One of New York’s most renown charismatic chefs and tastemakers, Todd English, grew up with eating at the core of his young life. Now, 30 years later he is still a dynamic force in the restaurant and food milieus. English has won a laundry list of awards and accolades, authored four award-winning cookbooks, started his own cookware line and opened a bunch of successful restaurants. The eclectic Todd English Food Hall, housed in The Plaza Hotel (where Trader Vic’s once sat), is his latest passion and encompasses nine different but popular cuisines all housed in an elegant but masculine space at encourages social gatherings.
How did you discover your passion as a chef?
My passion for food started in the ’70s. I was brought up in a family [my mother’s Italian side] that loves food and loves to cook. My father’s side also loves to cook things like barbecue, so I was brought up with food at the center of my life, and I became infatuated with it. When I was 9, my mom and I would make ice cream with fresh local Georgia peaches, and I would grill — my grandmother would make lasagnas. I think we chefs all get here in different ways, but it all happens because we have that passion for food and for me it is still a passion. I’m, very fortunate.
How did your career begin?
When I started to cook, I didn’t originally see it as a profession or a career. It wasn’t until I started college that I decided to take some time off and go work for a European-American chef. He helped me a lot.
When did you begin seeing cooking as a profession?
I had the great fortune of spending a lot of time with Julia Child. In my early years [as a fledging chef ] she was very encouraging. It was so amazing that I spent time with her, and she encouraged young American chefs [like me] to follow their passion. I believe she is the one that made the label of “chef” into a white-collar profession.
Do you have an iconic dish you became known for or, that people ask you for?
No, but I do love Italian food. It is very easy to see Italian food as being only one cuisine, but really it’s very much a regional thing. I love the different regions of Italy and the tastes that originate there. I actually just came back from three months at the Alba Truffle Festival and ate kilos of white truffles!
What do you think is a big trend now in terms of restaurants in New York?
Certainly the emphasis on natural ingredients ranging from fast to casual to high-end cuisine. As far as flavors go, certainly Asian flavors are very popular, and I think modern-day restaurants are about eating in a luxurious environment.
What is the concept of your food hall?
Years ago, food halls and markets developed to feed the people in the markets. It was very “homey.” Now, the types of food in markets are about bringing a melting pot of America together in one space. Cities, especially in New York, brought cultures, cuisines, traditions and philosophies on food to one spot. What Americans call Italian food here is an adaptation of what Italians brought to America. You don’t really see chicken Parmesan in Italy! It’s a collection of ideas with locally sourced ingredients and top quality. It’s about having options, and that is what I for Food Hall. At one table you’ll see a wanted flatbread pizza followed by a plate of sushi and a plate of tapas and sliders or dumplings — everyone can order the cuisine they want. Sharing is very required with dining now.
What does food mean to you?
I believe food is one of our greatest democracies. We should all have the opportunity to go out for a “fancy” meal, but I want my food hall to be a place where everyone feels at home but it still maintains an elegant atmosphere and great food. I’ve always believed that food brings people together.