“I started cooking when I was a kid because I was the youngest of five in a big family,” recalls Ryan Hardy, executive chef of Charlie Bird. “We were like slave labor, and cooking would teach us discipline and keep us busy on hot summer days. I hated it at the time, but the life lessons sunk in.”
What started as a chore later became a vehicle for Hardy’s passion for people and culture, initially fueled by a nomadic lifestyle that he embraced when he was in his 20s when he moved all over this country and learned each region’s food. He took his first trip to Europe in 2001, which he says was “mind-altering,” a window into relaxed cultures that place a lot of emphasis on taking the time to share meals around a table.
Back in the U.S., he finished an accounting degree–“it helped me a lot, though it was boring as hell,” he says–and then enrolled in culinary school, which he maintains jumpstarted him, although he’s more hesitant to recommend that path to others. “Culinary school is not for everyone,” he says. “If you really need direction, it’s great. Otherwise, take the money you’d spend in culinary school and go live in another country. Then come back and ask for a job–I guarantee you’ll get it.”
When he graduated, he talked his way into a position at Rubicon in San Francisco. “Every hour there was worth 200 hours in culinary school,” he says. “You felt like you were going to get fired every day you went to work.” He stayed on for about a year and a half there before moving to Aspen, Colorado, where he worked with Charles Dale at Renaissance, one of that town’s most-lauded fine-dining meccas. It was Dale who kept Hardy in Aspen, too, even with an offer from French Laundry in his pocket. “He said, ‘Look, things are changing. Casual dining the future.'” Hardy was convinced, and he stuck around to open Rustique Bistro, which generated national accolades.
The chef left Aspen for a bit after that, moving to Santa Fe and Martha’s Vineyard and doing some consulting New York City, but then in 2005, an offer from Aspen’s Little Nell called him back to the west, not least because his then-wife didn’t want to move to NYC full-time. So Hardy made the most of it, starting from scratch on the Little Nell menu to instill a seasonal focus, an often-frustrating (though rewarding) conquest. “When I moved to Aspen in 2005, you couldn’t get arugula,” he says. “You couldn’t buy a radish that resembled a radish. Potatoes were Yukon Golds.” He bought a farm where he grew most of the produce and networked with purveyors around the country. “I had a lot of fun out there,” he says.
After five years, the chef began toying with the idea of opening his own restaurant, but he ultimately concluded that it wasn’t economically viable to do it in Aspen, where restaurants really only do business for eight months of the year. He was also going through a divorce, and he decided it might be time to move to New York. So he reconnected with former Cru sommelier Robert Bohr–“an old friend,” he says–and the pair started looking for spaces. It took a little more than two years to find the right one. “We had five deals that went to the finish line and didn’t go through,” he says. The guys eventually found a spot in Soho, and they opened Charlie Bird at the beginning of the summer. “It took a while to find it, but this really worked out,” he says, finally settling into the neighborhood.
In part one of our interview, Hardy talks about creating market-driven dishes on the fly, why he keeps ketchup in the restaurant, and what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich says about a line cook’s personality.
Describe your culinary style.
We’ve been back and forth on this. Everyone wants a soundbite: Is the restaurant French? Italian? Pizza? What do those things mean? It’s like asking an author, “What’s your book about?” Well, it’s a story. When we wrote to the investors, I wrote a story called “The Moment,” and it was about the moment everything clicked. It happened to be when I was cooking in Rome. The strawberry guy walked in with strawberries, we had a big box of salami coming in from the north, and oysters were served at the same temperature as the ocean. We had one cooler the size of a wine rack, and that’s it. Everything got used, and it was delivered every day. Here, you can work in a place with seven walk-ins and 82 cooks. I realized then that I want to surround myself with four to five great people and take a chance on something that has real passion and heart. So my culinary style is Italian-influenced, American-executed, and of New York.
Describe how you run your kitchen.
As a team. I think it’s a family. I’m firm but fair and detail-oriented. I’m a bit OCD, but I think every chef is. Messy chefs don’t seem to last long. I’m obsessive over ingredients, and I constantly think about where we can get better stuff. I import these special olive oils. I work with the most incredible tomatoes you’ve ever had. I bring in this pasta with gold dye because bronze isn’t good enough. If you have those stories down, it tells you how to cook. I try to collect people that are like those ingredients, because if you get the blend right, you’ll have a good kitchen.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
I’m a market-driven guy, so I think, “What do I want to eat?” I look at the weather. I find inspiration in the things that surround us: We live on an island and an ocean. The Hudson Valley is incredible, and it’s a stone’s throw away. I live right by the farmers’ markets, and I make notes while I walk around.
Who or what inspires you?
