As author and chef/owner of popular New York City restaurant The Red Cat, Jimmy Bradley presides over a neighborhood joint that has become a destination for guests from around the city, and the country. A purveyor of straightforward, occasionally irreverent food and contagious conviviality, all of it wrapped up in an attitude-free package, Jimmy has helped contemporary diners rediscover the intrinsic value of classic Mediterranean cuisine, reinterpreted for a modern American clientele. Bradley has been featured in New York magazine, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and The New York Times, and on television programs such as The TODAY Show, Bravo’s Top Chef Masters and the CBS Early Show. His first cookbook, The Red Cat Cookbook, was published by Clarkson Potter in 2006.
How did you get into the Culinary industry?
After forging my working papers because I really wanted a job (I was only 14), I made pizzas in a restaurant in Philadelphia, which was my first real kitchen job. Eventually I moved to Rhode Island, and got a job in front of house to help make money for college while I was in school. One day, I came in with a shaved head and was fired, but I somehow convinced the manager to move me to the kitchen instead. I started working really hard for months- shucking oysters, making coleslaw and ravioli, and eventually made my way onto the line. I've been working in kitchens ever since.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to The Red Cat's success?
One key to the instant success at The Red Cat was how we brought on investors to open. We brought on more than 20 investors, each with a different job and group they socialized with, at a low investment rate, as opposed to a few investors for a large investment each. This meant that the day we opened our dining room was full with many different types of guests that made for a dynamic atmosphere from the get go. We were also quick to pick up technology- The Red Cat was one of the first 50 restaurants in the city ever to embrace Open Table as a reservations system and were a beta partner with them.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
We notice all trends and then mostly ignore them. The Red Cat is more of a traditional and classic spot; we aspire for consistency and to provide people with a reliable and enjoyable experience with what's in season and delicious. We don't usually execute something for the sole fact that it's a trend. However, I guess one could say that the "farm to table" movement is a trend, based on how important it’s become and how discerning diners are, and they expect to see seasonal ingredients on a restaurant's menu more than ever. But that's how we've run our business from the very beginning. Trends come and go, we desire to be here, doing what we do for a long time.
I’m not sure I have one specific life motto, but if so it might be something like: "Go and get it," when it comes to dreams and goals. If at first you don't succeed, go back to square one and figure it out. Try and try again with everything you have. It never works to give up.
The Red Cat's Motto?
Our motto is to under-promise and over-deliver. We want to make sure that people are always really happy with their experience and they want to come back often. We feel that a restaurant can be fairly humble and still feel world class. And nothing will build loyalty like caring relationships with guests. I wanted people to feel like they were part of my restaurant, as if we had just what they wanted, rather than something for everyone.
Your greatest success as Proprietor/Chef of The Red Cat? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
The greatest success of The Red Cat was that it was an instant hit; we opened our doors at the right time in the right neighborhood, and the team did a great job right out the gate- from the front of house to the kitchen. Through the initial positive reception, we were able to grow. Once we were a well-known restaurant, I was able to hire some of the best in the business to be on my team. It was one of my greatest successes to be able to work and share with these talented individuals. Now, I sometimes visit old employees’ at their own restaurants. It’s really fulfilling to do so and see them in action and flourishing.
My biggest challenge came about when my team and I signed the lease of The Harrison on April 1st 2001. We were ready to open our doors in mid September 2001, we had an opening party planned, sent out over 300 invitations, and then 9/11 happened only days before we were supposed to open. I wasn't sure if we would ever be able to open our doors. But we had to brush ourselves off and give the neighborhood exactly what it needed in the months following this tragedy- a neighborhood restaurant to lift spirits and serve as a place to be together. We were the first restaurant to open our doors after the tragedy, and we stayed open for 14 years.
Your advice to an aspiring restaurateur?
Do your homework. Build the strongest and best foundation you can; don't cheat or take shortcuts. Jump in with all you have when you're ready to take that step as an owner, operator or executive chef, whatever the next step might be.
Describe the ideal experience at The Red Cat.
At The Red Cat we pride ourselves on enthusiasm, a high level of execution from our kitchen and waitstaff, and being a spot where everyone (whether you're old, young, uptown, downtown, affluent or not) will enjoy the experience and feel comfortable being in our hands. This means that the ideal experience depends on what the individual desires— it could be a Sunday brunch, a drink and appetizer before a movie, enjoying a tasting menu, a great table for two or a birthday dinner or graduation celebration with a bunch of people; we are a place for all occasions.
How important are architecture/design to the success of The Ret Cat?
Very important, it’s a symbiotic experience. The way the restaurant makes you feel is equally as important as what they serve from the kitchen. For example, with The Red Cat's design, I wanted it to feel like a cross between a Parisian bistro and a neighborhood New England restaurant- a relaxed and convivial atmosphere that complements all of the additional components, from the look and how you are served to the food prepared- to make our guests feel at home.
Most popular dishes and your favorites?
Some of our most popular dishes are our vegetables, like the indulgent Tempura String Beans, our Quick Sautee of Zucchini, which are always on the menu alongside seasonally rotating vegetable dishes (for example, right now we have a beautiful seasonal Poached Rhubarb, Strawberry and Robiolina dish with green almonds). Then there’s the Bacon Tempura which people liked so much, we had to give it a break!
How do you motivate your employees?
Well I start with a please and a thank you. I believe in a democratic team atmosphere. In a restaurant, the show always goes on, no matter what, we all need each other to get the job done and you have to be prepared for that, so it's very important that everyone is on the same page, knows their place on the team and is ready to excel in their position.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
A great bottle of wine and a great loaf of bread to start. This question is like picking your favorite child.
What literature is on your bed stand?
Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young's autobiography
Role model - business and personal?
My friend Chef Jonathan Waxman is one of my role models for how he balances family and home life with the stressful job of a restaurateur/chef, with great success. My other role model would be my Great grandfather who started the Bartolomeo Pio wine company in Philadelphia when he immigrated.
Owning a restaurant and getting to do what I do.
Favorite travel destination?
Italy. It really inspires me, and I love the lifestyle there.
What's next for The Red Cat?
We're going to continue to offer what we have offered the neighborhood, our regulars and out of town visitors for 15 years- solid, delicious and seasonal food, prepared and served by a dedicated, talented team in a warm, inviting and comfortable room.