The filmmaker son of celebrity chef Todd English wants every community to improve its green spaces
Words by MARTHA HAYES
Photography by RAINER HOSCH
OLIVER ENGLISH in his Venice garden.
Filmmaker and food advocate Oliver English is showing me the “small garden that evolved into a food forest” in front of his Venice bungalow. What started as a few holes in the ground for compost food waste is now a flourishing oasis of leafy greens and perennial herbs.
“Now I come out here and grab some Swiss chard to make an omelet,” he says, smiling and pointing out a hummingbird with the enthusiasm and pride of someone who used to live a very different life. The relaxed knits, plant-forward diet, and love of surfing (so far, so Cali) are a far cry from the world of corporate three-piece suits Boston-born English once inhabited.
For the best part of his twenties, English, the oldest son of celebrity chef Todd English, worked for the family enterprise, developing and opening eateries all over the world. “Until six years ago I was pretty sure I was going to be in the restaurant business for the rest of my life,” he says.
That assumption changed when he had an epiphany while eating a steak at a restaurant he was about to open in Abu Dhabi. “I thought I knew a lot about food,” he says. “But suddenly I had this moment of, ‘Wait a minute, how did all this get here?’”
“We all have the power to make a change””
When English, 32, asked for more information about the contents of his meal, one of the chefs listed more than 10 ingredients from eight different countries. “I was kind of embarrassed and shocked,” he recalls. “I grew up in the restaurant business and studied hospitality, but the conversation about sustainability had never come up. I thought, ‘If I’m someone who grew up in this world and I’ve only just asked this question, maybe there are others.’”
The result of his inspiration is the thought-provoking documentary Feeding Tomorrow, a labor of love for English; his filmmaker younger brother, Simon; and his friend Jamer Bellis, a plant biologist he met when they were students at Cornell University.
The film—which has been going around the festival circuit and winning awards—tells the interconnected story of how food interacts with and transforms every part of our lives through the lens of innovators in agriculture (Mark Shepard, founder and farmer of New Forest Farm in Wisconsin), health care (Lisa McDowell, director of nutrition at St. Joseph Mercy Health System), and education (Thabiti Brown, head of school at Codman Academy in Massachusetts).
“Everyone in the film shows us that no matter your background, we all have the power to make a small change in our own community,” explains English. “It can be as small as planting a flower or having a compost bin or as big as starting a company or reforesting a piece of land.”
“We want to help turn farmers into celebrities”
JAMER BELLIS, OLIVER ENGLISH, and SIMON ENGLISH.
Moving to “the storytelling capital of the world” was a no-brainer for the three men, who set up their production and hospitality company, Common Table Creative, from the Venice bungalow they now call home. As well as making films, the trio works closely with food and sustainability organizations to educate people and are putting farming at the forefront with plans to build farms at schools and hospitals around the country. The pilot project is a regenerative farm at Will Rogers Learning Community in Santa Monica. “We want to help turn farmers into celebrities in the way chefs became celebrities 30 years ago,” English says.
In an interesting twist, even though he thought he’d left the restaurant business for good, English—always front of house, never a chef—is now the man behind the kitchen at Common Table Creative’s farm-to-table dinners.
“Maybe I was intimidated because my parents were chefs, but I didn’t really start cooking until a couple of years ago,” he admits, pointing to his time filming and learning from experts. “Vegan food can be heavily processed, so I was like, ‘I’ve got to make vegetables taste better.’ And I’ve been incorporating lessons I’ve learned about the most sustainable diets in the world.”
With a little bit of help from his front garden. feedingtomorrowfilms.com.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of C Magazine.
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