Jimmy Bradley’s been doing business in the New York City restaurant industry for decades, but if it’s worn him out in the slightest, it doesn’t show — he moves quickly and bouncily, loading up a pot of tea with sugar, offering drinks and food, rearranging table settings, and then answering interview questions with speed and intensity.
By his account, he should have gone into the wine business — his mother’s family owned vineyards in Italy and California, and then his cousin converted that company into an import and export shop when the family sold its American land to the Gallos. But Bradley didn’t want to do wine. He started making pizzas when he was 14 years old — after he forged his working papers so he could get a job — and then worked in the front of the house to pay his way through college. He was fired for shaving his head, but he convinced his manager to move him to the kitchen instead of letting him go. He cut his teeth shucking clams and oysters and making coleslaw and ravioli, working his way into a position on the line. “That was it,” he says. He never left the kitchen.
Intent on finding his own style, Bradley moved around a lot, refusing to adhere to one chef’s style. After a scholarship to culinary school fell through, he left a restaurant in Philadelphia to cook in Vail, Colorado, which led to his first head chef job on Martha’s Vineyard, a seasonal stint that allowed him to travel in the off-season. A few years later, he went out to Telluride to open a restaurant, only to return to the East Coast — with a $10,000 severance fee in his pocket — when the deal fell through.
He came to New York then, and though he didn’t plan on staying, he never left. After a couple of executive chef gigs, he started a consulting business and spent some time running chef-driven events for Food & Wine across the country. He also opened a couple of outlets of It’s a Wrap, a quick-service restaurant that was meant to be a chain.
In 1999, Bradley gave up his consulting business when he debuted The Red Cat (227 Tenth Avenue, 212-242-1122), which quickly became a Chelsea staple. A couple of years later, he started putting together the plans for The Harrison (355 Greenwich Street, 212-274-9310) in Tribeca. Build-out finished, he hired his team, and then delayed the opening because the kitchen wasn’t quite ready to go. And then 9/11 happened, nine blocks south of his new restaurant. He pressed on, and the restaurant became the first to open in the neighborhood after the tragedy.
Bradley’s empire grew with Mermaid Inn and Pace in the next couple of years, but when he dissolved his business partnership with Danny Abrams, he let those restaurants go and kept The Red Cat and The Harrison.
In this interview, he recounts those days right after 9/11 and divulges his secret to staying relevant.
You had a strong vision for your career trajectory. Talk to me about that.
I wanted to open my business by the time I was 30, and I opened the Red Cat when I was 31. Then I wanted to settle into a lifestyle and make enough money for a family. And I always thought when you’re 50, you should select another career, because you’ve been doing what you’re doing now for 35 years. I got there, for the most part — though I’m not 50 yet.
You were adamant about bouncing around different kitchens when you were young. Tell me about what you gained from doing that.
I came up in the ’80s, and there was the birth of the style of American restaurants as the are now. There was this in-between period where you still saw harsh old-school tactics and techniques. When I was coming up, if you were making an entree, it had specific requirements: It had to be served on a hot plate, and have a hot protein, a hot vegetable, and a hot sauce. We don’t do that any more. I saw a lot of things that were great, but I’d always ask, “Why?” But it was also asking, once that education was over, “What do people really want?” It took working with a lot of great chefs to see that — and it meant taking jobs what you knew you wouldn’t like. It was an unrelentless process of sacrifice. You’re not going to have a personal relationship when you’re moving so fast, quickly. I wasn’t letting anyone in because I was fulfilling what I felt I needed to do to be where I wanted to be.
I wanted to do things differently, and that’s why I needed to be my own boss. I worked with lots of great people, and they taught me skills, which were really great building blocks for a foundation.
You’ve had some really prolific chefs come out of your kitchens. Given that you did spend so many years moving from place to place, what’s your training philosophy?
Not having had the opportunity to go to school, I was investing myself in this demanding, unrealistic way. And I always said, if I got it going, I was going to give it back. If I like you and respect you, and I’m going to give it to you all for free. You can have any job in the building, you just have to do the one you’re doing now really well.
People represented challenges and opportunities, and that’s what I want to do for others. We know that not everyone comes to work for passion. Our best employees come with that, and what to get something and contribute to the busies. The ones that want to contribute, I’m drawn toward, we have a free-flow of information. Treat the thing kind of like a democracy. I have the big job, decision rests with me, but I want to share it — build a consensus and coalition. You’re no good unless people around you are good.
