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A few entertaining hours with Rhode Island born, New York-made chef and restaurateur Jimmy Bradley

March 1, 2008

    photo of: Jimmy Bradley

If you talk to Jimmy Bradley long enough, you will notice that certain topics tend to take turns down historical paths, with kitchen analogies that stretch from the Dark Ages to George Washington’s time and beyond. My favorites were references to Ben Franklin and George Bush, which made the final editing cut in our interview on these pages, as well as Genghis Khan and Abe Lincoln, which sadly did not. But Bradley’s knowledge and enthusiasm for reading historical and political books, and his sometimes comical references to historical events and how they relate to his industry, shows that he “gets it.” He realizes that you can learn from history and relate it to your own field for your own betterment, whether it’s running a kitchen, starting a business, or fielding an army. He also seems to “get” some of the finite steps toward being a successful restaurateur, such as sharing responsibilities, giving others credit, and making the work environment as fun and engaging as he possibly can. But other than being a cool guy and a successful entrepreneur, he is also a pretty darn talented chef. I hope you enjoy his interview.

NYRI: You were raised in Rhode Island and attended URI, did you work in a lot of area restaurants while you went to college?
Jimmy Bradley: I did, I worked mainly in restaurants in Narragansett. I went to the University in Kingston Rhode Island, and I lived with my sister and we both attended school at the same time. She did well and graduated Cum Laude and I left after 3 ½ years and got into the restaurant business, and that’s the end of that story. I didn’t actually graduate from the University of Rhode Island. I would have graduated in 1988 but at the eleventh hour I quit.

NYRI: That must have upset your dad, he was a Math professor there wasn’t he?
Jimmy Bradley: Yes he was, but he was a cool father. One time he went away on holiday and we had a party with something like 15 kegs in the backyard. I believe I was underage and my sister was underage too. We were inside the house and everybody was outside drinking beers on the back lawn and I thought I heard a siren. I looked out the window and I see my dad’s car and then I saw my father standing at the keg, and he was pouring himself a beer. Apparently he got home from holiday early and instead of just coming over to bust our balls he went to the keg and he was like, “Who are you and what are you doing in my backyard, and can I have a beer?” And at that very moment, the police arrived and saw my father and they noticed that there were people who are underage. So, I walked out of the house with my sister and we were walking toward the keg and my father is being escorted with handcuffs on. We crossed each other’s path on their way out and we said “Pop, welcome home, how was your vacation?” He said “If I read about this in the police beat, you guys are in deep shit.” So basically for me, college was hanging out and partying. When I got serious about anything, it was not about finishing university, it was about cooking full time. I studied political science and communication and basically I only paid attention to history and politics.

    photo of: Jimmy Bradley Winter Greens

NYRI: You didn’t go to culinary school, but did you have a chef mentor while you were learning to cook?
Jimmy Bradley: When I started cooking I knew I wanted to be the chef. When I was a chef I knew I wanted to own my own restaurant. So I did lots of things that people wouldn’t perhaps do in a normal career path. You typically go to school, you get out of school, you get a mentor, you study with that person for a while and then that person introduces you to somebody else. I just wanted to work everywhere as fast as possible and take jobs that I liked. It’ll make me smarter and then when I get a chance to have my own restaurant I’ll be better at it. My other thought was I wanted to put myself in business by the time I was 30. I opened the Red Cat when I was 31.

NYRI: You worked with Jonathan Waxman for a while, how did you connect with him?
Jimmy Bradley: I met him through Larry Forgione. Larry used to bring chefs into his restaurant American Place from around the country and have seasonal, regional dinners with chefs like Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters, maybe Jeremiah Tower, and I was friendly with him. I didn’t work for Larry but I would go into his kitchen and work for free and meet all the people and hang out and make dinner. An extra hand is an extra hand and as long as you shut up and stand in a corner and speak when you are spoken to, you’re ok. I was a 25-year-old cook, and I would come up from Philadelphia to stage in different kitchens if someone cool was going to be there. It was a 40-dollar train ride back in the day, I could go to New York and spend the night there and the whole thing would cost me a hundred bucks, I mean it’s a no-brainer. I couldn’t even afford a new pair of shoes but I could get on a train to New York and learn something and maybe stay at a friend’s house. So I met Jonathan that way, through Larry.

