How Chef Brad Farmerie Helped Build a Restaurant Empire
Brad Farmerie has arranged himself neatly into a booth at Saxon + Parole (316 Bowery), an easy smile across his handsome face, as he talks about the keys to his success in the restaurant industry in New York, a town he'd never cooked in before he came here to help his brother, Adam, a partner at design firm/restaurant group AvroKO, open Public (210 Elizabeth Street, 212-343-7011) in Nolita 11 years ago. We're nearly finished with our conversation when he begins talking about how he eats at home: vegetarian, mostly, not for moral reasons, but for health and ease.
This stands in stark contrast to what he's known for in his restaurants -- Public convinced diners that they could eat pork blood and blood sausage and kangaroo, among other "gory bits," as Farmerie calls them. But, he says, it's not so different: "I find those to be great challenges to work with," he says. "You have to convince someone that pork blood is an ingredient just like you have to work to convince someone that a vegetarian or vegan dish can be fulfilling."
And then he drops a mantra that defines his work as a chef and explains why he's managed to help AvroKO's restaurant group blossom, with several projects in New York City and others scattered across the globe: "It's how can I make it edible versus how can I make it memorable," he says.
Pressed further, he elaborates on how he thinks about cooking: "I want this tripe dish to be THE tripe dish, not just an edible tripe dish. Restaurants often send chefs the gory shit, and often they don't know what they're doing. Chefs would send me blood sausage, and it would come out, like, crimson. That's not cooked. I'd be like, how do I get out of this?"
Farmerie learned the value of good food early. His mother was of Lebanese descent, and she was an excellent cook who baked her own bread, kept a kitchen garden, and put something different on the table each night. When he went off to study engineering at Penn State, he found himself gravitating back toward the kitchen -- he took a job as a cook to help pay the bills, but he could hardly wait to get out of his classes each day to get back to the burners. "It was lawless, like a pirate ship," he recalls. "I was having fun with food, creativity, and making people happy. I started falling in love with that side of it, the creative side."
The chef's parents encouraged him to explore -- and to go abroad. So he headed off to London, where his brother Adam lived, "to see where the winds blew me," he says. He never left. Stints in Michelin-starred restaurants and progressive kitchens followed culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, and Farmerie was content to stay where he was until Adam asked if he'd come to New York City to help AvroKO put together a restaurant. "We threw a bunch of ideas together, and that became Public," he says. "On paper, it was a bad idea. Here were guys who'd never built restaurants, and I'd never lived or worked here. I'd also never been a head chef."
Inspired by Peter Gordon, with whom he'd worked in London, Farmerie decided to celebrate Australia and New Zealand on Public's menu. "London had a huge Antipodean culture," he says. "Things that we celebrated in everyday restaurants there were not being showcased in New York or America. Peter helped us formulate a plan -- and then he helped get a bunch of great people behind us to showcase the products."
New York wasn't totally sure what to make of Public when it opened, but diners quickly embraced it. "We had kangaroo on the menu, but no beef and no chicken," says Farmerie. "People thought it was for shock value. We probably sold one kangaroo a night. Now, it's one of the most popular items on the menu." The restaurant also introduced the city to a number of exotic spices, including, says the chef, aleppo pepper, which you now see everywhere.
In 2006, AvroKO's team wanted a creative outlet with which they could experiment, and so they opened the Monday Room next to Public, a wine bar where the kitchen served odd bits like cockscomb and tongue in tapas format. The Monday Room eventually became the Daily, a cocktail bar where the food and beverage list changes, as the name suggests, daily. In 2008, the group opened Double Crown on the day Lehman Brothers failed, setting off the financial crisis. "That was a great lesson," says Farmerie. "It got great reviews, but it never took off." In 2011, it became Saxon + Parole, a rollover the chef initially lamented as a failure and later embraced as evolution.
That move strengthened the group, though: "We don't fear change," says Farmerie. "If you stand still, you'll get run over by the herd." That risk-taking spirit also guided the group through many other projects, including the Thomas in Napa, another Saxon + Parole in Moscow, and a partnership with JetBlue, even as AvroKO has continued to build out and consult on other restaurants. It's also a key to how the group has remained relevant in New York.
The other key to staying relevant, says Farmerie, is to stay true to yourself and stay interested. "We instruct our chefs to think about what's interesting to them," he says. "If it's true to you, it's going to feel honest and come out really well."
That's why, 11 years in, Public still commands crowd. "It always feels good," he says. "It's nice to sit there and be really proud of what everyone is doing."
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