When we’re doing [service], the employees aren’t doing it for me, and they’re not necessarily doing it for the guest — they’re doing it for each other. We get this team bond. It’s like a basketball game — it’s for the fans, but really, it’s about the person standing right next to them. The system is not to put chips and place just to put chips in place — I want it to move, grow, and develop. This business is ever-changing. I like to hire and share on a deep level, and the process of sharing is making something that’s good for all parties concerned.
Talk to me about opening The Harrison right after 9/11.
We signed the lease in April 2001. We bought a restaurant called Spartina and turned it into the Harrison. We were trying to do something that wasn’t a New York statement. We wanted something that doesn’t feel like a normal New York restaurant. Something with soft, understated design — we wanted it to feel like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting. I wanted a warm amber glow spilling out from the doors.
We had two stops and starts. I hired 44 people, and during orientation, the chef made a bunch of food, and it wasn’t ready. I stopped the whole process, took two weeks off, and worked with the chef and business partner to tighten it down. We had another orientation. Right during that, 9/11 happened.
It was dark for a week or two, and we still had a little construction to do. There were a couple of checkpoints on Canal, and anyone who wanted to get south of Canal had to have a reason. So I had to walk to the checkpoint with a printed copy of my lease and identification and let the workers in several times a day. We had a third orientation. Out of the 44 people we had hired to open the restaurant, I think we lost three people. That’s unheard of.
We thought about not doing it for awhile, not opening ever, but we looked at the concept — it was a neighborhood restaurant. And it seemed that perhaps now, more so than ever, it was time for a neighborhood restaurant in Tribeca. If it goes out of business, those are terms you can learn to live with. Even our guests had to show ID to get to the restaurant, at least until the New Year. The air was different. It was not pleasant. It was full of rock dust, the smell of electricity, the smell of fossil fuel. But the weather was spectacular. I was pretty amazed to get guests, and we managed to stay in business.
How has the industry changed since you’ve been in the game?
The dining public has never been more educated, and the interest has never been better. My fear, though, is that just as everything becomes popular, it becomes unpopular. Food is an art form that satiates, but it’s not an art form at all, and some people in the business right now call themselves artists. But this is a vocation — we’re tradesmen. It’s very confused right now.
The industry has changed night and day in the last 50 or 70 years. When I was coming up, you still got a free salad, even at fancy restaurants. One of the first questions was, “What kind of dressing?” You’d get the same kind of vegetable on all the entrees. If it was good, it had to be French, and the waiters were in tuxedos. They’d play Vivaldi on the soundtrack, and there’d be gladiolas in the dining room. That’s not going to fly any more.
How has the Red Cat evolved in the last 15 years?
I love it when a guest says, “I love it here; nothing ever changes.” That’s not correct — if nothing changed in 15 years, it would be disgusting. The art of changing is making it feel like it doesn’t change. Because of where the Red Cat resides, we couldn’t afford to be pigeon-holed. We wanted the name not to be suggestive of anything. We’re not trying to be all things to all people.
Fifteen years on, what’s the secret to staying relevant?
The art is in staying relevant. I would think that you would want to eschew all trends and movements — you want to have a core and appeal to your core, and then have the ability to draw from everyone else. With the Red Cat, Chelsea is our core, and our goal is to have the residents of Chelsea dine with us several times a week. So it’s eschewing the trends, having a broad scope, a product that people want, and evaluating yourself on a constant basis. It’s desiring to grow and hang with the times. One thing to push yourself out of your comfort zone; it’s another thing to become something you’re not. The exercise is straddling that line. Our mantra: Preparation, commitment, consistency, discipline.
Any advice you’d give to people getting into the business now?
The best results are attained if you do something that you like to do.
Any pressing industry issues you want to sound off about?
There are not enough fish in the ocean. It’s going to get weird with seven billion people. I don’t know what the planet’s built for, but in the pursuit of higher populations, food will probably change the most. We’ll probably get to the point where we never use gasoline again. Water is water, and you only need a few things to keep you alive — but one of those components is food.
As for more direct concerns, in 2012, when you turned on the TV, every candidate said small business is the engine that runs America. First off, it’s not true — big business does whatever it wants, when it wants, and it gets bigger. And government has its hand in small business owners’ pockets, fleecing them. We have one of the smallest margins — we sell perishable goods. There’s no wiggle room. I would like to see a playing field that is more even and transparent.
What are your goals?
I have a couple of ideas for different restaurants that I’d like to bring to fruition, neither of which are being done right now, at least certainly not in New York. For the Red Cat, my goal is to turn 25. For The Harrison, the same thing. You sign leases in clips of years. That’s the next relative clip of years.
Are you really going to change careers at 50?
Probably not at 50, but maybe someday. Maybe it’s just changing where I live. I’ve been here 20 years now and I didn’t come to live here. So maybe it’s doing something somewhere else.