If there’s ever a chef to talk about olive oil, it would have to be Todd English. The chef’s list of bragging rights includes a family history in olive oil production, three restaurants named Olives (in New York, Las Vegas, and Charlestown, Mass., not including an upcoming opening in Mexico City), and, oh yes, four James Beard Awards.
So naturally, when he paired up to endorse Chilean extra-virgin olive oil, The Daily Meal chatted with the chef to talk about what olive oil should taste like, how we can use it, and whether or not it’s worth splurging for that $20 bottle.
“Unfortunately, for so many years all we got was really the dredge of olive oil, the last pressing, the bottom of the barrel,” English explains. “I just think that we aren’t an olive oil culture, America. But we’re getting more so.”
So what should olive oil taste like? Fruit, nutty, earthy, and smooth, English says. And while some connoisseurs suggest that a strong, peppery kick in the throat is a sign of good olive oil, English disagrees. “For me, why would I want pain when I’m eating?” he says. “Eating out shouldn’t be painful, unless it’s tequila.”
Tuscan olive oil tends to have that pepperiness, English notes, while Greece has some of the fruitiest. “I’ve been all over Greece, where some of my favorite olive oil comes from, because it’s so fruity. It’s not like strawberries,” he says, “but you really taste the sweetness of the olive.”
Spanish olive oils tend to be made from riper olives, whereas olive oils from the southern part of Italy are smoother than their Tuscan neighbors. And California olive oils are also catching up, although “When you’re in Tuscany, and you’re sitting next to a 500-year-old olive tree, it’s different from a ten-year-old olive tree,” he says .
In fact, the use of olive oil has been around for a long time, dating back to biblical times when it was used to burn oil lamps and bathe, English says. Of course, today it’s used more along the lines of making bruschetta, but even then, true cooking with olive oil is rare.
“I think that there’s so many misconceptions about it,” English says. “The biggest question I get asked all the time is, can you use olive oil, can you cook with extra-virgin olive oil? Well, when I was in Italy cooking, there was only one olive oil, the extra-virgin olive oil. That’s what you cooked with, that’s what you dressed the pastas with.”
Then again, there's more you can do with olive oil than use it to simply fry some potatoes. English uses the oil to poach veal, serves it dehydrated with an olive oil mint chip as an amuse bouche, and even emulsifies it into soup, like a carrot soup and a foie gras soup.
“Like the French guys get mad at me, ‘How could you use olive oil and foie gras together?’” English said, mimicking a heavy French accent. “And I’m like, it’s very good together.”
So what's next for the chef? Other than hosting the Tony Awards afterparty last Sunday, working on another season of Food Trip with Todd English, and opening that Olives in Mexico City, he's also reportedly scouting places in Chicago to open up another Todd English Food Hall. Another reason to visit the Windy City.