NYRI: What job did chef Waxman initially hire you for?
Jimmy Bradley: He took me out to lunch and at the end of the lunch he suddenly said, okay, you’re now the new chef of Bryant Park. I was like, “wait, what are you talking about?” We didn’t talk about it at all the whole time. All he said was he was working on this new project and it is going to be such and such. We ordered food, we ordered wine, and then suddenly it’s ”Ok you are the new chef.” He has a very unorthodox way, it could be frenetic for some people but I just think it’s refreshing. Everybody wants to put everything into a box that you can understand, especially in business. It’s okay to be different or to not want to do what everybody else does. What would the restaurant business look like if everybody did the same thing?

    photo of: Jimmy Bradley Chipotle Grilled Quail

NYRI: Before moving to New York, where did you have your best cooking experiences?
Jimmy Bradley: I became a chef in 1990 when I worked in Martha’s Vineyard, where I had a two-star review in the Boston Globe. Then I moved to New York and I worked at this place called Flowers which is where BLT Fish is now on 17th Street. When I later opened the Red Cat, I was making all the same food that I had been making in Martha’s Vineyard and that I was making everywhere else, and people were down with it. I was doing the same exact dishes that I was doing at Flowers where the people were not into it! At Flowers I was like “this is not a restaurant, this is a freak show. This is a nightclub, this is people air kissing.” It was the perfect expression of a flash in the pan. And I was just this guy standing there trying to do something that does not fit, but it was not my fault.

NYRI: So you left Flowers and went to work at Bryant Park?
Jimmy Bradley: Yes, the opening of Bryant Park was in 1995. That was an amazing job, I think it had 1,100 seats. You could do $100,000.00 of business in a day there. Bryant Park was an exercise in mass production. I left there after about a year and then I basically made myself a promise that I wasn’t going to cook ever again in a restaurant unless I was making the food that I wanted to make. I had moved here in 1994 and I opened the Red Cat in 1999.

NYRI: Opening the Red Cat must have been a challenge for you because you were not really that well known at the time. How did you and your previous partner Danny Abrams discover each other?
Jimmy Bradley: Danny used to own a couple of bars on the Upper West Side. He hired me to find him a chef once, and he hired me to write a menu another time, then he said “I think we should work together.” That was 1997 or ’98; then we started writing a business plan and hustling for some dough and looking for spaces. In February 1999 we signed a lease and in April ’99 we opened. I had only lived in New York for five years, and when I moved here I did not know anybody and I didn’t have any money. I didn’t come from money so yeah it was a fucking major ball bust. I’m no smarter than anybody else; it was just being at the right place at the right time with the right idea.

    photo of: Jimmy Bradley Whole Roasted Fish

NYRI: What sort of strategy for finding investors did you utilize?
Jimmy Bradley: There are two distinctly different groups of thoughts with investment. One thought is to get as many people as you can with a smaller amount of money so everybody’s exposure is kind of limited. The other is get as much as you can from as few people as you can so you can have a dynamic union and you don’t have to control a thousand expectations; you just have to control one expectation. Personally, I am a little bit torn between both of them and I have done both scenarios, but the Red Cat scenario was to get as little money from as many investors as you can. I will give you an analogy. Let us say you wanted to open a restaurant for around a quarter million dollars investment. Would you rather have four dentists from Paramus invest $75,000.00 each for $300,000.00 or 40 individuals give you the $7,000.00 each. Each individual has a different job; one is a doctor, one is a lawyer, one is in rock and roll, one is in television, one is in movies. Now when those groups come to the restaurant to celebrate the opening, is the room going to look cooler when the group of four dentists from Paramus bring their crew, or when the 40 people from 40 different jobs in 40 different markets come and bring their crew? It’s a no brainer, but people don’t think like that, they say “I don’t want to control 40 people’s expectations.” My thought is that if you invest $7,000 your expectations are going to be pretty low versus if you invest $75,000. A lot of people say no, you take the big money from the big fish and you just roll it out that way - but they both work. But if a guy gives you 75 G’s and he calls you up and he goes “what is my ROR?” You’re like, “What is your what?” He’s like “What is my rate of my return?” My god, I just cooked 100 chickens and hit my head on the oven all night and we’re going to have this conversation? So the thought was to spread it out, put a big net in the water, limit your liability and create a very distinct core group that can make a business dynamic in an expedient manner.

