Jimmy Bradley

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: The Red Cat, and The Harrison (New York City)

Jimmy Bradley is a master of the neighborhood restaurant. During his college years, he earned a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, but decided to take his cooking education on the road—by spending a decade traveling the country. “I wanted to get as much exposure and enlightenment as I could. I worked in the North and the South, the East and West. At the beach and in the mountains,” he says. Eventually he landed in New York City, and in 1999 launched the Red Cat on Manhattan’s then-desolate Tenth Avenue, followed by The Harrison in Tribeca, just days after 9/11. “We needed to be open when the neighborhood needed us,” remembers Bradley. In the years since, he’s written The Red Cat Cookbook, competed on Top Chef Masters and mentored some of New York City’s most successful chefs—including Amanda Freitag, Harold Dieterle and Joey Campanaro. Here, Bradley discusses obsessions, secret-weapon ingredients and tips on becoming a great cook.

What’s your signature dish?
The Red Cat’s crispy, flattened chicken. We probably sell a hundred of them a night. The dish changes with the seasons, but the skin is always crispy, and the meat is tender and juicy.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point. It’s both a storybook and a book of recipes. If you work for me, I give you that book and then I ask you questions about it. Point was 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds—he’d get to work at 7 every morning and write menus in the courtyard while drinking magnums of Champagne and getting a shave. Paul Bocuse was his salad chef. There are hundreds of stories like that.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
When I was young, my grandmother would make fresh pasta and I’d help her fill ravioli.

What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Roast chicken, because it’s a blank canvas.

What is a cooking technique that everyone should know?
Sautéing. You can’t be excellent without proper fundamentals.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Lemons. I use them in the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the cooking process. They’re great as a marinade or as a finisher. You can use the skin, which has a certain vibrancy, or you can use the flesh, which has a whole different flavor and tartness.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Oaxaca is easy to get to, cheap, and known far and wide as the capital of Mexican cuisine. It’s an amazing province that encompasses the beach and the mountains. The food is diverse, ranging from simple fish with olive oil and garlic to multilayered, rich sauces like mole.

What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
A spoon I picked up in a little market in a town called Biot, in France on the south coast. I like the way it feels in my hand; it has a certain weight and feel and texture to it.

What’s your favorite drink?
Campari and soda, or Ramazzotti and soda before dinner. As for wines, I particularly enjoy crisp, clean, young whites from northern Europe. I also have relatives who are fourth generation winemakers in Alba, so I drink a lot of their wine—it’s called Pio Cesare and it’s been owned and operated by my family since the 1880s.

What is your current food obsession?
Chicken. I have been making a different chicken dish once a week at my house for a while now, like a chicken-and-eggplant stew with spinach, prunes and rutabaga. And then I did another dish using a head of kale, raw onions and garlic. I put that in a pan, put a chicken on top of it and threw it in the oven. It was great—the outside leaves were crunchy and burnt and then the insides leaves were tender and braised under the bird.

Who are some of your favorite people to follow on Twitter?
I like Jon Stewart, Jimmy Fallon, Rachel Maddow, and chef friends like Harold Dieterle and Jonathan Waxman. But the public displays of dumbness on Twitter really slow me down. I made myself a pseudo-Twitter handle called the Snarky Swordfish. When I want to get really snarky, I use that name and respond to people the way I want to.