Jimmy Bradley – the man behind iconic New York spots The Harrison and The Red Cat – is not your typical restaurateur. Throughout his career in New York City, he wanted nothing to do with chef mentor reputations, restaurant designers, or customers claiming to know his name (especially when they weren’t regulars). We think that’s where all of his success comes from: Creating timeless spots based on the very simplest of customer concepts, or as Bradley calls it, a business plan based on what the pilgrims would do. From the start, Bradley has created a foundation for himself that allows for an everlasting and ever-evolving business, which is why we couldn’t help but pick his brain on…well…everything.
You have two great restaurants that are timeless New York spots. What do you attribute that longevity to?
I wanted to have restaurants that were continuously current throughout their whole lifespan, and didn’t need to reinvent themselves. I just wanted to do things that made people happy, rather than what many restaurateurs think, like, ‘What’s the best location I can buy?’ or, ‘How many celebrity investors can I have to tell the story?’ or, ‘Can I hire the world’s most expensive architect?’ I shooed all the common trends and picked a little affected store on tenth avenue in nowhere-ville to start, just because I felt a little bit like Brigham Young when I walked into this place. It was four white walls, and I thought, ‘This is the place.’ I thought that if I got that lease I’d know exactly what I would do there. I would just do comforting, hospitable business and offer the kind of food that I like to cook.
How do you update while staying true to what people love about your restaurants?
I set it up that way to begin with. If you make an Italian restaurant and start cooking French food, people don’t know what the hell you’re doing. But if your core business plan is a seasonal type of restaurant, it doesn’t feel like all of the other New York City restaurants. The basic unintentional business plan is “What would the pilgrims do?” If it’s just that – where you can grow it, you can catch it, and you can serve it – you’ve got a lot of built-in change.
So, what we have been doing since the day we opened, is promising ourselves that nothing will be there forever. When you like a dish, that dish is going to go away. We’ll tell you why it’s going to go away, and we’ll tell you what you want to have in its place. We’ll tell you that come this time next year, it will be back. It’s a constant process. We do it for lots of reasons – one being that it’s one of the ways we stay excited in our jobs. I’m pretty sure that if the chef is not that excited, the restaurant is not that exciting. If you want me to make Strawberry Shortcake 365 days a year, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be the most I could give. It’s a question of “How do we share in this process and still have everybody be rewarded from it?” It’s not the easiest way to do it. It’s one of the hardest ways to do it, but it’s the most fulfilling way. It’s like democracy. It’s the worst form of government except for all of the others that have been tried (as Winston Churchill said). I’m not trying to get people to figure out what I want to do, I’m trying to get them to figure out what they want to do all together.
Over time, have you found that your customers have gotten more knowledgeable?
Yes, customers are a lot more knowledgeable because of so many different avenues to find information, like blogs, the internet, and food shows. And the overall interest: If you weren’t an athlete, you weren’t thinking at all about calories and carbohydrates twenty years ago. Now there’s vegan, macrobiotic and gluten-free. Some of it is bullshit, but some of it isn’t. I do a lot of homework, and a lot of traveling, and I’ll ask someone I think is smart in nutrition how things work. I asked a Yogi the other day, “What do you think about vegan and gluten-free?” And he told me that, first of all, there’s no such thing as vegan outside of Los Angeles and New York City. It doesn’t happen in the world; do I need to tell you more?
I have a couple of friends that have celiac disease and can’t have gluten, but for the most part, [the gluten-free diet] has to do with weight control. When that’s the case, I’d say, “Who wants to live their life giving things up when they can live their life having things in moderation?” What kind of asshole philosophy is that? Just get with the program! Don’t give up on things necessarily; don’t quit on things. If you’re a heroine addict, you should probably quit! But I think processed flour is different – and I’m not sticking up for processed flour either. I think the way we serve food in America is a f*king atrocity – but we’ll get there. We were there already. We were an Agrarian society of small farmers once, and we will be again. It’s usually a twenty-five-year cycle. Like bell bottoms getting hot again in the nineties.
What was it like competing on Top Chef Masters?
There’s this thing about the culinary arts where it’s pretty accepted to be aggressive and try to be king of the mountain. ‘Look at me, listen to me, look who I can hire, look what I made.’ It’s like that with professional athletes and it’s somewhat like that in the other curtain-goes-up businesses. I think as a small business owner in America I have to compete all day, every day for every dollar there is. I have to figure out how to stay current, how to have a great staff and train them, what kind of food I want to be making and what’s popular and what isn’t. I’m not necessarily a big fan of those competitions. I think it’s a little stupid because we compete every day already, but then I also think it’s kind of cool. I think it’s cool that people want to talk about food and watch food TV, so I’m a little bit torn about it. In the end it wasn’t really my top priority. It was more that I just wanted to see it, touch it, and understand it.