NYRI: How do you keep your employees motivated?
Jimmy Bradley: For the most part, most people who work would like praise when they do well, and would like constructive criticisms when they do badly, and I feel a little accountability can go a long way. So once a year I try to get with everybody in the company, I start the meeting with my accountability and then I end with a set of goals that I would like to agree upon with you for the next 12 months. You have to have every server to consider themselves a liaison between me and the guests, and every guest would be considered an investment in the future and if the servers do not believe that then there is a direct disconnect, so they have to care. They have to actually want to get with the people and say, “Are you happy, are you enjoying yourself? How can I make you enjoy yourself?”

NYRI: That is why you feel that regular appraisals are so important.
Jimmy Bradley: Yes, because it is just an affirmation. Remember Stewart Smiley? An affirmation, however queer, is in some people’s opinion an effective tool. “Yes, I am special. I am handsome, and doggone it people like me.” People get behind the idea of being evaluated in a constructive manner for the betterment of the team. Like it or not, we all picked a team sport, too bad, so you’d better get to know how to play in the sandbox with the other people. The way I fancy it is, you’d better get really close to your own strengths and weaknesses because that is how you can be the most effective. Not everybody on the team does everything great, but that doesn’t mean the team isn’t great.

    photo of: Red Cat chef Bill McDaniel

NYRI: When you broke up your business relationship with your partner Danny, was it tough losing The Mermaid?
Jimmy Bradley: Yes, breaking up is tough to do. Your wife or your lover or your business partner. Our core difference was just our ideology. When that happens you grow apart, it’s a natural evolution of a relationship. We had four restaurants and we sold one to Mr. Chow, and we started having in-depth conversations about what’s next. When Danny and I first started talking about that he said, “I want to open a restaurant in Brooklyn.” I was not so interested. I think the smart people put everything under the magnifying glass once a year and say “why am I doing this, what am I doing, and how do I feel about it?” And if you answer those questions, you’re not going to wake up someday and say, “How did I get here??” So, over a nine-year period, we philosophically grew in different directions.

NYRI: So, why were you against opening in Brooklyn?
Jimmy Bradley: Honestly I did not want to commute to Brooklyn. I swear to God. I am either that insightful or that lazy, however you want to look at it. I’ve lived in New York for 14 years now and I have been to Brooklyn…well I could count it on one hand. Wouldn’t that stand to reason that perhaps I’m opening a business in Brooklyn for money instead of for passion, or maybe for money instead of interest? Nothing against Brooklyn at all, but I have not been drawn there like I was sucked into Manhattan. I came here with no money and a two-month lease and I never left.

NYRI: How did Steven Eckler come into the picture as your new partner?
Jimmy Bradley: Steven and I had been talking for a while and he wanted to open another restaurant and I guess he looked at me as someone who had opened a few and had gotten it done, had some fun and was well received. I said to Steven, “You know I like to share…” We were talking for the last couple of years and this fall he said, “Seriously, I am going to open a restaurant, I will open a restaurant with you in the next year.” I said the same thing that I had said to Danny; I am not having splintered partnerships. So if you want to do it you have to come in here and do what I am doing and we will give you a piece of the action and then we’ll go forward and do something together. There is no, “Oh, I have this over here and you have that over there.” I used to have a partner, I used to have a director of operations, I used to have a CFO, I used to have a $15 million a year company with 250 employees, then I went to doing it all by myself with 90 employees. I said to him, there is plenty of work to share!

