Red Feather chef Brad Bernstein's farm-to-table journey involves riverboats, banditry
His story is uniquely Cincinnati
Jenny Burman, WCPO Contributor
11:00 AM, Jan 14, 2016
This is one in an occasional series of farm-to-table chef profiles.
OAKLEY — As the son and grandson of a well-known Cincinnati food service and entertainment family, Brad Bernstein started on a fast track to the front office. But after earning his bachelor’s in finance at the University of Cincinnati, this restaurant-business scion headed straight for the kitchen, embracing a slow-food philosophy that focuses on small-scale and individual craftsmanship.
The father of two young boys appears to have struck a difficult balance: going into the family business even as he transcends it — in his case, by going back to basics. The story of this chef’s route to farm-to-table is a uniquely Cincinnati story that encompasses riverboats, banditry and even Chuck E. Cheese.
It begins with Bernstein’s grandparents, Ben Bernstein and Betty Blake, returning from Peace Corps duty in Ecuador in the early 1960s, when they purchased a steak joint, and soon after started El Greco, which became a local culinary landmark. In the ‘70s, the purchase of the Mike Fink restaurant followed, in what Bernstein describes as a 1920s steam-powered paddle boat on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Previously it had been the Captain Hook, docked on the Cincinnati side of the river.
Along the way, the Bernsteins and later, their descendants, acquired or started up not only numerous bars and restaurants — including a couple of Chuck E. Cheese’s franchises and TGI Fridays — but riverboats, like the one that housed the Mike Fink. Meanwhile, Bernstein’s father, Jim, started Howl at the Moon, a national chain of piano bars.
Of his beginnings in the business, Bernstein said: “I worked in restaurants all through high school. When I was very young, like 5 years old, my parents and my grandmother like to tell me, they had me passing cinnamon toast at the Mike Fink (floating restaurant) on Sunday brunch.”
After high school, Bernstein enrolled in the University of Colorado and he might have kept going had he not returned to Cincinnati for a summer, working in his father’s Newport restaurant Sloppy Joe’s, which he also helped open.
“I really fell in love with my (now) wife,” he said. “She was a hostess (at Sloppy Joe’s). When it came time to pack up and go back to school, I quickly made changes in my plans and decided to … stay in Cincinnati" — and transfer to UC.
“One of the things that I liked about UC when I transferred,” he said, “was they had a family business program that was part of the entrepreneurship degree. But (it turned out) it was the most pessimistic class ever. They just told you, 'Do not — whatever you do — do not start a family business … because it’s very difficult, puts a lot of strain (on your family), and your family doesn’t become your family, they’re your business partners.' ”
Nonetheless, Bernstein began his career in the kitchen of the family-owned Mike Fink, even as he harbored ambitions to make a career on his own. He had worked his way up to chef when, in 2007, the restaurant had to close for repairs to the boat’s hull.
“We didn’t want it to sink,” he said. “It was a successful restaurant (but) the kitchen, the dining room, everything needed to be updated. … The last time it was remodeled was in 1978.
As for an office job in finance, he said, “I think I went on two interviews (and then) said, 'This isn’t for me, I’m more of a hands-on producer, like to work with a little bit of sweat.'
“I was the chef at the Mike Fink. I worked my way up that way, but that’s all I knew was the family business, and I was looking at it from (an outsider’s) standpoint. I wanted to be a chef, but if this (the Fink) didn’t work out and I wanted to move on to somewhere else, I don’t know how much (other restaurant owners) would value somebody saying, 'I worked in the family restaurant and became a chef.' So I wanted to go and get a culinary (degree).”
Bernstein didn’t feel he had the time to commit to a four-year bachelor’s degree in culinary arts, so he opted for the certification route, earning an an executive chef’s title from the Culinary Institute of America and taking classes in New York and California.
Touring farms in Napa Valley, Bernstein soaked up the artisanal ethos and dedication to locally grown products, or the slow-food movement, which he defines now as encompassing the farm-to-table philosophy. And he learned to appreciate the heartland’s climate.
“A lot of the chefs there (in California) that I talked to, they kind of envied the Midwest. They do have great produce out there — at the same time they don’t get the kind of seasonal change that we get here and the influx of great stuff,” he said.
Bernstein wanted to apply his broadened skills in the kitchen at the Fink, but plans to get it back into service fell apart and the he went to work instead in the kitchen of the newly opened Zula in Over-the-Rhine. All the while, he said, he was mulling plans for his own restaurant.
The opportunity presented itself sooner than he expected.
He had been working in Zula’s kitchen for just a few months when a nearly complete restaurant space opened up in Oakley, and Bernstein pounced on it.
“The building where I am now,” he said, “was supposed to be another restaurant” — one run by the Boca Group, which owns Boca, Sotto and Nada in Cincinnati, as well as restaurants in Columbus and Indianapolis.
“The guts and brick and mortar was there, which made it very easy for us (Bernstein and his partners). … The plumbing was there, all the code issues (were complete). Everything was set in place,” he said.
He did some minor design changes to the dining area and the bar, and in December 2013, his eatery made its public debut.
Bernstein named his new endeavor Red Feather in homage to the Mike Fink.
The chef explained: Mike Fink was a historic riverboat character from the early 1800s, a keelboatman who transported goods from points east through the Erie Canal and other waterways.
“He was famous for his shot,” Bernstein said. “There’s all kinds of legendary tales of things that he did and accomplished on the Ohio River and Mississippi River.
“I named the restaurant the Red Feather in homage to the Mike Fink heritage — Mike Fink always wore a red feather. The red feather in that time was a symbol of a marksman with a rifle and it was a way of telling people that … you were not somebody they wanted to duel with.”
And is Bernstein saying he is someone not to be dueled with?
“I think that the style of the restaurant and what I’ve tried to do is try to be a marksman on every level. And the red feather is my symbol to everybody else that what we do is exceptional, is extraordinary.”
For example, he said, consider his pork chop: “The pork chop that we do on the menu, not only do we source it locally, I butcher it myself — fabricate the cut of meat myself from the raw primal (a large, semi-butchered part of the pig). Then it takes a day of it being brined. And then a night of it being off-brined. And then we cold smoke it, which is another daylong process. … So it takes three days for me to put a pork chop on the plate, essentially.”
As other examples, he listed the things that are made fresh, in-house at Red Feather, including their own pastas and some of their cheeses; their own chicken, veal and fish stocks; salad dressings; sauces; and mayonnaise.