By David Landis–
It’s not what they call a British Invasion — it’s an English Invasion. And the Bay Area culinary scene will be all the better for it.
I’m happy to report (in fact, even happier to scoop!) That celebrity chef Todd English (known for his famous Olive’s in Las Vegas and numerous restaurants throughout the country) will be opening a new Olive’s fine dining Italian restaurant in San Francisco, as well as a potential new The English Hotel in downtown Napa.
I’ve been a fan of Chef English since dining years ago at Olive’s in Las Vegas, where I still have fond memories of his signature fig pizza (we also celebrity spotted James Caan, but that’s a different story!). I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the chef who has restaurants (as well as hotels) from Vegas to New York and all points in between, along with his dynamic business partner, Keith Burkard. Here are some highlights:
Gay Gourmet: Todd, how did you get your culinary start?
Todd English: My first professional cooking job was when I was 15 years old. Yes, I started working in kitchens when I was 15, but I really was aspiring to be a baseball player. And I loved playing baseball and was recruited at a number of schools for baseball and also for soccer. So, I pursued that for a little while and ended up getting injured and stepped back a little bit. In those days, there was not the rehabilitation that happens today. I ended up cooking because I loved it and to make a living. I worked under some really cool chefs who taught me the ropes. I worked in European kitchens and around the world. In those days, (you’re talking 1970s and 1980s), there were not a lot of professional American chefs who were doing this, except for some of the French restaurants in New York. I ended up pursuing it, then applying to the Culinary Institute of America, and the rest is history. Once I went to school there, I was convinced that’s what I wanted to do.
Gay Gourmet: Has the pandemic changed the way you think about restaurants?
Todd English: Yeah, very much so. I think about why people go to restaurants. People are very gregarious and want to be with each other and be part of something that is either a dining experience or an entertainment experience. So, we’re really starting to incorporate all those into the restaurants, even at a bigger level. I believe that restaurants will be not only about food, but also very much about a night out, like a Broadway show or a movie or a sporting event.
Gay Gourmet: A lot of our readers head to Vegas to have fun. Tell me a little bit about your restaurants there and what makes them different.
Keith Burkard: Olives is Todd’s marquis restaurant, great tableside dishes, amazing fig pizza (his signature dish), and Italian-Mediterranean cuisine. The Beast at Area15 is an arts / Burning Man theme experience, with immersive activities throughout the facility. The Beast is a sit-down, table-service American-themed restaurant. It has a high concentration on BBQ and smokehouse, meat and non-meat offerings (vegan BBQ, BBQ carrot ribs, cauliflower steaks), Todd’s burgers, sandwiches, and pizzas as well. The Pepper Club is situated in the new English Hotel property. It’s an Asian-fusion restaurant with a full suite of sushi; different American-Italian dishes with Asian accents; and a fun, creative, and engaging cocktail menu as well. Todd and I did the basic design.
Todd English: With The Pepper Club, we tried to combine two of my favorite cuisines to be zones and cuisines that I think are extremely popular. As chefs, we have very creative tools and can make combinations that are different, fun, and exciting — and allow us to have a new perspective on things. The Pepper Club features a combination of Japanese and Mediterranean, two of my favorites. Both have always had a long history of raw fish. Both have had a lot of history of vegetables, deep flavors, and salami flavors. It’s a fun place. It’s just fun. That’s what it is, because I think it needs to be fun and light.
Olives is obviously my original brand from 1989. It was really meant to be an everyday restaurant, a place that you could go if you’re in Vegas, for example, one day for lunch and then a couple of days later for dinner. It’s a gathering place where you can meet at the bar and have a bite if you want to. It’s meant to be a lot of things for a lot of people. So, I think that’s kind of special and it has a lot of fond memories for people. As far as The Beast goes, I think it’s kind of a little bit of everything. It’s got young kids during the day who love the interactive art on the walls and the digital programing there. Then you’ve got a sort of later night grab. The venue features psychedelic fun things that are certainly mind expanding, experimental, and fun. That’s another thing that you’re seeing there. We try to be playful with the food, very Instagrammable — it’s presented differently and it’s fun to look at. Most importantly, it tastes good.
