Contributor Ellie Sharp talks to Las Vegas' James Beard Award-winning chef, author and restaurateur Bradley Ogden, who discusses his Houston plans.
You can take the boy out of Michigan but you can't take the Michigan out of the boy. Nothing could be truer when referring to chef Bradley Ogden, renowned success story with two James Beard Awards to his name among an impressive list of culinary accolades. The epicurean powerhouse grew up enjoying the literal fruits of a classic Midwestern upbringing where fishing, hunting, and easy access to farm-fresh produce developed his palate for good, quality, seasonal local food. Partnering with his son chef Bryan Ogden and Chris Kelly (former general counsel for Facebook), he launched Bradley Ogden Hospitality in 2012, a four-pronged business venture that seeks to encompass restaurants, consulting, social media, and even a boutique resort community.
The first pursuits to come from this partnership are new Houston eateries Funky Chicken, Bradley's Fine Diner (BFD), and Ogden Pour Society. Funky Chicken offers delicious Southern fare with the personal twists of Ogden's talented team in a light and fresh environment. BFD will raise the bar ever so slightly with an ambiance to encourage hanging out around a table laden with a Midwest-meets-California menu of options. Finally, Ogden Pour Society will round out the trio of temptations with a selection of craft brews in an upscale pub environment that promises to keep your nightlife lively. Check out the interview here:
What drew you to Houston?
Well, we came down about a year and a half ago. My son and I knew friends who live here in Houston who encouraged us to look in the area. There are lots of opportunities here in Houston and so we came down and started looking at different properties and some potential sites and all of a sudden we're doing three. It's the number one growing city in America; you have a very young community of lawyers, doctors, professional people that hate to cook. Or maybe they love to cook but they don't have time to cook. And there are always great opportunities for new restaurants. So it was a good, good jumping point for us. In my style, my organic, natural, American style.
Where did the name come from, Funky Chicken?
Tony [Angotti], one of my partners who is involved with it, came up with the name. But I always wanted to do a fried chicken joint from when I was a kid going to Ive's Chicken in Midland, Michigan. This chicken here is similar to that, the fried chicken one is very similar in taste to that one. Spending summers on my grandmother's farm in Windsor, Ontario where she made the best fried chicken, 'cause of course in those days they were using lard. So it's very much in my American repertoire. But you know the whole base of what we do is natural, fresh, organic as much as possible and trying to keep the prices very minimal, which they are.
You said you didn't get into the cooking until later, but did you help in the kitchen at all when you were growing up, too?
I was a typical kid growing up - I went bass fishing, ice fishing, and hunting. I knew what fresh fish tasted like because I'd caught them. I knew what fresh corn should taste like. What a beefsteak tomato should taste like [and] free-range chicken. We picked berries - blackberries, boysenberries. What we had was just this great farm food. I had no idea I was developing a palate for what good food should taste like through these experiences. This food was really a buildup to the next phase.
How would you define the style and business approach of your restaurants?
The restaurant is a style of food and the ambiance needs to reflect that. So when you think about a concept, the concept usually starts with the vision of the food and the energy and the style and then sort of transcends the simplicity of the décor and the music. And making sure that you have great staff that can communicate your vision of hospitality. So maybe it's like the hospitality of the South. There's nothing worse than bad service. People will just walk out no matter how good the food is. So that's number one, I don't care if it's a fast-food concept or what kind of concept is it. It needs to meet the guests' needs and expectations before they even come in.
Can you explain your approach to fast casual?
We want to have restaurants that people can go to once a week, four times a week, where they want to hang out and lounge and be entertained. This [FC] is more of a fast casual or really more of a fast-fast casual than BFD and Ogden Pour Society are going to be. Those will be more lounge-y, more comfortable environments where you can grab a bite, a bottle of wine with the friends, watch some TV, and be entertained. You know, that type place. But this right here, this is supposed to be quick. But great food, great quality, at reasonable prices.
Spinning off from the fast casual concept, is there a reason that you wanted to try that approach after you closed your restaurant in Vegas?
We came in as the first celebrity chef-driven restaurant to open in Caesar's [Palace] and we won the first James Beard Award in Vegas. Our ten-year contract came up, our lease, and it was just time to move on to open up other opportunities. Regarding our fast casual concepts, we want this to be about quantity, quality, and be price-sensitive in today's marketplace. That's the only way this is going to survive. We want to be in a position to offer this great dining experience with awesome food. Whether it's fried chicken, whether it's a wood grilled quail down there (at BFD), you know whatever it is.
The whole package.
