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A Trip Back to Chelsea in the '90s With Jimmy Bradley

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Welcome to Kitchen Time Machine, an interview series in which author and Toqueland blogger Andrew Friedman sits down with some of New York's most iconic chefs and restaurateurs. Right now: part one of Andrew's interview with Jimmy Bradley.

[Adam Lerner]

Chef-owner Jimmy Bradley's a little younger than most of the chefs and restaurateurs I've been interviewing for this series. But because my editors at Eater have long desired an interview with him, we took the occasion of The Red Cat's 15th birthday as an opportunity to dialogue with this industry veteran. In addition to The Red Cat, which helped pioneer Chelsea as a viable dining neighborhood, Jimmy owns and operates The Harrison in Tribeca. We sat down recently in his office beneath The Red Cat and talked over a wide variety of topics. (Full disclosure: Jimmy's a close friend and we collaborated on his Red Cat Cookbook together.)

Andrew Friedman: Has it really already been 15 years?
Jimmy Bradley: Yeah. The Red Cat opened for friends and family, I think, on Thursday, April 26, 1999.

Were there other spaces in town that were almost the home of the Red Cat?
Yeah, there were a couple.

Where were they? Where might this restaurant have been if different tumblers had fallen into place?
Well, I had a couple of thoughts, in hindsight, that were very contrarian. And people weren't really embracing them the way I was. What I was taught is that there's three Ls of real estate: Location, location, location. To me the location didn't matter so much, obviously. 10th Avenue in 1999 was not a marquee location at all.

What was it like when you guys came here?
This part of town was where you went to buy dope or get hookers. That is not a fine dining address. Chelsea, far west Chelsea was nothing. There was very little over here. The guy who sold me the place, I said, "Why did you sell me the place? Because I feel like the neighborhood is turning." And he said, "If I shoveled that sidewalk one more time to watch no one walk down it, I was going to kill myself."

So I had a couple of deals. I had two letters of intent; one of them was at this place called Byron's Argentinian Steakhouse, and Byron was a 300 pound, five foot tall, Argentinian guy who wore a black suit with white socks. And the restaurant that's in there now is called Do Wa, a Korean place.

Where's that?
It's on Carmine Street on the corner of Carmine and maybe Bedford. And then we were looking at this other deal on the Upper West Side and my business partner at that time, Danny Abrams, was very comfortable and enjoyed the Upper West Side.

He had worked in a lot of places up there.
Yeah. It was his territory. I never enjoyed the Upper West Side. Other than the park, I couldn't figure out why anybody in New York would want to be there. But that was just for what I wanted to do. It wasn't a personal statement. And so we were looking in the West Village. We were looking everywhere.

Where on the Upper West? Was there a particular spot?

Bruce Willis was a bartender here for seven years before he got the Moonlighting gig, and Bruno Kirby and Treat Williams were the business partners.

Yeah, there was a place on, like, 88th and Amsterdam that we were looking at. So 88th and Amsterdam or Bedford and Carmine. So we're out there and we're raising money and people are asking about it and we have letters of intent out there and we're really pushing the ball forward. And I'm in a taxi one day and I'm driving up 10th Avenue and and I see the federal marshals putting tape out in front of the Red Cat space, of what was then Chelsea Central.

It was Chelsea Central for 15 years and Bruce Willis was a bartender here for seven years before he got the Moonlighting gig, and Bruno Kirby and Treat Williams were the business partners. And then for a nanosecond after that it was a restaurant called Zucca, and the owner was obviously dishonest in some way because that's how come the federal marshals seized her property.

So I stopped the cab. I had a business plan on me, and I slide the business plan under the door and then I leave. And like a day later somebody calls me up and says, "I got your business plan. Somewhat interesting. I'm the landlord. Do you want to meet?" So I come over and I meet with him and I walk in the front door and it was like a Brigham Young moment. Like I'm standing on top of the mountain looking down at the valley, and I just had one thought: "This is the place." Four words. That's it.

