Daniel Bradley, chef of 5280 Burger Bar: "I don't want baby food and spit on my plate"
This is part one of my interview with Daniel Bradley, exec chef of 5280 Burger Bar; tune in tomorrow for part two of our chat.
When you grow up in Burlingame, California, where fields of fresh produce are within skipping distance and family dinners never include an ingredient plucked from a box or poured from a can, a hamburger from McDonald's can really screw with your body. Daniel Bradley found that out the hard way. "Everything we ate at home was prepared from scratch, and it wasn't until I was twelve or so that I had my first hamburger from McDonald's, and it made me violently, ridiculously ill," remembers Bradley. Decades later, he's now the exec chef of 5280 Burger Bar, which opened earlier this year in the Denver Pavilions.
"I haven't had fast food in fifteen years, but I'm still obsessed with burgers," confesses Bradley, who got his first cooking job at fourteen, turning tacos. "I've loved to cook my whole life, even when I was super-young, and as soon as I got the job at the taqueria, it all just clicked, and I knew that I was meant to work in a kitchen." He bounced around several California kitchens before enrolling in the California Culinary Academy, an education that resulted in an externship -- and more -- at the famed Chez Panisse, in Berkeley.
"On the first day of culinary school, one of my chef instructors had us all playing with knives, and my knife skills were already really good, so I was fast and the first one done, and a few weeks later, he pulled me aside and said that I needed to get a good externship -- and told me just to walk into Chez Panisse and talk to the chef on duty," recalls Bradley. "I went in, nervous and intimidated as hell, but it turned out that a guy hadn't shown up to cook, so I went in that night and worked, and even though I was freaking out the whole time, it was a lot of fun and not nearly as strict as I thought it was going to be."
What was expected to be a three-month externship lasted for well over a year, and Bradley might have stayed had it not been for ambition. "I learned so much about really great products -- the farmer who brought us our leeks every day was the same guy who had just pulled them from the earth -- and it was an amazing experience, but I was a line cook, and the likelihood of becoming a sous-chef was slim," admits Bradley, explaining that the "whole point of my journey through culinary school and getting a job in a good kitchen was to move forward as a sous-chef and, eventually, an executive chef."
And indeed, his next position was as a sous-chef at a now-closed tapas restaurant in San Francisco, where he cooked for five years for an owner who "was a great mentor and really taught me how to run a kitchen," Bradley says. Following that, he landed at MacArthur Park, an upscale American restaurant in Palo Alto, and got his wish: He was hired as the executive chef, overseeing what he calls "a 10,000-square-foot beast." But after four years, he yearned for something even bigger, so in 2011 he moved to Las Vegas and started cooking for Caesars Palace. "I guess I wanted to punish myself," jokes Bradley, who ran the casino restaurant along with all the banquet business. "It was a super-big challenge, not to mention one big rush," he says, recalling a 36-hour New Year's Eve marathon. "We all wore pedometers, and by the time I was done, I'd walked eighteen miles -- all inside -- in 36 hours."