Yeah, the whole package. And you know, when you walk into a place. You usually always know whether you're going to get a good experience. Just by walking in and the feeling of it, and the energy, and the vibes, if people are looking at you in the eye, welcoming you by name. It's all about follow through and quality and consistency and training and developing.
As a Michigan native, how did you discover your love for fried chicken and other iconic Southern fare - although I guess it's not so much Southern as country, local?
The first time ever that I stepped into a kitchen basically, was at the local Holiday Inn [in Michigan] when I was 18, where the owner was a bit of a foodie. And I worked with Bee, who was a Southern cook who took me under her wing and was a mentor to me. She taught me how to do braised greens, black-eyed peas, and all this great Southern food that is part of American history, which I loved. So I cooked with her for about six months before I went off to New York to chef school, at the Culinary Institute of America. Even after I became well-known she would always call me up and say congratulations, and that was sweet. I would always mention her as my first mentor in articles and interviews.
It's important to remember how you started, your roots, your connections, and it all gets us to where we are.
And I tell that to my cooks all the time. Remember where you came from and how you got there.
It was one of [our] concepts that, forgive the expression, had legs. [Laughs] And we loved the concept, 'cause who doesn't love chicken? And there might be a hundred other fried chicken places but not like us. So that's why.
Do you now, or do you intend to source your ingredients from Texas producers or local farmers markets?
Yes. Our beers as well, as much as we possibly can we're going to focus on Texas.
Future site of Bradley's Fine Diner[Photos: Ellie Sharp/EHOU]
In terms of Bradley's Fine Diner, could you give a brief preview of what we can expect on the menu and the concept?
At BFD we will introduce updated classic items from my Lark Creek Inn days while harnessing new perspectives inspired by the Houston marketplace. It will be my Midwestern approach to my California style of food. Food that is inspired throughout my decades of cooking with the new veil of my son Bryan and the new age techniques and everything from wood burning suckling pig cassoulet to a whole roasted pork rack, to grilled trout, to homemade sausages with little stews, charcuterie plate with cheese. And there will be some fresh pizzas out of the oven to great salads and sandwiches, especially at lunchtime. Really fresh, fresh approach and everything from scratch and made in-house. We want a bar crowd, a fun place to hang out.
Regarding Ogden Pour Society, what do you see as the major highlight for that venue?
Being in Gateway Memorial City, what a great location. That's going to be like an Ogden upscale pub. We're really going to try to get the local market. About eight tap wines, which is a lot. And we'll have a whole wine list and everything. We're going to have about 50-60 tap beers.
And will Ogden Pour Society have TVs, sort of sports bar-like?
Yes. And at BFD as well, which will also have a full bar. Funky Chicken will be wine and beer only.
What is the thinking behind opening places so close together and in such close succession of each other?
It just came to me. The opportunities kind of fell in line and it just happened that way. We have a great team put together, but you know, we can't spread ourselves that thin, we have to make sure each one gets perfect.
But yet they each have their own clear identity; you probably won't be competing for customers with your own places.
No, we won't. And I've done that before [Lark Creek and Yankee Pier], where we've done both venues but they were totally different from one another. I don't think they'll be competing because they are a whole different ball game.
If it's not secret, what's next on your agenda after these three open?Our company is set up almost like four businesses, basically. We have the restaurant division, which this is sort of spinning first. And then our consulting business is part of it, Ogden Consulting. Third is the whole social media aspect. I'm also working on a TV pilot with my son Bryan and I, a lifestyle TV show father and son thing. And four, we're working on a whole resort community where I would have a restaurant, maybe a store, and a teaching element to it with a farm, wine making, and hops. It would be small, boutique, but for kids and adults. Perhaps host a quarterly event: "Cooking in the Kitchen with Bradley" in his home. They do that a lot in Europe but not in the US.
Now that you'll be an honorary Texan, do you plan to buy a hat and cowboy boots or do you already own those?
Well, first of all, funny story. And I still wear them but they look brand spankin' new. So when I opened up Lark Creek [Inn, now the Tavern at Lark Creek] back in 1989, Dean Fearing [a chef and friend from Dallas], he sent me a gift. He sent me a pair of red ostrich boots. So I already have the boots. I don't have the hat yet.
Well, when you're back in March you can get your hat at the Houston Rodeo. Oh yeah, I used to go to those in Kansas City, the Kansas City Royale with the rodeo and food and everything. I remember when I won my first real award. I entered this one dessert contest thing and I won the first place ribbon. I did a California fruit torte. And I mean, go figure, five years later I was in California, right? I did all these small ones and a big one. And the funny thing is, I had accidentally burned one of the cakes and the judges didn't taste it, thank god.
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