Todd English's fare may be nationwide, but his passion for cooking still simmers in his mother's harborside Maine kitchen.
Superstar chef Todd English is one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World." Coos Martha Stewart, "Oh, those deep sunken eyes, the high cheekbones, his big hands and broad shoulders." But there's one fan unfazed by reports on which hair gel the Boston-based restaurateur prefers. She does have to be flattered, though: Her son looks a lot like her.
Says Patty Breed with a sly smile, "Ha! That's just the Italian in him." Indeed. What she finds most beautiful on this glorious fall morning is that Todd and family are home with her in Camden, Maine, for the holidays.
As Patty's children and grandchildren begin unfurling from their quilt-covered beds upstairs, the youthful matriarch curls into her favorite overstuffed chair with a steaming cup of coffee. Her harborside home, Seamew, brims with well-thumbed books, sentimental artwork, antique duck decoys, and family photos. Animals, too: An entrance sign announces " Attenti al Cane" ("beware of the dog"), but these furry souls could only kill with kindness. Today, old-timers Shadow, a golden retriever, and Chester, an inky retriever mix, frolic with visiting cousin Kip, a bouncing black standard poodle who owns Todd's family.
"Todd's been working so hard," Patty says of her 40-year-old son, who in 12 years has amassed 14 (and counting) culinary hot spots from New York to Las Vegas (his Olives and Figs restaurants in Boston started the trend) plus three cookbooks. "Now it's time for him to rest and let me help do some of the cooking."
Patty's home, where her family has been anchored 28 years, is as cozy as the view from her living room's picture window--a giant real-time canvas of sailboats on the glistening horizon. Amber-hued trees rustle in the breeze while waves lap up their reflection.
Her kitchen is seasoned with the look that real cooking happens here. Its nautical blue wood floor is splattered with paint à la Jackson Pollock, and jumbled well-used pots, pans, and baskets hang from racks above the island, where the action will soon heat up.
But Patty's mission now is to find just the right roasting pan for the turkey. She's on her hands and knees trying to find it. "Oh, and this, this is Toddy's ice-cream maker he got when he was 10," she says, holding up the old red hand-cranker. "Maybe we can use it today."
"Ma!" Todd says with an exasperated blush. He's quietly had his 6-3 frame parked in the kitchen doorway while Patty played docent. "What are you telling everyone?"
"I'm telling everyone how wonderful you are," she sparks back. "Now let's get moving--we've got a lot of people to feed."
Todd looks like a little boy put in his place by his mama. "Yeah, yeah," he chuckles, tying on his long white apron.
Wafting aromas of sautéed onions and garlic are the ultimate eye-openers, so it's not long before the remaining sleepyheads make it downstairs and into the kitchen, where Todd works with his trademark focused intensity. His wife and business partner, Olivia, sees that their kids--Oliver, 11, Isabelle ("Izzy"), 8, and Simon, 5--get dressed and moving. Amid the hustle and bustle, in walks an extra-special guest, arriving from New York City.
"Uncle Mon!" the kitcheners cry when Todd's uncle, Armando Vergara, joins the group. His happy-go-lucky presence adds fuel to the friendly fire. He immediately starts peeling this or chopping that--all while telling jokes and later, sweeping Patty off her feet for a bit of dancing to some vibrant Latin music playing on CD.
"Ah-ha-ha, you didn't think we could cook without a little dancing, did you?" he says midsway.
As camaraderie bubbles over in the kitchen, Todd follows Olivia to the shore with the caldron that soon will welcome lobster stew. His food today will be much like his restaurant fare, which showcases Mediterranean flavors in bold, rustic style.
"My great-grandmother, Bettina, used to make her own pasta," Todd recalls, helping Olivia unpack picnic accoutrements. "I can see it now drying on her bed atop a clean white sheet. And her sauces... She was a marvelous cook, and a marvelous woman. Her family owned olive farms in Italy [hence the name of his first restaurant]. She, like my mom and other family members, taught me about good food. They taught me not to hold back, to go with my instincts and try new things."
Before long, others join the party, including Todd's friends from Boston--Julie and Kevin Fox and Olives' sous chef, Dave Nevins.
"As you'll see, Todd's food is all about layering," Julie says, admiring the spread. "Every bite reveals something new and different."
"Anybody who's lived in our family knows how to cook," Uncle Mon says, pouring on the wine--and the charm.
Meanwhile, Todd tastes the lobster stew. "Mmm. This is it. This is Maine, right here."
"Mangia!" Uncle Mon declares, raising his glass.
This is family, right here.