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Grilled In a Minute: Bradford Thompson

Julie Mautner / December 3rd, 2012

Bradford Thompson, 43, is founder and CEO of Bellyfull Consulting, providing culinary and operational expertise for restaurants, retail food shops, special events, catering, television and film productions, and major consumer brands. The company is based in New York City.

Thompson grew up in Farmington, Connecticut, spending a few weeks each summer in Maine trapping lobsters and picking blueberries with his grandmother. His great-grandmother owned two restaurants and a butcher shop in Leominster, Maine, in the 1940s. He attended the University of Rochester (New York), majoring in political science. He had planned on a career in international business but decided that he preferred the kitchen instead.

Between 1995 and 2002, Thompson worked for chefs Vincent Guerithault and Alessandro Strata (in Arizona) and Daniel Boulud (in New York City). He also took himself off to France for stages with a number of top Michelin-starred chefs including Alain Ducasse in Monaco and Roger Vergé in Mougins, France.

He also did a stint as a chef tournant at Mary Elaine’s at the Phoenician (Scottsdale, AZ), returning in 2002 to be executive chef. He stayed five years. On his watch, the restaurant earned AAA Five-Diamond status, maintained its Mobil Five-Star award, and earned the Wine Spectator Grand Award.

Thompson was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2004 and won the James Beard Award: Best Chef Southwest in 2006. That same year, he was inducted into the Scottsdale Culinary Hall of Fame and earned Level I certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

In 2008, Thompson moved east and took over the kitchen at Lever House (NYC), but stayed just one year. By then he was ready to step out of the kitchen and use his expertise in a different way. Since 2009, Thompson and his Bellyfull team have consulted to a wide range of clients, including Southern Hospitality Restaurant (NYC), Miss Lily’s Favourite Cakes (NYC), Coal Burger (Scottsdale), the New York Giants (providing weekly post-practice meals), Jezebel (NYC), Dorie Greenspan’s recently opened Beurre & Sel cookie company (NYC), and a modern kosher restaurant called Jezebel that opened in New York’s SoHo in July 2012.

His company has also produced events for the Major League Baseball Players Association, Share Our Strength, Taste of the Nation, and The Chef’s Garden/Culinary Vegetable Institute.

At press time, Thompson was working with Top Chef Season 1 contestant Stephen Aspirinio on a new concept, Pizza Vinoteca, slated to open on Union Square (NYC) in spring 2013. He is also working with Georgette Farkas—formerly of Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group—who is planning to open a chic, quality ingredient-driven rotisserie, focusing on naturally raised poultry with an abundance of side dishes that evolve with the seasons.

Thompson has been featured in and on Food Network, Fine Living Network, The Today Show, CBS Early Show, Art Culinaire, Wine Spectator, Food Arts, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, People, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

He and his wife have two kids (one 3 years old, one 6 months) and live in New York City. When it comes to his passions, the chef says the only thing that comes close to food and family is sports…and he can often be found in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey, tailgating and cheering on his beloved New York Giants.

So your great-grandmother was a restaurateur and butcher. Is that what inspired you to become a chef? If not, what did?
I didn’t find out that my great-grandmother was a restaurateur and a butcher until I had started cooking for few years and everyone in the family was wondering where my passion came from. My mother gave me one of my great-grandmother’s framed menus from 1943 as a Christmas gift, and that was the first time I heard about her having had restaurants. I ultimately decided to become a chef as I was finishing college. I needed to decide on a career path that would also provide a means of income; it was either cooking (and being able to eat well) or becoming a grad assistant football coach (my other passion) for the same low pay, but without the food!

What’s the biggest positive about having transitioned from restaurant cheffing to restaurant consulting?
I love working with clients during the conceptual process—deciding what the vision is for a project—and then helping them realize their dream. I also love that I’m constantly learning about the industry in new ways—from our contractors and architects, our purveyors, our marketing team—and that I’m able to infuse a chef’s point of view into the process.

And what’s the biggest negative?
There are no negatives. Every client and every business will face challenges from time to time. One can decide to embrace those challenges or not; it’s simple. When you own a business, whether it’s a small consulting company or a major corporation, you need to anticipate challenges and become a problem solver. Our clients seek our services because we have the expertise to help them through a first time project, a major challenge, or simply because they don’t have the manpower to execute something on their own.

