Chef Spotlight: Interview with Todd English

The Celebrity Chef Discusses His Latest Project: Pre- Made, Take-Out Culinary Boxes to Carry on the Plane

Todd English is a fan of airport delays. “That means there are more people we cook for and more money [for us],” jokes the celebrity chef, author and TV personality. The humor is, however, rooted in reality: English, who owns a vast repertoire of restaurants all across America, also set up shop in three different airports (Bonfire in Boston’s Logan and New York’s John F. Kennedy airports and Figs in New York’s LaGuardia)—so why not rejoice at the opportunity of having more time with traveling customers?

First establishing a presence in an airport back in 2000 and clearly revolutionizing travel-related dining, English seeks to do just that, once more at LGA with Figs. Take-out boxes to carry on the plane will help customers avoid the usually sub-par in-air culinary options. Below, English discusses his projects… And then some.

Have you always wanted to be a chef?

Wow, that’s a loaded question! I started cooking in 1975. Cooking wasn’t considered a profession in those days. Long story short, I did it for a while then I went to college on a baseball scholarship. Got hurt and took some time off and then started cooking and found out that I really loved it then ended up working with a guy in Atlanta. He recommended I go to the Culinary Institute of America and that’s what I did and never looked back.

What is the one dish you particularly dislike to cook?

We try to avoid Caesar salad. [Also], I was never a breakfast cook. I like to write the menus but I don’t really enjoy doing breakfast.

You have several restaurants in different airports. Do you eat airport food yourself?

I do! I travel a lot. Right now, there’s a lot better choices so it’s not like it’s my destination but [if] I’m traveling through Dallas, [for example], and there’s a barbecue, I’m definitely going to go for that local bar food.

You’re now offering to-go boxes at Figs in LaGuardia Airport. Tell us about that.

They’re pre-made boxes. It’s a calzone, we do some press sandwiches, you can get our different salads, whether it’s a roasted heirloom beet salad with goat cheese [or other]. That kind of stuff. Something that is substantial, interesting. Things that are satisfying, different, healthy, nutritious.

What are some of your travel hacks?

I think learning the efficiency of an airport is a very important thing. I’m very conscientious of how I get to my gate as quickly as I possibly can. I never check bags if I can help it.

Has social media and the public’s incessant desire to post pictures of their food changed the way you cook and approach menus?

I would definitely think so. It has changed the industry in a lot of ways because I think we think about food from an Instagrammable standpoint in many ways now and people are definitely building things around menus that are [based] around Instagram.

Is that good or bad?

I like the restaurant business from the show business standpoint. I like that people are thinking about things that aren’t just run-of- the-mill and are not just the same old, same old. I like that it drives people to be really creative […] but it has to make sense. It can’t just be something that you do that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with cooking and has only to do with showmanship. I hope that it doesn’t go that far. I don’t think it has, but I think that we have to be careful.

How would you say that the restaurant scene in New York is different from the business across the rest of the world?

I think there’s an edge in New York that’s a little bit different. A lot of things grow out of New York. A lot of people look to New York to sort of direct them. New York is highly competitive and competition drives creativity and differentiation.

I’m a little bit worried because rents get so high and there’s lots of restaurants that are leaving New York. I like the restaurants in Brooklyn where they are taking more chances now. There is sort of a little bit more of an edge out there, because the rents are lower, people are moving out there. The great thing about New York is that it takes you out of your comfort zone and it pushes you to be different and look different. It pushes you from a creative standpoint and I like that.