Charlie Bird's Ryan Hardy: "I Want to Surround Myself With Four to Five Great People and Take a Chance on Something That Has Real Passion and Heart"
"I started cooking when I was a kid because I was the youngest of five in a big family," recalls Ryan Hardy, executive chef of Charlie Bird. "We were like slave labor, and cooking would teach us discipline and keep us busy on hot summer days. I hated it at the time, but the life lessons sunk in."
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What started as a chore later became a vehicle for Hardy's passion for people and culture, initially fueled by a nomadic lifestyle that he embraced when he was in his 20s when he moved all over this country and learned each region's food. He took his first trip to Europe in 2001, which he says was "mind-altering," a window into relaxed cultures that place a lot of emphasis on taking the time to share meals around a table.
Back in the U.S., he finished an accounting degree--"it helped me a lot, though it was boring as hell," he says--and then enrolled in culinary school, which he maintains jumpstarted him, although he's more hesitant to recommend that path to others. "Culinary school is not for everyone," he says. "If you really need direction, it's great. Otherwise, take the money you'd spend in culinary school and go live in another country. Then come back and ask for a job--I guarantee you'll get it."
When he graduated, he talked his way into a position at Rubicon in San Francisco. "Every hour there was worth 200 hours in culinary school," he says. "You felt like you were going to get fired every day you went to work." He stayed on for about a year and a half there before moving to Aspen, Colorado, where he worked with Charles Dale at Renaissance, one of that town's most-lauded fine-dining meccas. It was Dale who kept Hardy in Aspen, too, even with an offer from French Laundry in his pocket. "He said, 'Look, things are changing. Casual dining the future.'" Hardy was convinced, and he stuck around to open Rustique Bistro, which generated national accolades.
The chef left Aspen for a bit after that, moving to Santa Fe and Martha's Vineyard and doing some consulting New York City, but then in 2005, an offer from Aspen's Little Nell called him back to the west, not least because his then-wife didn't want to move to NYC full-time. So Hardy made the most of it, starting from scratch on the Little Nell menu to instill a seasonal focus, an often-frustrating (though rewarding) conquest. "When I moved to Aspen in 2005, you couldn't get arugula," he says. "You couldn't buy a radish that resembled a radish. Potatoes were Yukon Golds." He bought a farm where he grew most of the produce and networked with purveyors around the country. "I had a lot of fun out there," he says.
After five years, the chef began toying with the idea of opening his own restaurant, but he ultimately concluded that it wasn't economically viable to do it in Aspen, where restaurants really only do business for eight months of the year. He was also going through a divorce, and he decided it might be time to move to New York. So he reconnected with former Cru sommelier Robert Bohr--"an old friend," he says--and the pair started looking for spaces. It took a little more than two years to find the right one. "We had five deals that went to the finish line and didn't go through," he says. The guys eventually found a spot in Soho, and they opened Charlie Bird at the beginning of the summer. "It took a while to find it, but this really worked out," he says, finally settling into the neighborhood.
In part one of our interview, Hardy talks about creating market-driven dishes on the fly, why he keeps ketchup in the restaurant, and what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich says about a line cook's personality.
On the next page, Hardy talks about how the off-the-cuff creation of a bay scallop at a dinner party made its way to the menu.