NYRI: You’ve been called the “master of the neighborhood restaurant,” do you like that classification, and do you think that is that the kind of project that suits you well?
Jimmy Bradley: I hate to be pigeonholed by anything. I think that is B.S. because they also used to say we were the masters of comfort food and that is B.S. as well. That is just a journalist needing a tag line and assigning something. If we are so rooted in comfort food, if that is what everybody really wants why isn’t every diner in America full, because that’s where the meatloaf and mashed potatoes are? American people do not want comfort food, they want to be made to feel comfortable. But about this neighborhood thing, would you rather have a business that had a core group of people that were close to you, or a business that had a pull of people from all around that was a destination-driven business. If you take the Boathouse in Central Park or Tavern on the Green, those are special occasion joints, the complete destination restaurant. Do you go there two or three times a week? Probably not. There are lots of people in New York City who, for one reason or another, eat out many nights a week, and wouldn’t it be good if you can capitalize on that? Both of my restaurants were born with the same principle; they’re supposed to be blank canvasses, the names do not suggest anything. And the reason for that is not to be able to be pigeon-holed. That being said, I do not have any problem being there for the neighborhood residents, I think it’s a very cool thing. My favorite restaurants are the kind where all different people use them for all different reasons, whether it is to end your day or start your night, or gather with family or friends or just drink or just eat.

NYRI: So you brought in Amanda Freitag as chef at the Harrison a few weeks ago, how is that going?
Jimmy Bradley: For some reason I was born with an internal edit function, and less is more. When I was meeting with Amanda, she has a very similar approach. All young chefs when they are on their way to finding their voice have a tendency to over-complicate things. They think too much about things and add too many ingredients. Amanda has found her voice and she is totally comfortable with it and it is similar to what I like to do. It is lusty and soulful with a little bit of whimsy and a little bit of fun; not taking yourself too seriously or taking the food very seriously. We’re not curing cancer here, and we are not putting people on the moon. This is chicken. There are some chefs that are a little more fussy and a little more tortured and a little more systematic, but Amanda is very free and wide open and she is playful. She likes to experiment but without having to drive it to fusion.

    photo of: Jimmy Bradley Sunflower Salad

NYRI: I imagine you need to find a way to keep your base of customers happy while allowing Amanda to put new items on the menu?
Jimmy Bradley: There is a core group of loyal patrons and followers, so how do we augment that and make that more lively and build on that, versus not wanting to alienate them or upset them in any way. But change is good, change is strong. The view of America right now has a lot to do with “change is good.” We do not aspire to have 28 classic dishes on the menu; we aspire to have 90 to 100 classic dishes that revolve seasonally. But there’s a million ways to build a bridge. One guy says, “Do it like this,” because he works with metal and another guy says, “Do it like this,” because he works with stone.

NYRI: So, the rumor is that you and Steven are looking for a new restaurant to open together, anything to report yet?
Jimmy Bradley: No, but I have a few neighborhoods in mind. Anywhere from Hell’s Kitchen to Tribeca, we have been talking about doing some sort of neighborhood joint, but we haven’t flushed out the concept yet. It all depends on who’s doing it with us, and a lot of times the space dictates it. You can have an idea and put it into a space or you can let the space talk to you and you have several ideas and you fit it to the space.

NYRI: Many of the chefs who have worked for you in the last 8 or 9 years have become fairly well-known figures in the restaurant industry already, such as Joey Campanaro at The Little Owl, or Harold Dieterle at Perillo. Were you surprised when they opened restaurants that became popular neighborhood establishments?
Jimmy Bradley: Joe and I started working together in 1995 or 96, he was one of my sous chefs at Bryant Park. He was living in California when we opened the Harrison and I asked him to come back and open it for us. He did the Harrison for a long time and we almost did a deal in LA, but at the 11th hour we decided not to do it. So when I opened an Italian restaurant called Pace I told Joe that he can be the chef and that he can do whatever he wants. And then Mr. Chow offered me a million dollars for Pace. We bought it in 2004 for a $100,000 and we sold it in 2005 for a million dollars. Call it whatever you want to call it, but if you were playing poker, they’d call you a winner, I know that for a fact. At the end of the day we sold it to Mr. Chow and I wrote Joe a big check. I said, “You know, you did not have anything to do with this decision and I feel bad because you’re a good guy, and if I were you I would start a company right now and put that money in it. I would open a restaurant,” and so we talked about the food and my one idea was I would do those sliders, because when we did them together at an event in Hawaii about six years ago people freaked out for them. So he called me up and he said, “Jimmy, I’m going to do this restaurant and I’m going to do the sliders.” And I was like, “That is totally cool.” The best compliment in the restaurant business is when your employees go out and open businesses that are good for the neighborhood and are successful and that aren’t untrue to the person that I know them to be.

