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Ratty dishes inspired San Francisco's Firefly chef

Like many students, Brad Levy '81 first toyed with future career ideas while in college. But unlike many students, he didn't get his ideas from great professors or intense internships - he found his niche in a tiny kitchen on Wickenden Street.

While at Brown, Levy started working as a dishwasher at the now-closed Cafe at Brook at the corner of Brook and Wickenden streets. He was quickly promoted and within a year became the restaurant's chef. He said he would scour cookbooks for recipes and call his mother in St. Louis for more ideas.

"I found cooking by accident," Levy said.

Levy liked his job so much that, by the time he graduated, he could only consider pursuing one profession.

"I only majored in philosophy because that's what I needed the least amount of credits for," Levy said. Levy also concentrated in education, but he said he enjoyed cooking too much to consider teaching as a career. While studying at Brown, though, he knew most of his peers had more traditional paths in mind.

"I liked to cook, but I never considered it as a profession," Levy said, explaining that he went to college "before the days when (cooking) was an honorable pursuit."

According to the 2003 Outcome Report conducted by the Career Development Center, cooking still is not a top career choice among Brown graduates. The report, which tracked the activities of 2003 grads a year after their Commencement and is the most recent version of such a survey currently available on the CDC Web site, showed that none of the 754 respondents had gone on to culinary school. Food services was not listed among the 18 primary job categories for grads who were employed at the time of the survey.

But when a recently graduated Levy returned to St. Louis to discuss career options with his family, he kept coming back to the idea of being a chef.

"Nothing else seemed possible to me," Levy said. "I was a novelty among my family and friends. They kept calling me up for cooking advice after that."

Levy said all he knew was that he "didn't want to be a lawyer or a doctor" - two of the most popular careers for Brown grads, according to the CDC report.

So he packed his car and set off for California, where he spent two years in culinary school.

"I'd done the Midwest, done the East Coast - it made sense," Levy said. "What better place is there to go?"

He knew that San Francisco was one of the country's culinary capitals and liked the area enough that, after taking an extra year to study cooking in France, he returned to work in the city.

After several years in the trade, Levy thought he had enough experience to open a restaurant of his own. Along with partner Veva Edelson, a line cook at the restaurant where he was working, Levy opened Firefly, an upscale restaurant serving American cuisine, in 1993.

"I didn't understand all that was involved in running a restaurant," Levy said, saying he and Edelson were always "putting out fires, both physically and metaphorically." He said he wanted to create a homey atmosphere where he could cook good food and greet all his customers. He learned that most of the work happened outside the kitchen: hiring and maintaining a good staff, filling in when employees were scarce and managing the budget for the entire project.

"We've gotten a lot more professional, but we maintain that atmosphere of being real people," Levy said. "We're still learning how to run a restaurant after 14 years." But Levy has grown accustomed to the demands of balancing time as a chef and an owner.

"I think it's a great job," Levy said. "You're doing something creative, and it's athletic, and it's demanding, and you have to do a lot of things at once, and you're dealing with people and you're making a staff of very different and unusual people work well together," he said. "It's nothing like sitting behind a desk."

He said his education degree from Brown has helped him train his staff effectively. Brown influences other aspects of Firefly, too: Levy said dishes he ate at the Sharpe Refectory have inspired many creations over the years.

"I loved the food at the Ratty - it's one of my biggest influences as a chef," Levy said, adding that he still remembers the taste of "certain flavor combinations" like a fish sandwich with coleslaw and cheese.

"I put on a lot of weight eating there," Levy said. "I spent a lot of time eating at the Ratty."

Though Firefly has a reputation for upscale food, Levy said he likes to incorporate home-style elements into his dishes. The most popular item on the menu, he said, is the fried chicken served with mashed potatoes, gravy and a biscuit. Levy changes the menu every season but usually keeps the fried chicken and always offers two vegetarian options - one is even suitable for vegans. Levy said San Francisco, with its large vegetarian population, needs restaurants that cater to everyone.

"We're the kind of place where (diners) all feel like they're getting well taken care of," Levy said.

These days, Levy doesn't just care for customers. His second daughter, Elisha, was born two and a half weeks ago. His eldest daughter, Essie, is 23 months old.

"I can allow the restaurant to be a little less than perfect if it means having a valuable life with a family in it," Levy said, adding that he does cook for his family, though the dishes he makes at home are much simpler than those he serves at Firefly.

When it comes time for his own children to choose their careers, Levy said he wants them to follow their passions, not the established trajectory.

"The first thing you have to do is get over the idea that you're wasting your parents' money," Levy said. "I think any parents worth a thought would just want them to be happy."




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