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Chef Brad McDonald, veteran of Ducasse, Per Se and Noma, now helms the kitchen at Colonie in Brooklyn Heights

“I’ve always thought the difference between three and four stars is the service. I don’t necessarily think that the food at Per Se is any better than at Franny’s. It’s just a different experience.”  –Chef Brad McDonald

Brooklyn Heights has long had a reputation for being a beautiful neighborhood, filled with stately brownstones preening amid quiet streets garlanded with lush greenery – blemished only by its  dearth of quality dining options.

When restaurant industry veterans Tamer Hamawi, Emelie Kihlstrom and Elise Rosenberg, after years of working together, decided to team up to open their own restaurant, Brooklyn Heights seemed like a neighborhood rife with opportunity.

Their original plan – to open a wine bar with small plates – evolved into a full-blown restaurant when they fell in love a larger space on Atlantic Avenue. And Colonie – which opened last spring – has evolved into a full-blown neighborhood sensation since Brad McDonald, a veteran of Essex House, Per Se, and Denmark’s high-flying Noma, took over the kitchen.

We sat down with Brad to chat about the cooking life.

So Brad, tell us about Colonie. What’s your approach with the food?

Colonie is definitely a restaurant that’s seeking the popular vote. The food that we put on the plate – I don’t want it to be too much to think about. Some diners may have questions about the techniques used in some dishes, but I want it to be pretty straightforward. The dining populace is a little more informed these days, so they’re expecting a little bit more, but it’s definitely a populist restaurant in that we’ll always have a steak and fries on the menu, a couple of simple salads. We’re doing crostini and meat and cheese plates. The original idea for Colonie was that it was going to be a small charcuterie, cheese and wine joint, done right.

But then Emelie, Elise and Tamer, who opened the place, walked by this space and couldn’t resist it, so it turned into a restaurant. They still wanted to keep that essence of a good wine bar – always approachable — a place where you can get a cocktail, a well-executed meal. So essentially it’s a bistro. A beautiful bistro. That’s the approach to the cuisine. A bistro with what’s hopefully an unpretentious gastronomic touch to the food, done by guys who have the experience and the know-how to nail it.

How did you get interested in food? How did you become a chef?

I grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, which is a small town that sort of rises up out of the Mississippi Delta. I grew up on a hill that overlooked the edges of the delta. I grew up riding four-wheelers, going to my grandmother’s house on Sundays and eating the same turkey dinner and peach and mayonnaise salad every week.

Peach and mayo salad?

I actually never ate the peach and mayo salad. It was always served, but I couldn’t do it. Are you familiar with the dish?

Can’t say that I’ve had the pleasure…

It’s a crazy sort of staple salad in old-school southern homes. It was a piece of iceberg lettuce, with a canned peach in syrup, drained and set over the lettuce, with a little garnish of mayonnaise. I never had the desire to taste it. It just never appealed to me!

So that’s the culinary heritage I come from. I ate a lot of fast food as a kid — no doubt about it. I was a latchkey kid. My dad raised me. My mom was still very present in my life but my dad raised me. I kind of learned how to cook out of necessity — cooking for myself. I was sort of an independent spirit as a kid and I always wanted to do everything on my own.

I tended more towards pastry when I was younger. Baking was always very interesting to me. The first cookbook I ever got was in sixth grade – the Hershey’s Chocolate cookbook. I got it at a book fair at school.

I definitely sort of zoned out by diving into that book from time to time. I just thought it was so cool to make these things from scratch – to make something tangible, tasty and satisfactory from scratch by myself.

I had a desire to go to culinary school when I finished high school, but my parents sort of squashed that idea. They said, “Why don’t you get a real degree? Something more traditional?” So I went to the University of Mississippi, and I studied a lot of different things and I ended up getting a degree in English Literature with a minor in French. Reading and writing were the things of most interest to me.

You’re a reader?

I used to be. Now I don’t have much time. I can get into books, for sure though.

When I was in school I started washing dishes at a pizza joint for cash. It was an easy three or four-day a week restaurant job. Eventually I moved on to their salad station.

For a writing class in school, one of our assignments was to write a piece interviewing someone working in the field we thought we wanted to end up in. I thought, OK, maybe as an experiment, or maybe half-knowing already that I was going to pursue a career in food, I interviewed a local chef named John Currence, of The City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Just a few years ago he won the James Beard award for best chef in the southeast.

I ended up asking him for a job at the end of our interview. He had a spot open so I joined his team. His family was from New Orleans. He had a strong culinary heritage – particularly French-Creole. I started working for him as a prep cook, and went as far as I could in the two years that I worked for him. And that’s where I decided I was fully into this culture, and into this lifestyle. I really enjoyed it and decided that I’d get very serious about it after school.