For other chefs who might like to make the same transition, any advice?
Be egoless and remain emotionally uninvolved. That’s often hard for chefs, because we tend to be creative and emotional creatures. You have to bring your “chef thinking” to the whole process to ensure the kitchen is set for success and you need to understand that not everyone is going to want to heed your guidance. Also, be prepared to problem solve. Every project is a new opportunity to learn and grow.

What do you miss most about day-to-day cooking in a restaurant kitchen?
I definitely miss the energy in a kitchen and the camaraderie you develop with cooks, dishwashers, and prep cooks. There’s really no other industry like it. Luckily, I get to experience that with every new opening and try to keep that network connected.

Tell us a bit about the financial arrangements you have with your consulting clients. Do you work on retainer? A flat fee per project? A percentage of revenue or profits?
Bellyfull’s financial arrangements vary by client but can range from retainer to project fees, to project fees plus a percentage of revenue.

So what happens when a client is just wrong?
Client are always right in what they want. Bellyfull’s job is to help them get there, within the scope of what’s feasible.

What one mistake do you see chefs or restaurateurs making most often?
When opening, many restaurateurs forget to prepare for contingencies: underestimating costs, construction times, rushing openings, etc.

Now that you work to make other chefs and restaurateurs look good, what’s it like doing the work and watching someone else get the credit?
I love watching people succeed. It’s much more rewarding than getting credit for something you know is a team effort to begin with. If our clients succeed and get credit, it only helps Bellyfull Consulting as a business.

Best recent meal in a restaurant not your own (and not a client!)?
Red Medicine in Los Angeles. It was a very creative meal, executed with strong technique from a former pastry chef. We ate several courses, each one balanced and textural. The highlight was a rice porridge dish with uni, that is, until the last course, when we were served the most amazing braised brisket that I can remember. It was accented with Vietnamese flavors and served family style. I’m still thinking about it.

What do you do on your day(s) off?
I spend time with my family, and I love to cook with my son at home. I also do charity work, yoga, and work on our family jerk sauce business.

Where will your next food-focused trip be?
Israel.

What was the best day of your culinary career so far?
In November, we were able to quickly pull together a group of New York chefs to support Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in Breezy Point, one of the most devastated areas of the city. For me, being part of a community that’s so willing to get involved in a time of need makes for a truly special day.

And the worst day?
We’re a small business with just a couple of people working collectively on all consulting projects, so we can go from trying to find enough work to keep everyone busy to being overwhelmed in a matter of days. Each project takes on a life of its own and the great thing about restaurants is that they never follow the same exact path or timeline. But delays are almost guaranteed. We had a case where there were two clients who were planning on opening relatively close to each other, but one was in NYC and the other was in Phoenix, AZ. It seemed as though they were going to be separated enough that we could handle both openings, although it was going to be close. But because of nice weather and less bureaucracy, the Phoenix project got ahead of schedule and the NYC project hit delays. That meant we had two openings scheduled four days apart. Both sets of clients were adamant about having me in the kitchen for their openings, understandably, even though I had trained support teams on both jobs. I knew the team could handle most of what was coming, but it caused a great deal of anxiety on both owners’ parts. The second I stepped off a plane in either city, I would go straight to the restaurant and basically try to calm nerves and then make necessary corrections. I took on a lot of the owners’ stresses and learned valuable lessons in the process, mainly that it’s imperative to have a person in place on every project who can keep the experience seamless for the owner. I now call it the ‘what if I got hit by a bus?’ scenario.

What’s the one cookbook you use most often and why?
Sauces by James Peterson and Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking are both great books.

What ethnic cuisine is the most exciting to you right now, and why?
We just worked with a client to open a kosher restaurant, and we’re currently working with a new client on a Lebanese concept, so I’ve been reading and learning a lot more about the cuisine of the Middle East in general. I’m especially intrigued by Lebanese flavors.

What’s one thing that restaurant customers do that makes you nuts?
I wish people understood what it takes to build and maintain a restaurant. I also wish people could understand why quality ingredients cost as much as they do, from the fishermen to the farmers to transportation…not to mention labor and insurance for staffing. So many price factors go into a quality product!

And what’s one thing that other chefs do that makes you nuts?
Letting their egos get the best of them. We’re in the service and hospitality industry! I don’t like when chefs/restaurant owners have a “my way or get out” mentality. We should all be thankful for all customers who help keep us in business.

Professional goal or fantasy not yet attained?
When my favorite charity, Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry, goes out of business, because there are no more hungry children.

If not this, then what? Meaning what would your second career choice have been?
Early on, I probably would have coached football. Now if I had to change careers, I’d own a yoga studio/juice bar.