Well, interestingly enough, I had no substance to have that opinion. None whatsoever. It was just my instinct. And I said to my business partner Danny Abrams, "What do you think?" And he said, "Listen, I'm born and raised in New York City. I don't even know where Carmine Street is myself. We've got a chance to do a deal on an avenue and it's not Amsterdam Avenue, it's a numbered avenue. We should chase that." That's a real New York moment type decision. And then we thought, "We're not looking for a marquee location, so if we can get an avenue location in a developing neighborhood, this could be great."

Before we go away from Chelsea Central, there were a lot of big names who had either their first or second chef gig in that space.

[At the time] I didn't know that [when it was Chelsea Central] Bruce Willis tended bar here for seven years until the day he got the Moonlighting job with Cybil Shepard. I didn't know that Treat Williams and Bruno Kirby were the money. And I didn't know that they actually had a really good business. They had maybe New York's first gastropub. We're talking 1978. And it had brick walls and it had red London phone booths in it but it also had badasses in the kitchen. There were two different two star reviews before I bought the place, both from Bryan Miller, a very respected critic of the New York Times, for the kitchen and the contribution they were making to New York. And so some of the names that I learned about while I was deciding if we could do the deal and how interesting the deal was, were Rick Moonen, who was a chef here. Tom Valenti was a chef here. Don Pintabona was a chef here. And Gerry Hayden.

These people had all been the chef?

Either the chef or the executive sous chef. But the first ones I mentioned...

The first two, yeah.

...were the chefs.

Moonen and Valenti.

And I'm pretty sure that Gerry Hayden was the chef here at one point, too. Paul Zweben and Don Pintabona, I'm not exactly certain.

I've always thought — and I thought I might do it this year around our 15th anniversary — of putting everybody together and saying these were all the chefs that worked at this location, and maybe raising some money. I thought it might be a good thing to put us all together maybe at the Beard House or a bigger venue where we could cook for more people and raise more money and maybe donate all the money to an ALS charity on behalf of Gerry Hayden. I haven't done that yet but it's something that's in my mind.

And so I learned about who the proprietors were and I learned about the type of business they had and I learned about the neighborhood and I learned about the physical plant and the kitchen operations, and they all just verified what I felt in my gut: This is the place. This is perfect. This is a vanilla box. This is four blank walls and I get to do whatever I want to do. And it's worked out for people in the past, and my ideas aren't that different from where it is that they might have found success. In other words, a great neighborhood restaurant. Not a restaurant that talks about themselves all the time. In has nothing to do with your celebrity architect or your celebrity investors or all this stuff that we get caught up in in doing deals. It just was just a pure extension of doing what you want to do, giving the people what they want and being a place for the people and the community. And if you can do that and then you can capitalize on other momentum, you could have a great business. So if you're there for the community and then you have that, the next step is being there for another geographic location, so maybe the West Side, and then the next one would be maybe all of Manhattan, and the next one would be all of New York, and the next one would be America, then the next one would be the world. And if you can pull customers from all those areas, you could have a successful business.

Talk to me about the decor of this place. Where did all this stuff come from? The artwork, the lanterns?

Basically, I said to the designer, Mark Zeff, who's a genius, "I want this thing to look like New England goes to Paris and doesn't take a stop off at Martha Stewart's house. Other than that I'm not going to give you a lot of direction. Here's the menu. I want the decor to match the menu and feel a certain way just like I want the wine list to match the menu and feel and send a certain message."

So my message is this: It's very simple. I want people to walk in and say, "I was not expecting this. This doesn't look and feel like I thought it would." And then when they left, they would say, "That was really something that was excellent and I might not have been expecting it." So it kind of fit into our thought of under promising and over delivering.

The Red Cat doesn't mean a thing. There is no red cat. There is no boat called The Red Cat.