I had always been a Francophile, for no apparent reason at all, other than that I thought my French teacher in high school was pretty cool and had led a pretty cultured life. Coming from an area of the South with a very strong, but very closed culture, I thought that the best thing for me to do would be to expand my horizons. So I moved directly to France after graduating school, intending to teach English and travel.

I did teach English for a little bit, but ultimately worked my way into a restaurant through some friends of the family over there. It was in a little town called Colmar, in Alsace. And that ended up really acting as a catapult for the rest of my career. When I got back to the states, even though I’d had very little experience, having had the ambition to work in a restaurant in France seemed to be enough to let me get a foot in the door in some situations that I might not otherwise have been able to get into.

I moved back to Atlanta, where my mother was living at the time, and I spent two years working for chef Bruno Menard at The Ritz Carlton Buckhead. From there, connections just started opening up. The restaurant world is a very incestuous community…Maybe a better way of saying it is that it’s a very well-networked community. It’s not hard to go somewhere, anywhere in the world really, and find someone who worked with a friend of yours.

Once you’re in the network, it kind of gets smaller and smaller. The network took me to Ducasse, Ducasse took me to Per Se, Per Se led to my next job and so on and so on.

Cooking for me started as a passion when I was a kid, then it became a necessity to earn some cash in college, and then it turned back into that passion zone — I just wanted to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could.

Did you go to culinary school?

No. After having spent two years in a restaurant kitchen in Mississippi, then moving to France, and coming back and working in some good kitchens…by the time I got to the point where I could either afford it or seriously think about, too many of my mentors and people surrounding me were saying I was already too far along to get any benefit out of it.

Most of the guys that I work with that are really good that went to school were already probably really good before they went to school, or would have become really good even if they hadn’t gone. For a lot of people, school is really more about the networking, and I had already kind of broken into that network.

So you’ve worked in some great restaurants. Can you tell us a little bit about how the kitchen culture varies from restaurant to restaurant? What makes a restaurant unique?

As far as the kitchens themselves and how they operate, nothing really changes. Whether you’re working at the pizza joint washing dishes or you’re at a four star restaurant in Columbus Circle, they’re all dealing with essentially the same problems. They’re trying to minimize the amount of waste. They’re trying to maximize their profit. They’re always dealing with staffing issues. There’s always some kind of internal drama that’s going on. It never goes away no matter where you are. They’re all essentially the same problems.

It’s the organization within each kitchen that allows each to deal with those problems in a more or less efficient, or professional or even legal manner. Even in some of the best kitchens, I’ve worked with some really talented guys, but I’ve also worked with some guys who were no more skilled than the line cooks I worked with in Mississippi. Oftentimes, your degree of success in a particular kitchen as a cook has as much to do with whether or not you drink the Kool Aid – whether or not you buy into the culture and approach of that kitchen, as it does with your cooking skills.

You know, maybe the difference between working in the kitchen in Mississippi and in Alsace was that in Mississippi my sous chef was a pothead, while in France the dishwasher was a pothead. There’s always a pothead! You have these same sorts of characters that just keep popping up no matter where you’re working. It’s almost like you’re dealing with the same cast of characters but in a different novel – each time you’re working in a different kitchen.

That’s just how I see it. Someone else may see it differently.

Now that said, while each kitchen may have the same cast of characters operating inside different novels, what distinguishes the quality of the food? What’s the difference between that cast putting out great food in one place and not so great food in another?

You know, this is a really complicated question for me. What distinguishes the quality of food? What a matrix of a problem that is to solve…there are way too many different ways to attack that problem.

In my opinion, you can have one of the best meals in New York City at Franny’s, up on Flatbush. Or in Sam Sifton’s opinion you can have one of the best meals in the city at Per Se.

Or at Frankies on Court Street, which Sifton hailed in his sign-off…

Yeah, exactly. I think perhaps we enter into this question with a little bit of an assumption that the more expensive the meal, and the fancier the dining situation, the better the food is. For me, that’s not necessarily true. I’ve always thought the difference between three and four stars is the service. I don’t necessarily think that the food at Per Se is any better than at Franny’s. It’s just a different experience.

I think that as a culture we often don’t focus on what dining is really about. A lot of the time the attention isn’t focused on the food, it’s focused on the table, the room, the service. And that’s why I can’t draw a distinction between a great meal at Franny’s and a great meal at Per Se. If it’s just about taking the time to sit down, enjoy the company of others, and enjoy tasty food, what’s the difference? For me it doesn’t even have to be beautiful. It just has to be tasty, well-executed food. That’s all that really matters in the end.