I try not to mimic or copy. You’re not going to perform what others perform, so it’s better to make it your own. So I’m influenced more by art or architecture than other chefs. I like things that make me think, “How can we do something different?” And I mean that in a completely non-modernist way. We don’t even have an electric pasta-making machine. My mother-in-law comes here and makes gnocchi. She’s 70 and from Italy; I make the base, and she rolls them out. That’s a different approach than hiring a huge team to do it all. It’s the same with Robert’s wine list: Here’s the list, and here’s the handwritten list. We can’t duplicate that or scale it out–we want to to make an experience for people that’s a little refreshing. If we’re going to put things on the menu, they should be delicious.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
Michel Troisgros is one of my heroes. I had the honor of staying there. He and his wife are a team, and they do architecture, design, food, and hospitality better than anyone I’ve seen. They make fine dining very casual, and they make make casual dining very refined. David Chang has done a lot for our industry. Danny Meyer is a hero. Wylie [Dufresne] is doing things I’m glad he’s getting recognition for. I admire his tenacity and the fact that he’s on the line every night.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
My family, my staff, my waitstaff. People who are going to serve the food. The most important meal we serve every night is the manager meal, because they’re the people who represent the food in the dining room. Sometimes I create a new dish at home when I’m cooking with my fiancée, and something just comes up. I had the editor of GQ coming to dinner one night before the restaurant opened, and I ran home and was scrambling to put things together, and I realized I needed something for people to eat when they arrived. I had these bay scallops that I picked up. Everything else was already mise-ed out, so I did this little bay scallop dish with brown butter on it, and he said, “This is phenomenal, are you going to serve this in the restaurant?” Well, sure! So sometimes it’s like that.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
I love Misono, but I’m not a loyalist. I like Nenox, too. it’s great steel, and it sharpens well.
Are you partial to any of your spoons?
I’m not a spoon freak. I think it goes with style of cuisine. The more detailed you are, the more into spoons you are.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool?
A towel. I’m constantly cleaning. I’m a neat freak. If more chefs paid attention to that kind of thing, they’d probably do better. Also, the palette knife. I use it all the time for plating, cooking fish, and all pastry; it’s something I always have on me.
What’s the most underrated ingredient?
Colatura, a very expensive Italian soy sauce. It’s anchovy liquid. It’s extraordinary. It makes incredible salad dressings and brightens kimchi. Anchovies in general are very much underrated.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won’t accommodate?
This is something I learned from hotel hospitality: I’ll do anything I can if I can pull it off. We even have ketchup in the restaurant, and I’m happy to serve it, but it’s in an eight-ounce squeeze bottle that lives in the office. It’s easy for me to cook for people with allergies, and I love to cook for vegetarians because I love vegetables.
Is there an ingredient you won’t work with?
I try to stay away from endangered fish, because I love fish so much. I believe in the future of great food, so I stay away from those kinds of things.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
Bad food. I love nachos, I love burgers, I love mundane things, but I hate it when people don’t try. It takes so little effort to make something great. I used to give interns a test at the Little Nell [in Aspen]: Make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Did you choose a local house-made jam? Which bread did you grab? Was the peanut butter cold or at room temperature? Did you take the peanut butter and jelly to the edge? The sandwich is a symbol of who someone is. You just made this for me–did you stop and think about it?
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen?
Thanks. I don’t think it’s necessary to be gratuitous; we do this for a living. That’s why we’re in the hospitality industry. But thanks is great.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
A resurgence of restaurants in Manhattan. There’s been a play to Brooklyn and the outer boroughs and a big jump to ethnic foods. I can never get enough of that. But restaurateurs are making a big play in West and East villages again. Restaurateurs are thinking that opening a restaurant in Brooklyn is great, but there’s more population density in Manhattan–more can be done in this borough. And service is coming back. We gave up on service a bit because it’s costly, and people aren’t well-trained. But there’s an idea now that it’s a craft and people put in time to learn it, so it’s coming back.
What’s your local spot for a drink or a bite?
The Dutch. I drink at Milady’s. I love dive bars. Faicco’s sandwiches. Terrific $10 sandwich.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City?
For me, Franny’s. It’s really hard to get into, but it’s an extraordinary meal, and you really don’t hear about it much outside of New York City or maybe even outside of our industry. I have two stomachs: one for pizza, and one for everything else. That’s a great line from Robert [Bohr]. It’s true.
Who’s the most underrated culinary figure in New York City?
Sous chefs. They put more hours in, do hard work, and are the heart and soul behind the restaurant. We have an extraordinarily talented sous chef.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
Service. When you walk in the door here, you’re told your wait is an hour or two hours before the host even looks up from a screen. That’s not a welcome environment. On the culinary side, before we have a preconceived notion about how we’re going to deal with an ingredient, we want to take care of it. We should do the same with the guest. Let them get in the door. There might be a long wait, but you can still give hospitality.
What do you wish would go away?
Food trends drive me crazy. Cupcakes.
Part two of my interview with Ryan Hardy will run in this space tomorrow.