So I want this place that doesn't feel like New York but doesn't necessarily tell you what it is, you know? And it's also the name. The Red Cat. The Red Cat doesn't mean a thing. There is no red cat. There is no boat called The Red Cat. There is nothing. The Red Cat is a figment of imagination and it's a placeholder. And what it was meant to do was to be a blank canvas. It's like the chicken. The chicken's going to do whatever you want it to do, right, where the mackerel isn't.

So the Red Cat. You can't say you can't have a preconceived notion. You don't even know it's a restaurant by the name of it, right? So it's not blah, blah, blah bar and grill. It's not blah, blah, blah located here. It's not Jimmy's or Johnny's. I wanted it to be suggestive and a little whimsical or maybe louche but I didn't want it to be totally suggestive.

So again, a blank canvas. It's going to be whatever it's going to be and you're not going to know what it's supposed to be until you come. And then it is what it is after you left and you leave and you formulate your own opinion.

[Adam Lerner]

What about the artwork? Wasn't a lot of this your artwork?

Yeah. Both Danny and I contributed some things. We were in the new gallery neighborhood so we didn't want to be with one gallery; we wanted to be with all of them. We don't want people to think that we're only this dimensional when we can be more dimensional. So we didn't actually do business with any galleries and we didn't really highlight what we were doing. We just bought things that we liked and we hung them up. And then it kind of translated. And we didn't end up offending anybody and people appreciated what we were doing.

We went to Pennsylvania a few times and bought a lot of stuff out of used furniture places or closed buildings in Pennsylvania. We bought our chairs from a schoolhouse in Pennsylvania so they're carved with people's initials and slang and so on. I bought 75 or 85 chairs for $15 a chair, and 15 years later, I still have them, where a good restaurant chair costs in between two and 400 bucks and they last you for three to six years. I have $15 chairs that lasted 15 years. We bought an old dilapidated barn building and took it down and used the wood and nailed it to the walls.

So we were doing a bunch of DIY stuff but it wasn't because we wanted to do DIY stuff; it's because we wanted a certain look and no one was really embracing that look then. This re claimed stuff that's wildly popular now really wasn't out there at all.

It was hard to be cheap.

Yeah, it was difficult to be cheap, and then when you have an architect like Mark Zeff it's near impossible. So he contributed a few ideas and then he just said to Danny and me, "Tell me what you want to do and we'll see if we can make an amalgamation of our ideas." So Mark's idea was these big oversized Moroccan lanterns. I was like, "Really? New England goes to Paris, and then Moroccan lanterns?" He's like, "Yeah, you'll see." You juxtapose that against the wainscoting that's 100 years old and the schoolhouse chairs, it's going to send a message that no one else is sending at this moment. And he was right.

What about the way you name dishes on your menu? There's this style you kind of adapted when this place opened. I associate it with the menu format of a place like Gotham Bar and Grill -- the protein up top in bold, all caps, and then maybe three components right under that in italics. But there's a casualness about the way you do it, like "Yukon mashed" [instead of "mashed potatoes"] or "reds and greens" [instead of naming the actual vegetables]. Where did that style come from?

It's how I talk.

It's how you talk in the kitchen or how you always talk?

It's how I talk to people about food. The menu you struggle with because the written word is the written word, and proper punctuation and grammar and capitalization is very important, but it isn't if it's a document that's not supposed to be correct. So if your title is in all caps or bold then you can eschew the grammar, text and/or the capitalization rules. So someone would say that Yukon should be capitalized. I'd say, "It should be if I were writing a book." But because I'm writing a menu, less is more.

What happened to me is once I figured out that I wanted to be a chef, I figured out that I wanted to own my own restaurant and then it dawned on me that I really was an editor. Somehow I was born with an edit function. Less words, less everything. In other words, why do you need to talk? If the quality's there, the words shouldn't mean a lot.

For more of Andrew Friedman's thoughts on Jimmy Bradley, head over to Toqueland. And stay tuned for part two of their conversation on Monday.

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The Red Cat

227 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10011