Can’t stand the heat?

Food & Drink - July 18th, 2003
tokyoweekender_Todd English

by John Domokos

Get into the kitchen. That’s where Weekender caught up with Todd English, doing what he does best.

He has been acclaimed by everyone from the James Beard Foundation to People magazine. He is a regular on TV and is rarely out of the news. In many ways, Todd English is the embodiment of the celebrity chef. But die hype is beginning to bore him. “I don’t know about all of that now,” he tells me. “I’m just a cook.” On hearing that, Weekender got him into his whites to cook up Kobe beef a la English.

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The risotto rice is simmering in white onion oil and chicken stock.

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English, from America, cook­ing Mediterranean…in Japan.

Why Japan? “They love their food here,” he says. “There is so much more food culture than I ever expected.” In other words, he expects his restaurant to be packed out.

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The pan for the mushrooms is very hot- that’s how he likes to do them, with the caramelization adding to the flavor. As they are searing, he adds more olive oil, seasoning, chicken stock and, after a few minutes, some brandy. He casually tosses the flaming pan, “part of the fun and drama of cooking.”

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Todd English

Todd has said he loves the sex appeal of cooking. What’s sexy about cooking? “There’s some­thing about the matching of food and wine. Eating is one of those times in die day when you get away from it all; it’s an oasis in our minds.” And chefs nowadays are showmen. English was large­ly responsible for this change, and his cooking style is suitably flamboyant.

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Another pan is on the go for the Kobe, nice and hot again, not much oil this time. “Season aggressively” is Todd’s motto, as he rolls a marble slab of Kobe beef in his hands with plenty of salt and pepper. “Since I got here, I can’t stop eating this stuff.”

The risotto also gets generous seasoning and a splash of chicken stock. Out come some pureed mushrooms, and the risotto takes on a rich, brown, creamy color as he stirs them in. Into the other pan goes the beef, and before long it is also flaming. Perfect for get­ting a good char on the outside, while keeping it nice and rare on the inside.

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English was a promising baseball player in his teens, swap­ping the bat for the frying pan when he got the chance to help out in the kitchen during school holidays. From the window of Olives (on the 5th floor of Mori Tower), there is a view of a high school baseball field, he tells me, with a note of nostalgia.

And what about the Japanese players in America? “Yeah it’s fun to see. I look forward to the day when the World Series is actually a world series.”

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The mushrooms are ready, nice and al dente. The risotto is also firm to the bite, just right, and ready for what the Italians call “the blessing.” A generous spoon of butter, and a heap of freshly grat­ed Parmesan cheese goes into the mix, and it is whipped off the heat.

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In his remarkable career, English has rubbed shoulders with a wide range of celebrities, from Bill Clinton to “Crazy Bill” Shatner. “Bill’s really out there. People make fun of him, but he did a good job,” he said of Shatner, not Clinton (the former Trekkie was the host when English won the Iron Chef USA cooking showdown).

Clinton is a regular at Olives. “He’s a cool guy, very charismat­ic, and with a good sense of humor. We all know he likes his junk food, and we were going to serve him up a cheeseburger one time, as a joke.”

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Todd has breaded some asparagus tips, which he is about to lightly blanche. After a couple of minutes of being tossed around in extremely hot oil, the poor asparagus are sliced in half on the chopping board.

“We also eat with our eyes,” says Todd, as he lovingly arranges each tempting layer on the plate. “I like to get a lot of nice textures and colors on the plate. Voila – Kobe beef, wild mushroom risotto and asparagus frites.”

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Like his dishes, there are dif­ferent layers to Todd English. He is just a cook, but then cooking is a kind of performing art. There is no denying he likes the lens, and he has made the most of his nat­ural assets to build his empire. But, at the same time, he takes great pleasure in the small details of preparing a dish.

This particular dish had a stern test at the Olives opening party, when in walked Sumo Yokozuna Musashimaru.

“It was the first night, every­thing was crazy. I worried we were going to run out of food, and then a sumo wrestler walks in!”

But the man mountain left with his appetite satisfied. If it’s good enough for Musashimaru, it sure is good enough for me.

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