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Bradley on the Critics, Cancer, and 15 Years in Chelsea

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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. In part one of Andrew's chat with Jimmy Bradley, the chef remembered the opening days of The Red Cat. And in part two, here talks about growing the restaurant, dealing with cancer, and the state of the critics.

14243985042_04f0814384_b.jpg[Adam Lerner]

Andrew Friedman: What's new in your restaurants?

Jimmy Bradley: Well, the Red Cat turned 15-years old in April. The Harrison was 13-years old last October. What is new is often drawn from the seasons and it's drawn from where we find our excitement. At the Harrison I brought a new person in in management who is a seasoned person.

Who's that?
His name is Tony Edwards from La Madeleine restaurant. He's owned his own business for 25 years across the street from Esca, 43rd and Ninth. He said to me, "This food is delicious but the one thing that I noticed is you're all over the place." I said, "I don't know what that means. Can you elaborate?" He said, "It's not fusion and no dish has wrong ingredients or too many ingredients in it, but I see you have something here that would be, you know, Hungarian. And I see you have something here that's from the south in America. And I see something here that's really, a very California style thing. And I see something here that's really New England. And I see something here that just feels and looks like Italy. And it doesn't confuse me; it actually excites me."

So basically what's new is we're going to do whatever we want to do and we're going to find enthusiasm and interest amongst ourselves and then we're going to put it out there for the guest in hopes that they feel the same way. It kind of goes back to the liver thing and the sardine thing:

When we opened in 1999, I can't think of one white tablecloth fine dining restaurant in New York City that served calf's liver. I can think of a few that served sardines but really not that many. And so my business partner said to me, "That's our opening menu? Calf's liver as an entree and grilled sardines as a appetizer? No. That'll never fly. That'll never work." I said, "Yes, it will. You just don't believe in it. It might not be what you want to eat but if we make menus of what we want to eat it's not going to be perhaps the most interesting thing, so we're not going to do that, right?" "Okay. Fine."

So tell me why. And no one could tell me why. They just said, "It's instinct. Those aren't going to be high selling dishes." And I said, "They will be." So I made a deal with my partner. I said, "We'll serve the liver and we won't serve the sardines. But when somebody comes in and we want to do something nice for them, we'll send them out a free plate of food and it'll only be sardines. I don't care if they're six foot blonde tall models or if they're from America or not. I don't care if it looks like they don't eat fish or not. If we're making them something, that's what we're making them." So I was giving away five pounds of sardines a week, then it was 10, then it was 15. Then it was like, "They go on the menu."

Calf's liver: We would sell two a night. My business partner would say, "See? I told you so." And I would say, "You know what? I don't see it that way. I see it that people just need to feel comfortable. And once they trust you, they will order the things that they could be skeptical on." And now we sell 15, 20 orders of liver a night and people are really, really, really appreciative that we aren't just doing what's cool and what we think is interesting but what we know people enjoy.

What was the question?

What's new in your restaurants?
A lot of times what's new isn't what's new, you know? We're not trying to reinvent ourselves. One of the weird things is a guest will say to me, "I love this place because it never changes." But of course it changes. The art is in not showing you the changes. We're not looking for the trends. We're not looking to reinvent ourselves. But we are looking to be current.

So a lot of times what's new is about the seasons or about our enthusiasm but, you know, they're not things that would make you walk into the restaurant and say, "Oh, what is this, under new management? Did they hire a new designer?" When we make our changes, they're supposed to be somewhat noticeable but they're also supposed to not be.

It kind of goes back to how we approach the tabletop. We buy plates that are $65 or $70 a plate, we buy plates that are $30 a plate, and we buy plates that are $15 a plate, and we put them all on the table at the same time. Not a lot of people do that kind of stuff. But when somebody notices, a customer might say to me, "I'm pretty sure you just served me a piece of arctic char in a Bernardaud Limoge China bowl which I know is probably $50 or $100. What are you doing? You know you don't have to do that?" I say, "No, I do it because I like to do it. I do it because I enjoy that plate. I do it because I think the plate makes the food look better. It starts there." So if it ends up being more costly, it's not my go-to China, but it's all stuff we're going to use. So we probably have eight plate manufacturers. I don't know of very many people who have eight plate manufacturers.

A lot of what we do is for our enthusiasm and what separates us is little details like that. For instance, the wine list. There's probably 200 vendors out there that sell wine these days.

In New York.