Gay Gourmet: Tell me about the English Hospitality Group (EHG). You’ve gotten into the hotel business, in addition to restaurants. What is the model?
Keith Burkard: During COVID, the craziness that happened, Todd and I teamed up with different backgrounds (his as a culinary innovator and mine in finance, entrepreneurship, design). We thought, let’s work together and create the next wave of hybrid hospitality. We’re already on track as a leading global operator and developer. The English Hotel just launched in Vegas in February. We were able to build it during COVID, it’s been a raging success. We’re positioning a top tier team to execute on identifying real estate possibilities.
Gay Gourmet: Are there any plans for the Bay Area?
Keith Burkard: Todd English’s daughter Belle is a chef for Williams Sonoma and we’re trying to identify a location — an Olives restaurant that creates an Italian cuisine in San Francisco that touches on meats and meatless offerings, especially since Californians are the leaders of culinary innovation.
Gay Gourmet: Would you be opening a hotel in San Francisco?
Keith Burkard: Not the city, but we’re in discussions with potential options in downtown Napa. I’d like to do something not too big.
Gay Gourmet: How have you structured / built the company? What are the hallmarks of an EHG experience?
Keith Burkard: The key hallmarks are an elevated dining experience like no other. We take pride in our dishes, the process, the service, and the offerings we have in all of our restaurants. They are very unique and it creates a memorable experience.
Gay Gourmet: What are your favorite dishes?
Todd English: Well, it’s really difficult to say. It’s like saying, what is my favorite child? I think more about what are my favorite inspirations or my favorite trends or things that I’m pursuing. One of them is that I’m infatuated with vegan barbecue, very excited about smoking and taking vegetables and making them the star of the plate and not necessarily using the Beyond Meats, etc. to do that. I think that making vegetables the main star is the way I like to approach it. So, we do a baby back ribs of carrots where we line up carrots and smoke them for 6 hours with that barbecue glaze. You break them apart and you think, well, maybe I am eating barbecue pork, but it’s real true carrots, sweet, delicious, savory and light, and you feel good eating it. I love combining flavors and spices and ideas around food that really make it impactful. There are only so many ways you can cook curriculum, but when you cook vegetables, there are thousands of ways to do it.
Keith Burkard: I have two favorite dishes — cauliflower parmesan; and a broccoli and cauliflower soup that is amazing.
Gay Gourmet: Keith, I’m going to put you on the spot. Do you have a favorite Todd English restaurant?
Keith Burkard: Olives in the Bahamas—It’s a beautiful restaurant on the bay canal; the weather is perfect; the fish is fresh caught; it’s the ultimate dining experience.
Gay Gourmet: What are your favorite San Francisco restaurants?
Keith Burkard: Altovino in North Beach.
Todd English: Lazy Bear.
Gay Gourmet: What’s happening in New York with your restaurants?
Todd English: Regarding New York: The food hall, New York City Plaza hasn’t reopened and that’s just for a lot of reasons, but certainly we’re trying to get that back open soon. You know, I love that space, and I love the whole idea of it. It was kind of one of the first of its kind here in the States. The definition of a food hall is changing and we’re sort of redeveloping that as we speak. The Park Rose venue in New York is a developing concept as well. We’re hoping that’ll be open in the next year to 18 months. It’s a very exciting space, with a lot of history. It’s in a building that at one point was the tallest building in New York at the turn of the century and does overlook the old City Hall. It’s a very dynamic neighborhood.
Gay Gourmet: What’s next?
Keith Burkard: Going forward, we’re making sure to identify all the key variables in all hospitality. We want to focus on community, art, cuisine, and ultimately employee development. We want to build an ecosystem that empowers and incentivizes employees to grow with the organization over time and own a piece of the action. We want to be that leader in the hospitality industry.
Todd English restaurants: https://tinyurl.com/yc2vnm4r
The English Hotel, Las Vegas: https://theenglishhotel.com/
Readers, please note: The Gay Gourmet is skipping a month of “Bits and Bites,” but look for an expanded “Bits and Bites” feature in my next column.
David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: [email protected] Or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com
Published on June 22, 2022