Chef to the stars Todd Hall is bringing a taste of Mexico Leeside, writes John Daly
That hackneyed phrase — ‘larger than life’ — doesn’t aptly describe the colourful personality that is Todd Hall, chef to the stars and man with a backstory straight from the movies. Currently in Cork to design and fine- tune menus and operating systems for latest addition to the city’s restaurant scene — Tequila Jack’s at City Quarter on Lapp’s Quay — he gives me a sampling of his rich and varied life over margaritas and tacos at this quayside eatery dedicated to the best of Mexican cuisine.
In a career arc that’s taken him from child prodigy to internationally renowned chef, two-time James Beard award winner, and caterer of choice for Hollywood and Silicon Valley’s top movers and shakers, Todd is an individual who’s speared life with his Sabatier fork and sliced off a prime cut of exceptional talent mixed with personal and professional tragedy. Over the past 30 years, this dynamic individual has lived the American Dream — from the teenage kid who blagged his way into a top-class kitchen mentorship under a god of American cuisine to the 55-year-old who today casually shoots the breeze with clients like Julianne Moore, Ron Howard and Reese Witherspoon. But it wasn’t an easy career journey, with frequent stops on the dark side.
Having begun his formal training aged 15, Todd went on to become the youngest apprentice graduate to earn certification from the American Culinary Federation. By 19, he was the chef at many of America’s high alters of cuisine — Le Parisienne in Salt Lake City, La Posada de Santa Fe, Chateau du Sureau, L’Auberge de Sedona, the Paradise Valley Resort, and Los Abrigados Resort & Spa.
Nowadays, he works mainly as a consultant to fine dining hotel chains and resorts, as well as personal caterer at events like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s annual tech and film gathering, Campfire. Todd’s two-week stay in Cork is due to his long-time friendship with local boy turned Boston tycoon, Jon Cronin, who’s adding Tequila Jacks to his burgeoning stable of city restaurants like Soho, the East Village, and Paddy the Farmers.
“Jon is one of the finest people I know, and a seriously proud Corkman who employs over 2,000 across his restaurant and construction empire in the US,” Todd explains. “He trusted my instinct years back that genuine Mexican food was the coming thing in the US, and now we intend making Tequila Jack’s the same.”
Cooking took Todd Hall to the very top of his profession and into a world of fame, influence and acclaim far removed from his humble beginnings. Such a high-flying lifestyle can bring its pitfalls, however, with celebrity and adulation often extracting a heavy price. In his book, Appetite For Excess, he details the dark side of the dream — a decade of drugs, debauchery and depravity that almost killed him.
“With the awards came a bigger ego, and then came the drugs. This was the 1980s and everybody was doing weed and coke, especially in the food and beverage industry. It’s a tough business, and nobody will tell you stop as you’re making money for them.” It was a helter-skelter lifestyle that saw his cocaine, LSD and ecstasy habit grow as his debts spiralled out of control, landing him in prison for six months at one point.
Clarity finally came from the barrel of a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver after he was shot four times in the stomach in a drug deal gone wrong. “You become entangled in the spiral, and, if you’re lucky like I was, you find a way out. It only happened after I was nearly killed. Against the odds, I survived,” he says simply.
But, as Todd repaid his debts and regained his life, his 29-year old son Parker was not so lucky — dying of a heroin overdose. “He died with a needle in his arm at two o’clock in the morning, alone.” It was the second tragedy to befall the family, with his other son, Cody, having drowned in the family swimming pool aged just 18 months in 1992. “I did the best job I could, but your past has a way of catching up to you. Cooking may have saved my life, but spreading the message about addiction and the hope of recovery is my purpose in life now,” he explains.
A natural storyteller, Todd saves his most dramatic and arresting tale for last — and it happened during his stay in Cork. “I awoke well before dawn in my room at The Metropole and switched on Sky News to see this terrible story unfolding in Las Vegas.
“And what made it even more shocking was the fact that I knew the people at Arizona Catering who were doing the backstage catering for all the country musicians performing at the event — the kind of gig I had done with them on many occasions,” he explained.
“So here I am watching the Vegas chaos live on Sky, frantically phoning the general manager Stephanie and eventually getting through to her even as the bullets were still flying. Turns out she and the Arizona crew had emptied the steel-panelled refrigerated truck of all the food and used it as a refuge for dozens of the people trapped in the hail of fire coming from the Mandalay Bay Hotel. Remember that thousands of festival goers were still effectively trapped within the concert enclosure with nowhere to hide as the bullets flew. So Stephanie and her guys pulled the massive trailer ramp from their truck and ran through the firing to throw it across the fence to enable hundreds of concertgoers to scramble over the wire and escape from the kill zone.”
He pauses at the thought of where he himself might well have been: “There were many stories of incredible bravery on that terrible night, ordinary people making incredibly courageous decisions while others were being shot and killed all around them — amazing and inspiring.
“And here I was, sitting in my room at The Metropole Hotel in Cork, getting live updates from beloved colleagues who were right there in the firing zone. Truly it was one of the most surreal days of my life.”
An afternoon spent in the company of Todd Hall is somewhat like dipping into a novel of George Pelecanos or Michael Connelly — drama, excitement, tragedy and humour — all wrapped in the magnetic tones of a master storyteller.
The man has lived — period.
Todd’s perfect guacamole
Ingredients: 2 Ripe Avocados 1 Serrano Chile 1 Medium Sweet Onion ¼ cup (32g) Chopped Cilantro (or Coriander) ½ teaspoon Salt Juice of ½ Lime ½ Diced Fresh Tomato (Optional )
History of Guacamole: Guacamole dates back to the Aztecs - The Aztecs referred to guacamole as ahuaca-mulli which translates roughly to avocado sauce or avocado mixture.
This concoction was very similar to what you might fix now in your own kitchens today. Avocados, the main ingredient in guacamole, are a New World food that became quite popular with the Spaniards. It is said the Spaniards liked their avocados three ways, with salt, with sugar or both. Although actual guacamole recipes were not well preserved the Spaniards documented their likes for the avocado fruit. The Aztecs believed the avocado to be an aphrodisiac. Clearly this had something to do with the popularity of the food with the Spaniards!
Another reason for the popularity of the fruit was the fact that the avocado has the highest fat content of any fruit. The Aztecs had a very low fat diet compared with today’s standards. You can understand how a fruit that contained life sustaining fats and protein could become so highly regarded.
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