Jimmy Bradley and the Role of Confidence in Being a Chef and Creating a Restaurant
[Note: This is our monthly sister post to the Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater. Click over there to read our interview with Jimmy Bradley.]
NEW YORK, NY — A few weeks ago, during a quick visit to the Napa Valley, I caught up with Brian Bistrong, chef de cuisine of Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant in Yountville. As we were talking, our mutual friend, Jimmy Bradley, chef-owner of The Red Cat and The Harrison in New York City, came up.
Brian had cooked for David Bouley before he became executive chef of The Harrison, Red Cat’s sister restaurant in TriBeCa, where we got to know each other. He then returned to Bouley as chef de cuisine after Braeburn, his own restaurant in downtown Manhattan.
We kicked around some stories about Jimmy, then I asked what it had been like collaborating with him.
“I learned a lot working for Jimmy,” he said, without hesitation.
The swiftness with which the answer came made me think that it was something Brian had spent some time reflecting on in the intervening years. For me it was actually a surprising comment because, with no disrespect to Jimmy (who’s one of my best friends), given Brian’s professional pedigree, I wondered what Jimmy could have shown him, culinarily speaking. I asked Brian what he meant.
With zero hesitation, he said: “Jimmy’s very sure of himself.”
That was the entire answer, and it made perfect sense. Anybody who knows him will tell you that Jimmy is a supremely confident guy, not just about his kitchen chops, but also–and I believe this is what Brian meant–about his personal style and his unwavering commitment to it, and to just being himself in any situation, personal or professional. The exchange made me think about the role confidence plays in being a chef and restaurateur, and of how many of my favorite restaurants–the ones I visit regularly and never tire of–are natural extensions of the chef-restaurateur’s personality, or more specifically, a confident chef-restaurateur’s personality.
Over in our Kitchen Time Machine interview, Jimmy talks about how he and his former partner Danny Abrams went about fashioning The Red Cat. It’s a topic we’ve explored over the years, and which he discusses at length in the introduction to The Red Cat Cookbook, on which we collaborated. What goes unsaid in our chat about the restaurant’s idiosyncratic design, combining farmhouse wood and Moroccan lanterns; then-radical menu options such as sardines and calf’s liver; and his approach to menu-writing where he essentially committed his own food slang to the page (an example of a chef literally writing), is the confidence it took to gut out those decisions. (In a similar conversation I recently had with LA’s Bruce Marder–which I will post early next week–Bruce told me that when you are readying a restaurant, you need to have the inner strength to withstand the onslaught of opinions from others, which threaten to knock you off your vision.)
Jimmy is one of thousands of chefs for whom the kitchen was a sanctuary, and a salvation. He grew up living mostly in his father’s house in Narragansett, Rhode Island. His dad was an early culinary role model who shopped local farmer’s markets–the hippie-dippy 70s versions set up in local parking lots, not today’s more structured and celebrated models–and improvised dishes at home. Jimmy also ate in a lot of New England fish houses, and in time began working in one, though it was only by accident that he found his way into the kitchen, as a punishment for some shenanigans in the front of the house. His parents were divorced, and when his mother, she of Italian descent, moved to Philadelphia, Jimmy spent extended periods of time there, occasionally working in kitchens as well.
Jimmy will be the first to tell you that had he not discovered cooking, he has no idea what would have become of his life, but he’s pretty sure it wouldn’t have been very pretty. That said, his background gifted him street smarts and fortitude. Having basically wandered into the kitchen, he pretty much followed his nose to whatever next job seemed best for him, spending time in seven states over nine years. We had a recent conversation about this in which he said, “My approach to the whole thing was much more like a journeyman. I was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America but I didn’t go. One of my goals was not to have a mentor and to find my voice as soon as I could, so I approached it much more like you would approach a trade position, an apprentice‑type position, to a craft.”
As much as any chef I’ve ever worked with, Jimmy talks about cooking the way scribes talk about writing, hence the “find my voice” comment above, and his constant references to “editing,” which come up in our Kitchen Time Machine interview, as well. Just as a writer’s subject matter and style tend to be an amalgam of personal reference points and things we admire, The Red Cat has always represented the disparate parts of Jimmy’s personal history and personality, a composite of his takes on coastal New England standards and Italian-American classics, with a little bit of whatever-the-hell-I-feel-like on the side, all set in a room that he wants to hang out in with some of his own artwork on the walls and the music he loves playing on the sound system. Not mentioned in our KTM interview is a snack simply called Baked Fontina with Garlic and Rosemary that’s advertised on a little chalk board behind the bar that is the very definition of Jimmy’s mantra of “under-promising and over-delivering” — the cheese is baked to the boiling point in a cast-iron pan, and served with rolls that, when dunked into the molten fontina, yield something that’s a cross between a fondue and a sauce-less pizza. It’s one of my favorite things in New York City.
Beyond the food and beverage programs at his restaurants (also discussed over on Eater, some of them in Part 2, coming Monday), there are other touches that give The Red Cat its distinct personality. The one I always think of is the radishes: Radishes are, to casual observers and customers, an unexplained signature element of The Red Cat’s DNA: They are served at the bar and a radish is one of the restaurant’s logos.
The radish as bar snack came about, in Jimmy’s words, “because I wanted to do something that no one else was doing. I didn’t want to serve pretzels or peanuts or popcorn. I didn’t want to put out vegetable chips, which was pretty current at the time we opened [in 1999]. So I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew I didn’t want those things. I didn’t want eggs, you know? I didn’t want what other people were doing.
“I like to eat radishes with salt as a snack when I’m drinking. So I put a couple of bowls of radishes out, I put a couple of bowls of salt out, and people were like, ‘Wow! What is this and why is this?’ It’s the only place I’ve ever done it. After two or three years, one of my friends drew me a line drawing of a radish that I ended up using; the Red Cat has three logos, and I use them depending on what the outlet is.” (The third logo is an RC icon based on a wooden sign that used to be outside the restaurant.)
Those decisions exemplify Jimmy’s approach to his restaurants. They are places run on instinct, as much an extension of one’s personality as the most memorable dorm room you ever hung out in. Neither The Red Cat nor The Harrison were the product of marketing or hospitality consultants–who among them would have okayed three different logos in the age of branding as king?–or panicked consultations with friends and confidants; they were largely the product of one man’s vision and taste, and they are case studies in what it means for a chef-restauranteur to know his or herself, and to lay it all out there with the confidence that people will relate to it and embrace it.
Of course, not everybody has the taste or the talent to make that formula work, but for those who do, loyalty and longevity await.