Yeah. The easiest way to write a wine list is to look at where it comes from as well as what it is, not the grapes from California. Who's bringing you the wine and what's that fulfillment look like? So what I've noticed is a lot of people will have three, six, nine wine vendors. That's it. It's easier to be organized. It's easier to have smaller people to depend on and things like that. I said, "That to me is ridiculous." However many wines by the glass, that's the minimum number of vendors we have. We have 20 wines by the glass, we have 20 vendors. Every vendor who has a wine by the glass has to work for it. We don't do business with our friends just to do business with our friends. We don't buy what we want to buy all the time. We buy what makes sense for us. So we'll make our job that much more difficult.

Right now the Red Cat purchases from 47 different wine vendors. When I ask this question to my other friend-operators, none of them say that. None of them. There are lots of people, operators, who buy wine and have lots of vendors, but not usually in a two star type approach, maybe more in a three and four star type approach. So we're going to do things like that that aren't necessarily new but they're very different from what people are doing and it gives us a more dynamic exposure and we have more fun doing it and we have more product to work with, which is where the enthusiasm comes from.

This is a very different topic, but in the "what's new" department, how long's it been since you had your surgery?

It'll be three years in October.

And you had surgery to remove oral cancer.

Yeah.

That was out there in the public. But people who know us both are always asking me how you're doing. Do you want to just let people know how you're doing?

Yeah. I had a spot on my tongue that my dentist said he didn't like the way it looked and then they biopsied it and it had cancerous cells in it, and so we elected to have surgery and to cut a portion of the tongue out that had the growth on it. It was scary and concerning in the beginning because there's not a direct, "This is what's going to happen." If you do this, this is what will take place. So they said, "We have a lot of confidence that this hasn't spread anywhere and if we do this procedure we could make it go away forever. However, there's things that we can't be so confident about, and that would be your ability to taste and your ability to speak properly." Well, that makes sense. You have no way of knowing? "Well, we can guess, but everybody's different."

At the time you told me they thought maybe both of those things could take up to a year to resolve?

Yeah, it was, "You'll have a recovery. We can't be specific as to whether it'll be 70, 80, 90, 100 percent recovery in terms of speech and in terms of use of your palate." And they said, "We're not certain of the time frame. It won't be six months, but it might be a year or it might be 18 months, but after 18 months there won't be any more growth, or there won't be any more changes. But in between now and 18 months from now, it will look and feel and sound differently and we're not certain of the extent of that." So I had speech therapy.

After?

After. Maybe three or four times. And, well, I guess after the surgery it hurt a lot. And then it was swollen and it was difficult to use. So maybe about a month later I started to think about how does this sound and what can I actually taste? And those were diminished. Those were off. So let's work on that. And I would say after about three speech classes, when I was talking with the professor, he's like, "You're going to have a fine recovery and it'll probably be about eight months. We have confidence in you. You should feel good about where you are. I think you'll have a very high percentage of how it used to be, how your voice used to be, how your speech used to be. And then in terms of the palate, you know, we're not certain but you have to tell us about it and we can do tests, you know, not medical tests but, you know, field tests. You taste that. What's it taste like?"

And so it was diminished but then I could tell that there was growth and there was change, so I would say it was probably I probably lost maybe 10 or 20 percent of what I thought it was, and then since then it's probably grown back in the high 90s.

You still perceive the lack?

Yeah, sometimes.

Are there things that you just don't feel as intensely as you expect to when you put something in your mouth?

That's what it is. It's not a full dullness; it's just not as bright.

Acid's not acidy, hot's not as hot?

It's more with salt and sugar than with temperatures, and a little bit with bitterness. The acid's strong but a little bit with bitterness depending on where it is. I'd be like, "That's not so bitter. Oh, it is bitter." I have to move it around.

For people who ask, do you do re-checks and stuff like that?

Yeah, once a year you have a re-check. You know, the cancer hadn't metastasized. It hadn't moved. It was just in that one spot. So if it's in that one spot and it doesn't move then they can cut it out. They're very confident that nothing's going to happen or come back or return from there. And the tests are, like, nothing. "How do you look? How do you feel? Let me look at it."

When this place opened, you got one star.

Yeah, Bill Grimes.

It was one of those one star love letters that Bill Grimes specialized in. Calle Ocho had one star; it was a love letter. You guys had one star, also a love letter.

Well, there was only one person who got two in that mix. We were the fourth review he ever wrote. And the only one who got two was Beacon, and I'd rather be where we are than where they are now, right?

But here's what I was going to ask you: You guys hold two stars right now.

Correct.

What's your feeling? My feeling is that they mean something different now than they used to.

Yeah.