NYRI: Sometimes its also difficult to know if a chef is ready for that responsibility, or if they are rushing it.
Jimmy Bradley: These are two distinctly different thoughts that go through your head when you get the big job: “I made it,” or “oh shit, what do I do now?” And most people say “I made it,” right? The perfect example would be George Bush, “I made it and watch what I am going to do, I am going to take lots of vacations, it’s going to look like this. I have lots of advisors and short meetings and a good tan.” And then there are the other people who said, “Oh my God I have the weight of the world on my shoulders.” When Lyndon Johnson left his job he said to Richard Nixon walking out of the capital steps, “If you are as happy to be coming in to this job as I am to be leaving it, you are a very happy man today.” That guy wore it everyday, all day. He is one of the only guys ever to say “I do not want this job anymore, this is too much.” And who takes the job after him? A crook. So it is a perfect analogy.

    photo of: Jimmy Bradley Sauteed Halibut

NYRI: Any interest in the current president-picking popularity contest we have going on now?
Jimmy Bradley: Honestly, I would like to see a young president, and John McCain is an old man and he is not going to do anything. I think Mitt Romney would probably do a lot of good stuff but he still scares me. But you cannot put Huckabee in the White House, he has some ideas that are all right but I look at George Bush who has one state dinner in 12 years because he does not know how to entertain and because he’s scared of it and he does not drink. Ben Franklin moved to France and got the French to pay for the American Revolution and he did it after midnight drinking with French Royalty. This is the guy who wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac - early to bed early to rise - this is the guy who did not have a sip of booze but when duty called, he was like “this is how it gets done.”

NYRI: Have you done any TV chef appearances in the past?
Jimmy Bradley: Sure, I’ve done some morning shows, and I was also on Nightline for the trans-fat thing. I was so bullshit about that, I mean seriously, this is what we’ve come up with? Everybody talks about how fat America is, and the solution is a law? I just do not see it, so they asked “me do you have an opinion,” and I said “do I ever! This is one step away from Soylent Green!” There is lack of accountability everywhere; blame this guy and blame that guy, I’m fat because of this, I’m unhealthy because of that. The ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans used to make you exercise as part of the political movement, as part of being a community. But anyway Nightline basically took my one point and I said, “Come on, really, laws over education. This is how we solve the weight problem in America?”

NYRI: So you’ll be at South Beach in Miami this month, what will your team be serving there?
Jimmy Bradley: I am doing two things. Bill McDaniel and I are going down and we’re going to make cold roast pork with tuna for this event called the Best of the Best, which is a walk-around tasting event. Then we have this competition like “Ready Set Cook,” set up one Saturday morning against a chef from Miami named Michael Schwartz. So we have one event where we cook to feed people and we have one event where we just show up with a mystery bag of ingredients.

NYRI: So, is your new partner Steven chomping at the bit to start a new project?
Jimmy Bradley: Well, he started during the holidays, and then we’ve been down at the Harrison every day for the last five weeks since then. We are both excited to do something different but if we were to walk away now, you would not be happy with where the things are that you have to deal with. Do you shoot the Golden Goose to buy another one or do you massage the Golden Goose until it has another one? Could you be trying too hard, could you be adding too fast, could you be trying to force something versus just letting it happen? We are both excited to do something, the chef here, Bill, wants to something. He’s been doing the same job for six and a half years. It’s all a measure of how you wanted to impact your personal life, what do I want to put into it, what I want to get out of it. I would imagine it changes with everybody through the years. In your 20’s, you could drink and smoke all night long and everybody thinks you’re cool. In your 30’s, you can do that and half the people think you’re cool. In your 40s’, you’re just a loser. So, without reinventing yourself, we all progress in a certain way.

    photo of: Jimmy Bradley Baked Fontina

NYRI: Speaking of progressing, when are you getting married?
Jimmy Bradley: I think in the summer of ’09. I have a brand new business partner and I have some things I want to work on, and I wouldn’t even mind opening another business before that happens.

