Growing up in his family’s restaurants, Oliver has been intimately involved in the world of food ever since. For the past several years, he led the company’s international development, opening restaurants throughout North America, Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. He has learned first-hand the positive and negative effects of globalization and climate change on the world’s food system, which have instilled a fierce desire to highlight these issues and inspire real change in the world through visual and experiential storytelling. Oliver is a graduate of Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and member of the American Council of young political leaders (ACYPL). Oliver serves as the Co-Founder & CEO of Common Table Creative, overseeing the company’s vision, business development, hospitality, and communications.
Million Gardens: Tell us more about your work with Common Table Creative. Specifically, what inspired you to start a pop-up dinner series?
At Common Table Creative, we believe deeply that food has the power to transform our world into a more just and regenerative home – for all of us. And we believe that storytelling – both in the form of films and hospitality experiences, are powerful ways to educate and inspire – and to drive change. As a production company, we create films and experiences to showcase the power of food and farmers in our world – to heal our planet, build resilience to climate change, provide equal access to healthy, affordable food, and build connections amongst different communities. We work with some of the world’s leading food and farming non-profits, NGOs, and food companies to showcase many lessons we have learned from spending years on over 30 farms all over the United States and the world.
Our pop-up dinner series drew on our passion for bringing people together, telling stories, sharing great food, and my experience in the hospitality industry. It kind of fell into place, and I think it was always going to be a part of our story. We initially became inspired by meeting many farmers around the world while working on our feature documentary, Feeding Tomorrow. We were inspired by their passion, dedication, and love for what they do. We felt that bringing people together around our table and sharing these farmers’ stories – about families, farming philosophies, and commitment to organic and regenerative practices – was a way to honor them – and the land.
When I worked in the restaurant business – I saw first hand the power of the table to bring people together to share ideas, perspectives, opinions and to – hopefully – find some common ground. Or at the very least have a good time together over good food and drink – which can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation for one and others’ points of view and perspectives. We also just loved to host and have our friends over. Each bite is an opportunity to express and show how different types of food – and especially different types of food production – can impact our earth differently – for the better for the worse. Through the table, we can see the real impact and have these conversations. We actually started hosting pop-up potlucks at our old place in the East Village, NYC many years ago. And it kind of naturally evolved with us and became a core part of our company and our overall mission.
Million Gardens: What’s your favorite meal to cook for a group of people?
I’m thinking about a Sunday Family dinner – although this could apply to most situations!
Right now the tomatoes are in full bloom – and herbs, summer squash! A big bowl of pasta, roasted veg, big green salad with some thick-cut grilled bread. Some kind of big Pomodoro with fresh heirloom tomatoes (with some from the garden!), kale, and crispy garlic – cooking for a few hours on low heat. Lots of greens and lots of colors! And to go with it, whatever veg looks good If I can find it at this time of the summer, some grilled summer corn as well.
Again I’m in summer mode at the moment. For dessert, just slice open a beautiful ripe melon. They are at their peak at this time of the summer, you could also add some vanilla ice cream (grass-fed or plant-based) and honey/agave. Or just slice it thin and eat it chilled.
Million Gardens: How do you think the world would change if everyone was growing their own food?
Wow. Yes!!! The world would be massively transformed if everyone grew their own food. The amount of food grown would likely not produce the person’s full diet, however, the impact of even growing one item, let alone personal food at scale, would be profound. I can speak from experience after we turned our front “lawn” into a full-blown garden!! Creating our own garden in the front yard has introduced and connected us to the neighborhood – people young and old, and from all walks of life – people we didn’t interact with previously. Beyond that, we have created wildlife habitats for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and countless critters and grown small amounts of food for ourselves and the neighborhood! If we can scale up small impacts like our front year – we as a society can make a huge, positive impact.
Envision a world where kids grew up learning where their food came from – that our consumption has an impact on the planet and on the world around us. That children of all backgrounds – all neighborhoods – would have access to healthy food. With overall access and a greater appreciation, our societies would be more connected to food – cooking more, sharing, connecting. As a result, our populations would be healthier – both physically and mentally – due to greater connection with nature, loved ones, and communities.
Berries would be broken down between neighborhood, socioeconomic status. We would raise a new generation of citizens who see the whole system – and understand that we exist within a complex, interconnected system. That our actions can have a positive impact on our environment – deforestation, biodiversity loss, etc – or they can, and should have a hugely positive impact. An impact on the regeneration of our planet – on the growing ecosystems. With these kinds of lessons learned early – or whenever someone starts to grow their own food – we would transform our relationship with our planet. I also think we would become a more compassionate, democratic, and tolerant society. One that would indeed become the envy of the world once again.
Million Gardens: What party hosting or attending skills do you think plants helped teach you, from patience to managing unexpected guests (often called weeds)?
Haha what a great question! I think there are a few stages to hosting. There is the preparation and then the ongoing hosting/management of the experience. And there are so many lessons mirrored in gardening and hosting. Plants have shown me the importance of preparation, of creating the right site, with the right nutrients, and the importance of diversity for those plants to thrive. That initial intention and attention to detail are so important. Are you growing just one thing or is there a rich, biodiverse collection of food, flowers, perennials that are all working together in a complete interconnected ecosystem? Once you set the right conditions, help prepare the soil and grow cover crops, make sure they are watered and looked after.