In other words, a place as casual as this, which I don't mean in a derogatory way, just as a statement of fact — paper on the table over then linen, the bread went right on the table. It's very bistro-ey. There's a casualness that to me when you opened kind of precluded you from getting anything higher than that. That was what you were going to get. How do you feel the system is different than it was?

Let me tell you a story. I agree that the system's different and I think that the system's probably just different because there's so many writers out there. There used to be a couple of outlets; now there's thousands of outlets, you know? I honestly think people read Yelp reviews [instead of critic] reviews. If you're not paid to write an opinion, then you're not a reviewer. So if you're going to pay attention to what that person says, that's problematic for us. So there's that. But, you know, there's also a story: I got a phone call [in our first year] and on the telephone were two very successful, high-end operators.

Together?

Yes. "We're so upset with Bill Grimes. We don't think he's qualified for the job and we want to go after this guy and we want you to sign the letter with us." I said, "Are you fucking out of your mind? Absolutely not."

For me it was different. I was upset. I was very upset. I didn't think that we deserved one star. And even though we had more of a casual approach, I had seen people be rewarded that were less committed than we are, whether it was more casual or less. And then, subsequently, right now, you read the reviews and they don't talk about wine service. They don't talk about a lot of things that have to do with the make up of an excellent meal or a restaurant experience. I opted out on the argument of, "Is that reviewer qualified or do we deserve this?"

I think at the end of the day when a new reviewer gets a job they have to tune the bar to where they think it should be. So if you think the person before you gave stars out easily, you're not going to. So I think where you want to be is not in the first 10 reviews of a new reviewer. I think everybody would say, "You know what? Let a little water go under the bridge. Let them catch their pace and their voice and it won't look and feel like that."

14266366323_bbbf2d1ce0_b111.jpg
[Adam Lerner]

There's less of a significance to each review? It doesn't seem like they're —

— staking their claim. They stop defining themselves.

Because as you get further down the road—

It's accepted.

— each review becomes more diluted by the other reviews?

Correct. And also what they say and how they say it. Are they mean spirited or not? Bill Grimes wrote two of the best lines that are just stuck in my mind forever. Roy Yamagucci at the Trade Center: "If clowns had a cuisine, this would be it." And then Todd English opening Olives in Union Square: "A Mediterranean happy meal."

But I personally don't like it when reviewers get snarky. I just saw the movie Chef. I didn't think it was that great but there's a scene where Jon Favreau goes off on this critic and he's screaming about how hard it is, how many people's paychecks come out of the restaurant, and all that. And I've always felt if your job is to be a critic and you have to give a place no stars or whatever, fine, do it, but don't be gleeful about it. Don't be snarky about it. There's too many livelihoods involved, there's no reason to —

Why would you celebrate anybody's demise?

Right, but you're talking about these funny lines. These were negative lines. I'm surprised to hear someone who's a chef-operator who thinks that's funny.

Well, I didn't say it was funny. I said two of the most memorable lines. I didn't say good or bad. I just said, "Those things are stuck in my mind forever." And I tend to think those were early reviews from the people and they were adjusting the bar. Listen, if you want to have 25 restaurants and you're not from New York and you want to open a restaurant in New York, you'd better get ready to have shots across your bow.

Well, Ducasse was the ultimate, right?

Right. So do I feel bad for that? No. If it was a single operator mom and pop store and he got snarky like that, I would think there is no reason for that. If you want to pick apart somebody who's obviously wealthy and doing big moves — you know, Roy partnered with Outback Steakhouse — you need a shot across the bow there. Todd English? Really? You think people in New York are interested in what you have to offer? We know that you're doing this for money. We know that business takes place for money, but sometimes it doesn't just equate to the dollars and cents; it has to do with doing what you want to do and how you want to do it. And I'm pretty sure you're not doing what you want to do and how you want to do it in those buildings; you're making money for your business partners.

So that was okay but if that kind of snarkiness were applied to your review you would have found that inappropriate?

Yeah, I guess that's a double standard. And I don't mean to be against big business and/or multiple store operators; I just think that, okay, so what if one of your stores does go out of business and you've got 25 stores? Maybe none of those people lose their jobs. Maybe you just move them around, you know?

But do you think that there's an empathy gap between restaurant critics and owner/operator/chefs over what goes into running a place? I did this interview with Tony Bourdain recently, and he said that people say that they know it's hard work but they don't really understand day in, day out, how much goes into cooking. They don't really know. And my thought has always been for years that if they did, if critics did, then a bad review would be an excruciating thing to write.

