Marjorie Meek-Bradley was hunting down photos on Google — trying to get a visual sense of a traditional banh mi sandwich — when her search coughed up an image of fermented black beans, a Chinese ingredient that had been long AWOL from her pantry. “Oh, I like these!” she thought as she sat by the light of her computer.
Several days later, the executive chef at Ripple had developeda new appetizer: sous-vide sweetbreads glistening with a glaze made from the funky, long-fermented soybeans, which shrivel into dark little umami grenades. She introduced diners to those sweetbreads (paired with a black garlic puree and bok choy) without hesitation — and without any real R&D. Her first taste of the fully composed plate, in fact, was on the day it went on the menu.
That is Meek-Bradley in a nutshell: a chef confident in her skills, comfortable taking risks and willing to work off the cuff, without the obsessive tinkering some chefs demand before debuting a dish. At age 29, she is already one of the most decorated young cooks in Washington, even though she rose to the level of executive chef only a year ago. In March 2013, Roger Marmet hired her to lead the kitchen at Ripple, his boundary-blurring, Deadhead-in-a-Victorian-tea-room restaurant known to occasionally challenge diners. (Caramelized tuna collars, anyone?)
In a sense, Marmet challenged Meek-Bradley, too. Until she took over Ripple, she had spent her career cooking other chefs’ food, but Marmet liked her personality and her cooking. Just as important, he liked her ambition. During her job interview, the former cable network executive asked Meek-Bradley if she’d ever like to appear on TV.
“She said, ‘I’d rather have a James Beard Award,’ ” Marmet recalled. “If that was her goal, that would work perfectly here, taking it to a higher level.”
A year later, Meek-Bradley appears headed in the right direction. For the second consecutive year, she has been named a Rammy Award finalist for rising culinary star of the year. Last month, Food & Wine magazine selected her as one of 10 contenders (along with Red Hen’s Michael Friedman) for the people’s best new chef: mid-Atlantic. And, most relevant to her goal, Meek-Bradley was one of 25 people named a James Beard semifinalist for rising star chef of the year.
“The nominations are pretty awesome,” she tells me, “but they also remind me how much further there is to go.” She then points out, with her characteristic habit of emphasizing the positive when mentioning something stressful, that the nominations also add pressure to an already demanding job. “But in a good way,” she says.
At first blush, Meek-Bradley’s hometown of Ukiah, Calif., doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a chef incubator. But listen to her parents for 20 minutes, and they’ll have you convinced that their burg was the ideal culinary cradle for their headstrong middle child. The noisy uprisings in Berkeley, where Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse restaurant broke ties with national distributors and began promoting local farms, reverberated all the way to tiny Ukiah, where farmers markets and backyard gardens flourished. People cooked seasonally, says her mother, Debra Meek, and the private elementary school that Marjorie attended had a barn with goats and chickens.
Her young daughter absorbed those values as naturally as breathing air.
At the same time, Debra Meek and Martin Bradley were not gourmands; the world of sweetbreads, fermented black beans and Beard Awards was not theirs. They thrived in an era when political activism, not dining on chef-driven small plates, was cool. They were active in the Plowshares Movement, and their goal was peace and justice, not a nice Neapolitan pizza from a wood-burning oven.
As part of their work, Meek and Bradley co-founded a soup kitchen to feed the hungry in Ukiah, a town surrounded by boutique wineries but not immune to the cold economics that lead to homelessness. It was at their Plowshares Peace and Justice Center that Marjorie Meek-Bradley was introduced to food. Debra Meek remembers placing her infant daughter in a “Moses basket” as she and volunteers prepared meals such as their infamous “double poached salmon” (“salmon we got from a poacher,” she says with a comic flourish).
Her daughter showed an interest in food at age 2, her mother says, and would create multi-course dinners molded from Play-Doh. By eighth grade, the budding cook had entered the kitchen, where she tried to make fresh pasta. She hung the strands over the backs of the dining room chairs to dry, her mom remembers. “It was chewy,” Meek says, “but she was only in eighth grade.”
Meek-Bradley spent her junior year of high school in Sweden, where she lived with several families, became fluent in Swedish and traveled to six other countries. As she approached high school graduation in 2002, she wasn’t sure what her future would hold, but she didn’t think she had all the prerequisites for college; she briefly considered being an au pair and even started researching the prospect online. That’s when the Internet gave her another idea.
“I stumbled onto a culinary school site as I was Googling au pair agencies,” Meek-Bradley says.
After graduating from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, she remained in the City of Brotherly Love to work at Stephen Starr’s Washington Square restaurant, where Marcus Samuelsson was executive chef. She was hired by Mike Isabella, the executive sous-chef who handled the day-to-day operations at Washington Square (and who later became one of Washington’s highest-profile chefs). Isabella dubbed her “messy Marjie” because of her disheveled clothes and dirty work space.