Likewise, with hosting, it’s about preparation and creating the right conditions, and then getting out of the way and letting things unfold naturally. From a hosting perspective, that means making sure your space is clean and organized, any lighting/candles and music is ready to go. It means The food and beverage component is well thought out and ready – for each stage whether it’s appetizers, snacks, or a full dinner. It doesn’t have to be expensive, or fancy, it just has to be well thought out. Some love and attention to detail will go a long way. People want to connect. As a host, if you’re calm and have a great time, so too will everyone else. The host sets the tone.
A party – like a garden or a farm for that matter – is not very good when everyone looks the same, thinks the same, and speaks the same. It’s much better when there is diversity in people, thoughts, and perspectives. Overall, it is a healthier, more vibrant, resilient existence and experience. One that is filled with biodiversity – above and below ground. So yes the garden has taught me so much already, and most importantly, that there is so much more to learn.
Million Gardens: We’ve often been told that our food tastes better because of how we present and describe it (leek-butter-smothered radishes, Gstaad-style red onion tarte tatin, etc.). As a chef and storyteller, what techniques would you recommend for hosts to best present and title their garden meals?
It’s all in a name. Ha! You are right, the story and the presentation are so important – they frame the dish in the mind of the guest/viewer before the plate hits the table! A well-named menu item can excite, delight, and set the tone. Especially as we think about getting people to eat more plants and whole foods, how can we spice up the words we use.
I think it’s about honoring the vegetable, the farmer, the farm – or ingredient – and thinking about adding words that bring the dish to life – what kind of texture is it – crispy, crunchy? Or how was it cooked? Braised, Smoked, Grilled, Roasted, pan-fried, fried, etc. ) Think of each description – where we take viewers on a little journey to discover and imagine the dish.
It’s also important to highlight the farms and farming practices! These can be really important to draw attention to the healthiest types of agriculture and encourage people to make decisions that are good for their health and that of the planet. Some of these could include Organic, Regenerative, Bio-dynamic, grass fed, pasture-raised, or locally sourced!
Take, for example, Carrots Versus Weiser Family Farm Organic Honey Roasted Carrots. It’s a whole different game and they could have been the exact same dish.
Million Gardens: The climate crisis is already deeply affecting our gardens, so it makes total sense that it will also affect our garden parties as well: however, talking about the crisis can be challenging, and often feel like a conversation that leads nowhere—it’s going to get worse, we get it! How would you recommend Movement members use parties and the act of sharing food as an opportunity to talk about the environment and encourage change for the better?
The climate crisis is both the biggest existential threat to humanity and our greatest opportunity to transform everything we do – every way that we exist within the environment of earth. To grow a more just and regenerative society, and a circular green economy that works for everyone. And yes, it can often be daunting to see, feel, or understand that we can make a difference – that our actions can have a positive impact on the world around us. And yet there is no better learning environment or powerful tool for inspiring change than a garden!
The garden represents a real, tangible example of how each one of us can have a positive impact on the world around us. When we plant one flower that attracts one bee, we have made a positive change. When we grow one head of lettuce that can help feed – or our neighbor’s families – that has a huge impact. When we plant more trees, bushes, and shrubs in urban and rural environments, we help to capture and store energy, regenerate the soils, and clean the air.
To be in the garden, sharing a meal, or cup of coffee, or just a good conversation – is powerful. We can inspire – in new people, that they can make real change. Because when you can see the tangible impact your actions have on the world – you take that with you out into the world. It is a vehicle for greater change. The garden is also a place of respite, peace.. And the more time all of us can spend in them the better. Go forth and gather, unite, discuss, and love.
Million Gardens: As someone who has opened restaurants and gone through Cornell’s infamous hotel training, you might not get the nerves at hosting like so many of us do. Do you still get nervous and overthink parties? What are your personal techniques for getting out of your head while still being a great host?
There are definitely nerves every time. No matter how many times I’ve hosted. So don’t worry about that. If you didn’t have any nerves at all (or excited anticipation) then I might say we have a problem, Ha! But yes, I think it all comes down to preparation. Usually, I like to get everything I need the day before so on the day of the event I can just focus on that. If some food can be prepped the day before, that’s great too. Limiting the number of things you need to do the day of the event will always help keep things calm and running smoothly.
Always give yourself an extra few hours – haha. Even now, I still underappreciate how much time everything takes. If I know everything’s in place – and there’s a plan for serving, cooking etc, then I can take it easy and have fun with my guests. If I’m constantly worrying about shopping, preparation, or cleaning, then I can’t be present and have fun. Also, a glass of wine helps. Or if you happen to be making a specialty cocktail or mocktail, make sure you test one out ahead of time! 🙂 Not three, one haha!
Million Gardens: The Million Gardens Movement is giving away the Ultimate Garden Party. If you could throw someone the Ultimate Garden Party, who would it be and what would it be like?
I would throw that party for Thabiti Brown, who is the headmaster at Codman Academy Charter public school. The school has pioneered a holistic approach to education – with a learning garden, nutrition classes, and healthy school lunches. We have been filming with Thabiti and his team for the past 3 years for our documentary, and have been so inspired by his story.
It would definitely be a party! A showcase of the local community and celebration of healthy, local foods! There would be live music and performances from members of the school! Food stations from local vendors and members of the community. There would be a seed bomb station and games for the kids. It would be a collection of food and sustainability leaders in the Boston area and beyond.
Follow Oliver on social media: @Oliver_English @commontablecreative
Do you know someone that has gone above and beyond to help their community over the last year? Someone who deserves to be recognized and frankly could do with a bit of a party? This summer, The Million Gardens Movement wants to celebrate these local heroes by throwing one lucky winner the ultimate garden party worth up to $5000.