NYRI: Are you are hoping to work less after you get married?
Jimmy Bradley: No, not necessarily work less but you try to do things in clips so you can set them up and check them off as opposed to having a constant static line where it is always just a live wire. There are lots of people who want to be the white knight. Everyday you ride in and save the day because it was set up that way. The smartest way to do this is with a simple conversation, if we all agree on it then what else is there to talk about? A lot of people like to feel like they have to be needed whereas I feel like the more I am not needed than the smarter I am, because I set up a better system. When you get married, you want to be around. You don’t get married and say “Guess what, I’m going to work today at 9 a.m. and I am going to get home tonight at 10. I’m sorry. I‘m going to do it six days this week and six days next week and six days the week after that. I’m sorry.” Pretty soon you won’t be having the same conversation.

NYRI: I’ve been hearing people saying that if we’re either headed for a recession or we’re already in one. Do you think your type of restaurant is more recession-proof than others?
Jimmy Bradley: I would say that because the way we do business we are a little bit more insulated than other people. Whenever there is a recession, the first thing that goes is high-end luxury and the last thing that goes is comfort. But we do not necessarily see a slowdown in the patronage of our business yet, because this is New York. But honestly one of our deepest, sincerest goals was to have people walk into the restaurant and not feel like it was a New York City restaurant, and the service was not connotative of a typical New York gruff, burly, uncaring, insincere hospitality. Not that that is the norm, but New York is somewhat known for that - you cannot deny that we do not have that bit of a reputation. But, someone tell me why the waiter has to be a douchbag? I had dinner not that long ago in a very popular restaurant that was totally full. I do the same thing when I arrive for dinner where I’ve never been to, I say “What’s good, what should I have, what would you have?” The guy looked at me and said “Sir, I take orders I do not make recommendations.” So, I said okay can you send the wine steward over? The wine steward came over, and I said “can we have this bottle of wine, oh and see that guy over there? Make sure he never ever, comes to this table ever again.” The guy looked at me and goes “For real?” and I said “For real,” and he says “ok, I’m on it.” He brought me a bottle of wine and he was my waiter for the rest of the night. Would you want to be spoken to that way?

NYRI: On the other side of the coin, sometimes customers can be very rude to waiters.
Jimmy Bradley: There are a lot of entitled people in this town, and there are a lot of people who show up without reservations and say “I have a reservation.” They’ll read a publication like yours and call the Red Cat and say “I’m a friend of Jimmy Bradley and I used to go to the University of Rhode Island with him” because they have read it in an article, and they’ll say “can I have a table please?” It gets much worse than that; one time I had a customer read an article about me, not a customer but a thief. He called my manager and said that we were driving home from my house in Rhode Island and there were car troubles and he had to come by the restaurant and pick up $400. He recited my little brother’s name, the name of the town where my house is, and the kind of car that I have. So the manager said come on by I will give you the money. Then he called me up and he said “Just so you know, I’ve got the money.” And I said to him, “Just so you know, I don’t have any idea what the fuck you’re talking about, but whatever you’re doing you should undo it right now!” My employee said, “you mean you’re not in your car with a guy name John driving home from Rhode Island with your little brother?” I said, “No, I’m making dinner, drinking a beer in my apartment. Are we done?”

NYRI: Did the guy show up?
Jimmy Bradley: Yes, of course the guy showed up. Where there is a will, there is a way. I could not imagine identity theft proliferations on this scale. It is the nefarious subterranean underbelly of America rearing its head!

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