I don't enjoy anybody finding success through negatively speaking about somebody else. I don't care what it is. I just don't think it's necessary. You have a chance. You have an opportunity. You don't have to write that review. You know, Gourmet magazine used to write only favorable reviews. I don't know if that's the best way to do it because if you're going to not write a review, you're potentially taking money out of the operator's pocket because you're not written about. And they're paying a publicist to get written about. So what's the point? Isn't it the same thing as if I don't write about you or if I write negative things?

And then also the stars. You know, what I think is that the stars don't always equal the review and that the words are more important than the grade. And if you write 12 paragraphs and nine or 11 of them are really very favorable and two aren't and you get one star versus two stars, that's a two star restaurant.

Other people have made the point to me that restaurants get evaluated in a way that other creative pursuits aren't. You know: art, movies. Certainly if you look at the Times, it's the only thing that gets stars, right? Art doesn't, movies don't, theater doesn't. So why this exception?

I don't know why that is. When you read Thomas McNamee's book about Craig Claiborne ... what Craig was doing in the late '50s, early '60s is what you're supposed to be doing now. How he made it up and looked at it. People don't adhere to these rules anymore. It's very gray. The lines have been blurred so much that it's unfortunate because I would like reviews to be gospel. Like a Walter Winchell type thing. This is what it is because, I went 10 times, not three, and I did a lot of homework and I compared them to the right people and I looked at the food and the wines, and I looked at the eyes and the hands of the servers, and I really have a sense of this.

I wish it was more like that, but it isn't. But what's going on now will go away soon enough anyway. Whatever happens changes after a short amount of time. Whether it's three years or 20 years, it's going to change. We don't wear bellbottoms right now; sooner or later we'll be wearing bellbottoms again. It's just how it goes. We're wearing skinny ties now. When did we wear skinny ties? 30 years ago in the '80s. It's just what's going to happen, so just study it and get ready for it.

I would like to see it where really talented writers are reviewers and that they really have the power of it and that it's not this anonymous, silly, unprofessional, childish, look at me, I'm writing about a restaurant. I mean, really? Whatever happened to people going out to dinner, enjoying themselves, or not, and then, going home and being intimate with each other? Whatever happened to that? Why would you write?

We've switched gears a little. You're talking about Yelpers now, and things like that?

Yeah, right. I look at that like the people that are on the community board. Those people are voiceless. And everybody knows they're voiceless and they know they're voiceless but they're going to put a voice out there for relevance because they know they have none. That to me is so sad that I can't even imagine why you would do that. Why don't I just go, have dinner with my wife and go home and schnog it out, you know? What is the point of me sharing, "They did this and they did that? I like this and I like that?" You know, every restaurant in America has a thing called a comment card, right? So why don't you just fill out the comment card?

People are people. People make mistakes. Mistakes will be made. What's important is what happens if you try to fix it and how you try to fix it. We are at our all time best when we can anticipate the needs of the guest and fulfill them before they express their desires. But because we're people and we're going to make mistakes, we're going to have to recover. If we can recover swiftly and gracefully, we are going to send a message.

So if you're displeased with what we do, if you say that to us, we're going to try our hardest to fix it right there for you, right in front of you and we're going to speak to you about it. If you leave the restaurant and write something on the Internet, we're not going to do anything about it. Nothing. We're not even going to read it. We don't read the Internet reviews.

That may be you but that's not everybody.

I tend to think it's all the better operators.

You think people ignore that?

I think that you act or you react and you're at your best when you're acting and you're not at your best when you're reacting.

You mean in a live situation?

Yeah, or in any situation. And if it's something that could have been done face to face that wasn't, you're not going to react to it.

But the other thing with Yelp is people are always going to be more motivated to express their anger than their contentment, right?

I don't know because I don't read that stuff.

The people who have the great experience, they probably are going home to be "intimate." It's the people who feel like they got slighted or got the bad table, who complain.

Yeah, but why wouldn't you address that when you're there?

Maybe they're shy.

So writing a negative thing?

It's much easier to go home and type something on your computer and hit send than it is confront an actual human being.

It's much easier if you're not interested in fixing it.

I agree with that, too.

So what's the point? What's the point of saying something

Revenge. The point is revenge.

Want your revenge? Throw a rock at my window. Do something creative. Do something that I'll give a fuck about or I notice. But Yelp? We're not even going to read it. We're not going to even think about reading it. But if you stand there and kick me in the shins, something's going to happen.

For more of Andrew Friedman's thoughts on Jimmy Bradley, head over to Toqueland.

· A Trip Back to Chelsea in the '90s With Jimmy Bradley [~ENY~]
· All Coverage of Jimmy Bradley [~ENY~]
· All Editions of Kitchen Time Machine [~ENY~]

The Red Cat

227 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10011

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