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Signs of strain in English’s empire

For celebrity chef, it’s been a wild year, chasing the new while fending off claims

For chef Todd English, who made his name in Boston, “It’s been a year of reinvention.’’ For chef Todd English, who made his name in Boston, “It’s been a year of reinvention.’’ (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Linda Matchan and Doug Most
Globe Staff / February 7, 2010

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An hour late, Todd English breezes into Olives, the restaurant in Charlestown he opened 20 years ago, the place where he made his name. He is wearing a freshly pressed chef’s jacket, has a BlackBerry in one hand, an iPhone in the other, and a TV crew tailing his every step. He is, as ever, juggling ventures and appearances and texts away furiously as he talks.

“Don’t mind me, I’m ADD,’’ he says, slouching to the table, head in hands, a portrait of mock fatigue.

Todd English tired - an impossibility. The handsome, square-jawed chef who helped put Boston’s food scene on the map now has 21 restaurants, from coast to coast, and more on the way. But while the ageless energy, brash optimism, and love of the spotlight that helped make him a celebrity are still there, fault lines are starting to show in the English empire.

For every splashy restaurant opening, it seems there is a closing - three in the last 18 months. He has had to deal with a court ruling last summer that he and his companies owed $4.5 million in unpaid rent for the space where his Washington, D.C., Olives restaurant operated for almost a decade before closing last year. And there are at least five pending lawsuits against English claiming he or his business enterprises owe more than $280,000 in unpaid bills, including one from his last-minute canceled wedding last September.

English offers explanations for each case and, on Thursday, his publicist issued a bullish statement: “Todd’s restaurant group continues to prosper and grow.’’

On the personal side, it has also been a challenging stretch. Even for someone like English who thrives at center stage, the tabloid-frenzy around his last-minute breakup with Erica Wang last September was unwelcome. Though physically he appears unscathed following the tumultuous breakup during which Wang allegedly slugged him in the face with a heavy watch - leading to stitches for him, an assault charge and anger management program for her - the events did scar him.

“It’s been a year of reinvention,’’ the 49-year-old chef says.

Finding a way to flourish amid criticism, lawsuits
Reinvention apparently doesn’t mean slowing down. Star of cooking shows, namesake of cookware, writer of cookbooks, English has restaurants on two of the world’s biggest cruise ships, he just opened Wild Olives in Boca Raton, Fla., he is taping a pilot of a new TV show, and helping launch a men’s fashion collection at Club Monaco. He also has plans to open a cupcake shop on Beacon Hill with his daughter, Isabelle, start a line of children’s food products named after the character Eloise, and open restaurants in Las Vegas and at New York’s Plaza Hotel. (An anticipated Boston burger joint is off the table, for now).

“The way the world economy has gone, people have had to rethink things, their way of thinking about business,’’ he says. “Like music, like fashion, we’re in the entertainment business and need to stay current. It’s very much about staying fresh.’’

But if, as his publicist’s statement concluded, his business figure is bright, how then to explain the recent closings and line of lawyers chasing after him, from New York to Los Angeles?

The publicist, George Regan, says English’s stardom has made him a “celebrity piñata’’ and an easy target for “gossip, rumors, and especially lawsuits.’’

But is it that simple?

Olives in Aspen and Washington, D.C., and Fish Club in Seattle all shuttered recently. The D.C. closing was forced, after the building owner sued English for failure to pay rent and a judge said he was in default and his business owed $4.5 million. Of that, English personally was held responsible for $813,000, but the final amount he and his companies actually paid was agreed to in a settlement that was not made public.

Other figures, however, are laid out in court documents.

Dan Klores, the public relations titan in New York whose firm has represented Jay Leno, Howard Stern, Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears, filed a lawsuit last November against Todd English Enterprises, alleging it did publicity work for English in June 2008 for $15,662, and has not been paid a penny of it. English, via Regan, says it was merely a “discrepancy in the hours and services provided’’ and will be resolved.

Limore Shur, the owner of a company that runs high-end, turnkey apartments in New York, says in 2006 he leased to Todd English and an acquaintance, Andrew C. Stranberg, a third-floor loft off Broome Street in SoHo. Shur’s lawsuit alleges that English, Todd English Enterprises, and Stranberg owe $64,242 in unpaid rent, $11,000 to cover damage to the property, and $5,000 in legal fees for the defendant, for a total of $80,242.

“It was $10,000 a month, with bed turn-down service, almost like a hotel,’’ David Katz, the attorney for Shur, said in an interview. “Todd was there for a month or two, maybe three, and just skipped out. . . Nobody ever bothered turning the key in, paying the rent.’’

Stranberg, in a March 17, 2009, profanity-laced deposition obtained by the Globe, lashed out at English.

“I don’t know what Todd English did,’’ Stranberg said. “I’m not in business. I don’t like Todd English. He is a [expletive] loser.’’

In his statement to the Globe, English said he had sublet the apartment and his name was supposed to have been taken off the lease.

