Sound Bites With Celebrity Chef Todd English

With dozens of restaurants and his own TV show, Chef Todd English has a lot on his plate, but he took the time to dish with Where Orlando.

Todd English is a celebrity chef, restaurateur, author, television personality and leader of a culinary industry that’s hotter than ever. In 1991, the James Beard Foundation named him their National Rising Star Chef. Since then, he has gone on to open dozens of restaurants across the globe, including bluezoo at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel. He has his own television show, "Food Trip" on PBS, and his own line of cookware. His name has become synonymous with the culinary industry. Yet, he still makes time to oversee his restaurant in Orlando and make an annual appearance at the Food & Wine Classic at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin each fall.

You’ve won a lot of awards, several from the James Beard House, you were among People Magazine’s most beautiful people, you’ve been nominated for an Emmy. Which award has meant the most to you?

They are all so flattering. I haven’t gotten Father of the Year from my kids yet. (Laughs.) No, I’d have to say the James Beard awards because it’s voted by your colleagues. That’s always something that’s pretty special. The rising star award really meant a lot.

You learned to cook from your grandmother, and your daughter now has her own restaurant. Why do you think food is so important in your family?

There’s the Italian side of our family. When you’re at lunch, you’re talking about dinner, and when you’re at dinner, you’re talking about breakfast. That’s how it goes with my family. It’s always been an integral part, whether at my mom’s in Maine or Sunday suppers with my kids and their friends. It’s a great way to gather, enjoy some great company and great food. It sounds cliché but that’s what it really means to us.

Tell us about your TV show “Food Trip.” How is Season 3 going?

It’s going well. When we’re traveling, it’s a little different than what Anthony (Bourdain) is doing. He’s more political-driven, and my show is more ingredients driven—why they are where they are and how the people use it. And then I come back and use the ingredients in New York. It’s a great reason to travel.

What do you think is the special ingredient here in Florida? Do you think there is a typical Florida cuisine, being that everybody is from somewhere else?

Well, the obvious answer is citrus. Oranges, key limes. Tomatoes grow really well there. And obviously local fish is part of the cuisine in Florida, too. There’s also the Cubano influence there, the Caribbean and Creole thing going on as well; South American cuisine is also becoming very big. With all the transplants, it’s pretty eclectic.

The people reading our magazine are traveling. What advice do you give travelers, whether to Orlando or anywhere else in the world?

I like to ask the locals where to go eat. That’s always a good indicator of places you may or may not go. If there is a certain country famous for something, you may find a local who may know the best for that. In Peru, ask the locals ceviche questions. It usually stirs up a debate. You ask where’s the best, and everybody has an opinion.

Let’s talk about your Orlando restaurant bluezoo. How did you come up with the name?

My son Simon actually came up with it. We had gotten out of the Boston Aquarium, and we had actually watched this amazing underwater video on the IMAX. He said, ‘It’s like a big fish zoo, a big blue zoo!’ I was actually looking for a name for the restaurant at the time.

You have French and Mediterranean restaurants and even pubs, is bluezoo your only seafood concept?

Well, we have King Fish in Boston, but that’s more local stuff. Bluezoo has more of an international flair to its style of cooking.

Q: If someone is coming into bluezoo for the first time, what would you suggest is a must-have?

Certainly the tuna tartare. That, I think, is one of the classics. I also like the scallops and short rib. I like a simple fish with our crab vinaigrette. I do want to add that we have a really great bar menu there. You don’t have to do a big menu, you can come to nosh. We make great cocktails. Our mixologist does really good stuff.

Have you spent much time in Orlando?

I knew the guys who ran the food and beverages at the Swan and Dolphin, so I started coming down there when my kids were young. We would actually stay there on vacation. Before you knew it, we had a restaurant there. (Three kids…) I am also coming back for the Food and Wine event in October. I’m a participant, I set up a booth, hang out and cool and just entertain the guests.

What basic things should people always have on hand in their kitchen?

I always keep great olive oil, lots of sea salt, black pepper, a small amount of a lot of herbs, and always good sesame oil. I like good white beans, and always nice tomatoes, like San Marzono tomatoes in a can. And good pasta for spaghetti.

Is spaghetti still your favorite?

I can’t help it.