Despite her sloppiness, Isabella saw promise in the raven-haired 19-year-old with the shy smile, who fretted so much about her performance that he would occasionally find her crying after service. “She really cared,” Isabella recalls. “When you have that and you’re open to learning, those are the people who usually become very successful.”
Meek-Bradley left Washington Square in 2005, two years before Starr closed it, and began bouncing from one restaurant to another, sometimes staying a year, sometimes less. Her goal was to accumulate knowledge and skills, but her résumé also reflects her love for travel and her tendencyto bore easily.
Whatever the reasons, Meek-Bradley has worked in some prestigious kitchens in a short amount of time, under a few of the country’s most iconic chefs. She toiled not only at Washington Square under Samuelsson but also at Bouchon in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York City, both under the guidance of Thomas Keller. She also had a brief stint at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan under chef Daniel Humm, who was then working toward a four-star rating from the New York Times.
She was particularly influenced by her year at Per Se, where the esteemed Jonathan Benno was chef de cuisine. The prix-fixe dining destination — where the chef’s tasting menu runs to more than $300 per person — offered Meek-Bradley an object lesson in a technique-driven, not recipe-driven, kitchen. “We talked about the craft of cooking, and the craft is about the technique,” says Benno from the kitchen of Lincoln Ristorante in New York, where he now works as executive chef.
“I can give you a recipe for braised oxtail, but that doesn’t mean you can make really good braised oxtail,” Benno adds.
But within a year, Meek-Bradley left Per Se, too, this time headed in a different direction: She went to work as a private chef in Naples, Fla. She needed the money, she says, and she needed to regroup after pulling too many 14-hour shifts. Yet the sunshine, the reasonable hours and the easy cash couldn’t settle her wanderlust. “Eventually, it got so kind of mundane,” Meek-Bradley says. “I needed to get back in restaurants.”
Isabella would come to her rescue. In May 2009, he offered her a job at Zaytinya, where heled the kitchen for José Andrés. Prepping and cooking for hundreds and hundreds of people a day taught Meek-Bradley the importance of organization. There were no slow days, so any down time had to be spent planning and prepping for future services.
The lesson would prove important when Isabella tapped her as chef de cuisine for his first restaurant, Graffiato, a casual Chinatown operation inspired in part by the cooking of his Italian-American grandmother. Isabella’s newly minted status as celebrity chef, courtesy of his appearances on Bravo’s “Top Chef” franchise, translated into a madhouse of a restaurant, serving hundreds of customers a night with more waiting outside.
Graffiato also attracted cooks with a mind-set similar to Isabella’s. They wanted to become stars, too, which meant the kitchen could be a cold, cutthroat place. One sous-chef, Adam Brick, made no bones about his dislike for Meek-Bradley. He thought she was “weak” and “sloppy” and that she flew “by the seat of her pants,” he says from Texas, where he’s working to open a restaurant in Round Rock. His goal, he says, was to “out-work and out-perform” his boss and get her fired.
Meek-Bradley reflects on her conflicts with Brick with humility. She made mistakes, she says.
“I think I coddled him at the beginning, and I think he saw me as weak and as a target for his outbursts,” she says. “Once you give someone an inch, they take a mile.”
She was determined not to let that happen when she assumed control of the kitchen at Ripple, and she says she has already smacked down at least one encroachment on her authority. For her tougher management style, Meek-Bradley credits Brick. “He definitely gave me a backbone,” she says.
At Ripple, the kitchen feels anything but competitive or chaotic, despite the fact that Meek-Bradley now oversees two kitchens with the February opening of Roofers Union, Marmet’s casual bar and restaurant in the former Reef space in Adams Morgan. Then again, Ripple is worlds away from Graffiato, both in scale (smaller) and ambition (larger, with a menu pulling from a wider variety of inspirations). Ripple feels like a seamless amalgam of Meek-Bradley’s influences: farm-fresh produce (California), sous-vide machine (Thomas Keller) and whole-animal cooking (she learned butchering techniques from April Bloomfield videos and real-life chefs).
But the Ripple kitchen is also decidedly female. Meek-Bradley’s cramped upstairs kitchen includes six full-time women and two full-time men, including sous-chef Sam Molavi; it’s an imbalance that Molavi likes to tease the boss about. Especially when Meek-Bradley selects the music for the pre-service prep session. For the executive chef, it’s all Rihanna, all the time. “That’s what sucks about working in the kitchen with women,” Molavi jokes. “The music.”
Meek-Bradley doesn’t back down. Rihanna puts her in a good mood, maybe even takes the edge off an otherwise bad mood, she intimates. “They don’t understand what a favor I’m doing them” by playing Rihanna, she says.
And with that, the kitchen goes back to work.