But it’s a question I’ll probably continue to struggle with, to continue to search for an answer for, for years. It’s something that I ask myself almost on a daily basis. What differentiates great cuisine from everything else? Personally, I want my dining experience to be about the food and the company — the enjoyment.

For me, all that should matter at the end of the end of the day is the taste. Are the flavors good? Is it balanced well? Is it well-executed?

Chef Brad in the open kitchen at Colonie

What about ingredients? Do they matter?

Ingredients definitely matter. You know that famous story about Alice Waters? She was invited to cook at a James Beard dinner. And she went to the market and bought the most beautiful greens she could find, the nicest vinegar she could find, and she made this simple salad. And one of the cooks looked over and said, “That’s not cooking, that’s shopping.”

And that is true. But the shopping is important.

In New York we have great product but we don’t have the best product. We’re getting better at producing great product from the ground in this area, but if you’re going to cook in a city like Paris or San Fransisco, you’ve got an advantage because it’s much easier to do great shopping. Sourcing is very very important. I think that’s one reason that the restaurant world in New York can be quite competitive behind the scenes – you find this ingredient or you find this farmer who’s doing great things, and there’s an urge to keep that to yourself, because there’s not as much great product coming in consistently here as there is in some other cities.

I worked for Ducasse and his mantra is, “it’s 60% product and 40% technique.” I think that’s very true, particularly if you’re trying to cook in a way that’s about exalting great products.

I think that for a lot of chefs, no matter where you start you’re constantly progressing towards wanting to work with the best, the most exclusive ingredients. That’s not true of all chefs. A lot of great guys are very content cooking with good products and cooking the way that they cook, but they’re not necessarily striving to strip the earth of its greatest assets. I try to find a little bit of a balance in between, I’m one of those guys for whom the product definitely matters.

One way to be successful with food is to tell a great story. In order to tell a great story there has to be something unique about your story. One way to achieve that is to source great products.

When you talk about telling a story, do you mean you’re aiming to tell a story in each of your dishes?

I think so, but there are so many different levels of that. No two diners are the same. They’re all looking for their own stories to take away. Some people are going to come in and enjoy their meal, but think the garden wall over there is one of the greatest things they’ve seen in a while. Others are going to come in and completely miss the garden wall, but they’ll talk about their perfectly cooked steak for a week.

It’s about making sure the food is right, the ambiance is right, the service is right. It’s about all the small details. There really is no one pinpoint, no science to it. More than anything I think you just have to do what you do with honesty. I think everything else kind of follows from that. If you’ve been honest with yourself and your team, you can’t have any regrets.

Where were you before Colonie?

I spent a year doing mercenary work for hire, working on plans to open my own restaurant. After about a year I found a place and was getting closer and closer to signing a lease, when I found out that the chef here was going to be leaving, even though they’d just opened.

I met Emily, Elise and Tamar through a mutual friend, and we met and talked and decided that it was all going to be good if we partnered up, and set a goal to open another restaurant as well.

You’ve got another project in the works?

We’re well on our way to starting construction on a second space in DUMBO, at the foot of the clock tower building. It’s going to be a small joint. A little different, more modern than Colonie. I hope to push the meaning of local food, great ingredients there. Hopefully it’ll always be busy and bustling. We’re really looking forward to it…while always staying focused on keeping things strumming here at Colonie.

So was there something in particular about Emelie, Elise and Tamer — about what they were doing here that really appealed to you?

I thought this was a beautiful restaurant that had the potential to be even better than it was, and I felt like I could help to realize that potential. I hope that I have.

And there were other outside forces at play. We just had our first baby in May. I felt some pressure to figure out what was going on with my project – was it actually going to take off or not? We decided we wanted something a little bit less risky, a little more stable. With my wife at home pregnant and myself out there doing mercenary work, we had become a little separated from the restaurant community, and there was a desire to get back into it. And I just really got on with my partners from the first time we met.

They’re really good folks and they’re really trying to accomplish something here. We work well together. We make decisions well together. Our goals were similar. They saw the potential for a great restaurant in a neighborhood that could use one. I felt the same way about trying to open a restaurant in DUMBO, which is where I live. I see the need in DUMBO for something new, something fresh, something a little more contemporary, and maybe even something that pushes the ticket a little bit.

So we all agreed to team up and do both, and that’s how I came to be here at Colonie.

Interested in trying out Chef Brad McDonald’s approach to elevated bistro fare? Stop by Colonie at 127 Atlantic Ave at Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights/Cobble Hill.

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