate by plate. The business of cooking, the plate by plate business, which is the restaurant business is hard - you can’t do it forever. That’s the idea of why we’re building a brand.

TF: Do you have difficulty maintaining your reputation? It must be hard to keep control over every area of your business.
TE: It is, but one thing that should always be associated (with Chef English’s restaurants) is there’s always a style or a fashion — that there’s that one thing that stands out, whatever it might be. It might be the color, the plating style, the layering (of food) — whatever the style is, that it really does represent who I am.

TF: How do you go about hiring chefs/sous chefs/pastry chefs? Is there a training/orientation period? Are you open to allowing the chefs experiment with the cuisine — making up specials for the night, etc?
TE: Yes, we have a training period; we have certain guidelines and structure. You can’t hire talented people and stifle them. That’s not the way it works anymore. We’re talking about an industry that’s really changing, really moving — we have to look at it very differently now. If you don’t look at it differently, you’re not going to maximize the potential of it. You have to use the talent you have, use the people because the bottom line is that this business is still a people business and always will be.

TF: Have you had a consistent relationship with specific purveyors throughout the years? Which ones?
TE: I’ve had a lot of the same purveyors. There’s a guy in Boston that I buy from, his name is Kim Marden (Captain Marden's in Wellesley, MA) — he’s an amazing fish purveyor. He’s very, very conscientious - he’s very much into taking care of his customers, going to the smaller boats in Gloucester and buying the day-boat fish. And in Boston, he can really get some good stuff.

TF: You’ve become involved in many forms of media — TV, books, Internet — have you taken advantage of the technological revolution in your restaurants?
TE: We’re trying to get hooked up with this new Internet service, which films with live cameras in the kitchens connected to the Internet. We’ll actually be putting it in Kingfish Hall (opened July 1 in Boston) and in Washington (Olives Restaurant). I’ll be able to dial them up anywhere I want and see what’s going on in the kitchen.

TF: Tell us a little about Kingfish Hall.
TE: It’s basically a fish house. I call it an old-fashioned seafood house for the new millennium. We are trying to update what we know as old fish houses and places like that, which are great, but I want to give it a new, fresh look with updated versions of the classics we all love.

TF: On a different note, as a father of three, how do you balance your personal and professional life?
TE: I say, "Kids, it’s quality not quantity." I don’t know how else to do it today. I have certain ambitions and we want to do certain things with our life. My daughter Isabelle came home the other day, she’s 7, and she’d written an essay at school. She said, "You know I don’t see my dad a lot, but he’s a chef and when he is around, it’s great and we also get to go to really cool places."

TF: When you have a family get-together, do your kids help you out in the kitchen?
TE: Sometimes, I try to get them working. My older son is 10 and he’s pretty interested. We had a dinner party the other night and he helped a lot. He helped peel asparagus; he hung out. It was great.

TF: What do you think is the best way to get kids into cooking — to get them to try new things?
TE: Like anything, you don’t force it on them. It just becomes part of life — have them be around it, keep them informed — talk about it. I try to relay my passion for it in these ways. The second you try to force anything on your own kid, they rebel.

TF: Do you have any plans to open restaurants abroad?
TE: We’re looking at London as an opportunity.

TF: Any other future plans, besides taking a well-deserved break?
TE: That would be a good one! We’re working on the television shows. I’m also working on a cooking academy, which will be a combination of a school for the chefs in my company with a school with classes for adults with different cooking stations - learning how to make drinks, working with wood-burning ovens — things like that. We have a lot of things in the works.