And then there’s Avatar Studios, a recording studio in midtown Manhattan whose artist clients include Aerosmith, Paul McCartney, and Billy Joel. Avatar sued English last year for $68,265, alleging that he rented its studio and never paid. English said he is settling that case. The same New York attorney pressing the Avatar case, Amos Weinberg, also represents Building Maintenance Services, a New York cleaning services company that has cleaned everything from the Empire State Building to W Hotels to Radio City Music Hall. It sued for $69,567, for janitorial services at two English restaurants in New York, and his closed one in D.C. English said the matter is still in litigation and his business is not at fault.

More recently, a suit was filed in November in Los Angeles Superior Court against English and Todd English Enterprises LLC, by a consulting firm he hired almost a decade ago to negotiate exclusive restaurant deals. According to the complaint, Fred Bestall brokered deals for English to open restaurants at the Marriott Hotel in Seattle and at Walt Disney World in Florida. The complaint says English paid off $94,948 of the $120,000 he owed, but that payments stopped in August 2007 and he still owes $24,052. English says it’s a dispute over the final amount due and is being settled.

But of all the complaints against English, the smallest one might sting the most.

On Dec. 16, Chestnuts in the Tuileries, a boutique florist hired to do all the flowers for English’s Oct. 3 wedding, sued both English and Wang. The wedding at the opulent St. Regis Hotel in New York never happened, and the florist didn’t get any of the $22,054 it was owed.

“The day of the wedding, Chestnuts delivered all of the flowers to the St. Regis and set up the flowers as ordered by the Defendants,’’ the complaint reads. “On the morning of the wedding, Todd English called the wedding off. After abandoning his nuptials and leaving his fiancée at the altar, Todd English contacted American Express and falsely denied authorizing payment for the flowers.’’

John Crossman, the attorney for Chestnuts, said even though Chestnuts sued both Wang and English, he has no doubt who owes the money.

“When you order flowers, you’re supposed to pay for them,’’ Crossman said. “It seems clear to us Mr. English was supposed to sign. We have his credit card number.’’

English offers a different explanation. Through his spokesman, he says a “third party used his American Express card without his permission, and the florist was told not to deliver the flowers prior to the event.’’

Driven by love of food, entrepreneurial spirit
In the interview at Olives in Charlestown, English did not deny the recession has bruised his business. “The economy has beaten us all up,’’ he said. “People don’t spend as much. Instead of a $70 bottle of wine, they’ll order wine by the glass.’’

But the economy isn’t his only challenge; there have also been some wounding reviews for his food. Of the Fish Club in Seattle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic wrote: “For that kind of money, I want some or all of the following: great food, great atmosphere, great service, maybe even a view. Yet my three visits to Fish Club can be summarized as follows: lousy, OK, not bad.’’

To criticism that the food his restaurants serve has suffered as he’s shifted from restaurateur to entrepreneur, the chef says nothing has changed. “Not at all,’’ says English, who is fond of quoting renowned French chef Paul Bocuse. “People would ask him who was cooking when he wasn’t in the restaurant. And he’d say, ‘The same people cooking when I am there.’ ’’

When Olives in Charlestown was his one and only, it was hottest place in town serving, by general acclaim, some of the city’s best food. Replicating that, he concedes, is hard.

“You are always looking for the hottest place in town,’’ he says. “I am, certainly. But I’m also realistic . . . There is an ebb and flow. It’s the business.’’

But still, some raise this question: Can his restaurants truly shine if he’s not actually in them, as he was at the start of his career?

“When a chef himself is not in the restaurant, even if the greatest sous chef in the world is cooking, [the quality] is down 10 percent,’’ said GQ’s wine and food critic Alan Richman. “If the chef is never there, it’s down 30 percent. After that, there is no way to go but down.’’

Richman said of English, “I might be his greatest fan. I thought his food at Olives, when the restaurant was new, was magnificent. Every dish on the plate had too much of everything in it, and you know what? It was great!’’

He said he interviewed English about a year ago at Olives in New York, and after the interview English dashed into the kitchen and “threw together’’ a simple flatbread pizza for him. “It was fabulous!’’ said Richman, who was working on a story about pizza at the time and was sure it would make his top ten list.

But when he went back to the restaurant when English wasn’t there, Richman tried it again and said “it was just so-so.’’

“The man is a near-genius as a chef,’’ he said. “And yet people who are near-geniuses are often the ones whose food is hardest to translate into mass production. I think his restaurants are okay . . . I just get disappointed by seeing a truncated version of what a great chef might do.’’

But Gordon Hamersley, who has presided over Hamersley’s Bistro for more than 20 years, defends English’s desire to expand.

“I have one restaurant,’’ he says. “I go to my restaurant and I stand behind the line and work with 22-, 23- 25-year-olds because that’s what I like and love. But there are other kinds of chefs who happen to be entrepreneurial chefs, who have a love of food and a variety of food ideas they want to explore, and they can’t just do it in one restaurant. And there’s not a darned thing wrong with that.’’

He adds: “The only thing that’s important is: Does the food taste good, and is the food great quality? There are good cupcakes and there are bad cupcakes and my guess is that Todd’s cupcakes will be very high quality.’’

English is sure of it. For all his myriad ventures and challenges, he says he is still driven by the culinary passion that made Olives, Olives.

“I love the entrepreneurial side of the business,’’ he says. “The conceptual side of it, the creative side of it.’’ But then he adds, “I never want to lose my sense that I started out as a chef.’’