Ryan Hardy has experienced plenty of “highs” in his career. He’s been nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award four times, including “Rising Star Chef” while at the Coach House in Martha’s Vineyard, and “Best Chef Southwest” for his tenure at Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado. He’s also known for his fierce commitment to sustainability, founding a 34-acre farm in 2006, in order to supply Little Nell with locally-raised proteins, homemade cheeses, and heirloom produce. And yet, the accomplished chef considers Charlie Bird, his new urban Italian eatery in the heart of SoHo, to be his greatest achievement yet. “It’s afforded me all sorts of creative opportunities,” Hardy says of his cross-country move to New York. “I was able to open a place that provided terrific service and delicious food with great art and awesome music, that wasn’t (or doesn’t have to be) fine dining.”
“For the most part, however, I consider Charlie Bird to be anti-concept,” he continues. “Attaching a specific concept to the restaurant is something we’ve tried to avoid from the get-go.” And it’s true… that from the interiors to the menu to the red herring of a name (which has nothing to do with the jazz legend), it’s hard to summarize Charlie Bird with one single sentence. It’s certainly SoHo chic, with floor-to-ceiling windows reflecting light into the narrow, split level dining room, where photos of boom boxes line yellow banquettes in the intimate space up above, and designer, hand-sewn leather chairs dot the exposed brick-paneled area down below. And the food is, for the most part, Italian (check out the incredible plates of pasta, like inky Chitarra Nero with Calabrian Chilies and Crab, and rustic Gnocchi Rosa with Ricotta, Basil and Travaglini Tomatoes), but not exclusively so. In fact, if you were to take a cue from the chef himself, you’d order the Montauk Oysters with Tomato Vinegar, followed by the Roasted Chicken with a Crispy BLT Salad, a side of Rosemary and Sea Salt-dusted French Fries, and a bottle of good Burgundy. “Now that,” he says with satisfaction, “is my perfect meal.”
We also spoke with Hardy about his ambitious move to New York, what restaurant trends he really embraces (and which he wishes would just die already), and why he doesn’t advise young chefs to attend cooking school.
Were you always interested in food and cooking growing up?
Yes, I’ve always loved food and the traditions around a meal, and was shocked to learn that I could actually make a living out of it!
You went to culinary school, but have said that you don’t necessarily recommend it to others. Why is that?
I actually dropped out of culinary school. I had a college degree and was learning a lot through my job as a cook at the time. Schools open doors you can’t necessarily open yourself, it’s true. But I recommend that instead of going to culinary school, people interested in a career in the culinary arts should take time and money to cook in Europe (or elsewhere abroad) to cook in new cultures and learn new techniques and languages.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
My first professional cooking job at Rubicon in San Francisco.
How did you come up with the name Charlie Bird?
With regards to the name, there’s no obvious link to the musician Charlie Parker. It’s more of a reference to “Bird Lives,” which was tagged all over downtown NYC when he died. It was the start of modern graffiti and bebop, which ultimately led to jazz and hip hop and so on. The space is rooted in all things New York… from the brick and mortar dating back to 1880 to the local ingredients we source for guests today, to the art that hangs on the walls. And, more than anything, it’s just a fun thing to say: Charlie Bird!
What excites you most about being a chef and having a restaurant in New York City?
The patrons. New York is filled with professional diners; people who eat out around 200 nights a year. They have high demands and we like that.
How do you think your line cooks would describe you as a leader?
Passionate, affable, sometimes intense, sometimes too nice, understanding and honored to sign their checks.
What current restaurant trends do you really embrace, and which do you wish would just die already?
Trends I embrace: Focusing on traditional cooking methods using the freshest local ingredients. Trends I’m ready to see go: Reality TV.
What are some of your favorite places (besides your own) to go for Italian food in the city?
Lupa, Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, Maialino, or just cooking and eating at home with family.
What ingredient(s) can you just not bring yourself to cook with or eat?
What’s the strangest item in your home fridge right now?
Neonata di pesce (baby sardines).
You’ve been up for a James Beard award four times. Does it seriously bum you out not to win, or was it a pleasure just to be nominated?
No, it doesn’t bum me out. Of course, you want to win, but it’s such an honor to even be nominated and then make it to that level.
You’re on your deathbed: sex or dinner? (And no, you can’t say both!)
Sex…what kind of question is that?