Chef interview: Todd English

In conversation with Todd English before the May 2015 opening of Olives

Todd English was in the UAE recently to promote his restaurant in Abu Dhabi, Olives, which is scheduled to open in the third week of May.
Todd English was in the UAE recently to promote his restaurant in Abu Dhabi, Olives, which is scheduled to open in the third week of May.

Rahul Odedra speaks to Todd English before the May 2015 opening of his first Middle East restaurant, Olives, at the Venetian Village in Abu Dhabi, and finds out what keeps this chef ticking

Can you tell us more about the background to Olives in the US?
Olives was my first restaurant in 1989. I come from Italian-American heritage and I loved working in Italy and France, and what I ended up discovering, after travelling around the Mediterranean, is that this food is from where olives grow.

I fell in love with the interpretation of what we know as Mediterranean cooking and figuring all the different nuances, similarities and differences in each of the cultures — but more about the similarities, and just interpreting that style that I brought to America. It’s everything from North African and Moroccan spices, to Italian and French country food, as well as sophisticated food. The bottom line is that it’s olive oil-based cooking. That’s what this is going to be about at Olives.

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Is it being adapted for local tastes in Abu Dhabi?
I think we are going to get a good expat crowd, as well as adapting to what locals are used to. I love spice, and that’s certainly a big part of what’s here. It will be really exciting to dive into what I can find here and interpret it in my own way.

How closely have you been involved in the development of the restaurant?
My son and I have been very involved. I was very involved in the design. We saw some of the finishes, which are coming in and it’s going to be a hip, cool, and fun restaurant.

How have you found the process of getting the right chefs and staff?
We brought in our chef who’s been with me for 17 or 18 years now — Jaime Mendoza. He was with me in Vegas, he opened up Mexico City, he opened up Manila, in Orlando, [was] at my seafood restaurants, so he’s extremely experienced.

And what about getting local chefs to complement that?
We’re in the process of doing that and there is a lot of enthusiasm around. As Abu Dhabi keeps growing as a culinary city, we’re going to see the talent pool raised to a much higher level. We also do some very serious training programmes along the way, so we take that part very seriously. I get asked the question sometimes: ‘who cooks when I’m out of the kitchen?’ It’s the same people who cook when I’m in the kitchen!

What attracted you to Abu Dhabi in the first place?
I see this area and market as a burgeoning city and it really does have a big drive for culinary talent. People here really appreciate it and if you look at Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there’s a very well-travelled crowd. We look at that as being able to open up something that really does make sense. We’ve gotten offers in lots of places and cities but we’re very picky and choosy about where we go, and want to do it right.

Will you look to build on this in the region? Do you have plans for any more outlets in the Middle East?
Eventually. We want to do one at a time. We want to get this one right. We don’t want to not do this one right and in the meantime do another one. We’ve got to get one right and see where it goes.

What do you think about the culinary scene in the UAE at the moment?
It’s happening. It’s rocking. I think you can’t deny that there are lots of exciting things happening, and continue to be happening. We’ve just seen in this complex alone — there’s a lots of exciting things happening. Every day you hear of more things that are opening.

What about the issue of getting hold of the produce, especially local produce? Do you have any challenges on this front?
We have very good representation here that will be choosing our purveyors and that obviously is one of the important things. We are only as good as our ingredients, especially with Mediterranean cooking.

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