It’s only 6:20pm on a Thursday, and more than 20 people mingle outside of Prohibition Kitchen, awaiting Executive Chef Bradford Smith’s seasonably up-leveled gastropub fare. The sounds of a live band drift onto St. George Street, keeping spirits high during the wait for a spot so popular, reservations don’t even exist. Once inside the vast amber-lit space, with its vintage flare and energetic warmth, an open seat at the bar beckons one to imbibe a handcrafted cocktail and perhaps some fresh local oysters on the half shell doused with Datil Pepper Mignonette before the meal.
Behind the scenes, Chef Bradford coordinates his culinary prowess with a trusted team of 32 line cooks, two prep cooks, and seven others, supporting kitchen operations. He says without a doubt, that the secret to his success is in his team. “My chefs on the line give me the best ideas,” says Bradford. “We have a great collaboration. I work closely with front and back-of-house staff and deeply value their opinions and critiques.”
With a childhood spent in Northern Kentucky, Bradford’s earliest culinary memories are in his grandmother’s garden, picking green beans and peeling onions. Today, his favorite comfort food is still his grandmother’s ham, served with potatoes and green beans. When asked about his favorite ingredient, the onion is the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, he spent the first three months of his culinary career peeling and slicing onions in the Disney kitchen. “Even through the tears,” he jokes, “the impressive, coordinated operation was magical on every level.” His early career spanned the kitchens of Universal Studios and the Hard Rock Café in Orlando and as far afield as the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico – all before falling madly in love with St. Augustine and making it his home.
Today the chef still uses onions in many of his dishes. His red wine-braised onions top the Black & Blue – a skirt steak over field greens, oven tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, blue cheese, and honey balsamic vinaigrette. Pickled onions top his “divine” deviled eggs and serve as a seasonal accoutrement on the charcuterie board. His specialty red onion bacon jam is served within the PK Signature Burger, replete with a “PK” branded brioche bun and a fried egg. The jam is so popular that patrons continue to ask him to sell it to them in bulk. “I’m never shy about sharing ingredients and recipes,” he says, “because they are always changing and our execution gets better each day. Everything is an evolution.”
Bradford gets inspiration by popping into local eateries to ensure he is continuing to keep things fresh and not following the beat anyone else’s drum. “If you want to stand out,” he says, “you have to get out of the safe zone while still offering familiar favorites that keep people coming back.”
We caught up with him on an odd day outside of the kitchen, in the midst of renovating his bathroom, and learned that he also has a penchant for deconstruction – hence some of the most creative dishes on the menu. “It takes a certain type of person to do this,” he smiles. “Normal people don’t do well in kitchens. If I wasn’t a chef, I’d probably be in construction or an auto mechanic.”
Bradford grew up with a love for DIY. His father ran a successful welding business before buying a campground in Davenport, just outside of the Disney gates, when Bradford was 16. His own son turns 19 in just a few days and surprised him with his choice to go to culinary school. Now, a year and a half in, he loves the job, and Bradford is proud to keep cooking in the family.
Bradford’s current culinary inspirations are Sean Brock, a Southern cuisine expert and the eponymously detail-oriented Thomas Keller, along with East-West fusing Ming Si. Working closely with local farms and purveyors, he sources from Ben Wells Farms for lettuce, beets, and radishes and works with Black Hog Farms, a co-op of smaller, local farms that offer seasonal items (such as the vine-ripened tomatoes, green beans, and kale that spring up on the menu when freshest).
Today, his own fridge has beer, milk, orange juice, and some skinless, boneless chicken for dinner. He credits his wife for keeping things well stocked. Beets, radishes, romaine lettuce, great Florida tomatoes, celery, carrots, eggs, and cheese – of course. Chef’s favorites are Stilton Blue and Parmigiano Reggiano – a necessity for topping salads.
This type of planning is essential, as some Saturday nights Chef oversees 800 covers. “Every dish is really important to us. We really got our team to a place where everyone is individually motivated to do their part. They know that I prefer honesty above all else. If you tell me that you burnt the steak and it will be 6 more minutes, I am fine, but I need to trust you.”
Speaking of trust, Bradford has real faith in Prohibition Kitchen’s owners Tom and Carol Sheltra and their sons, Travis and Shane, who started Pizzalley’s next door. They’re great believers in the philosophy that all the ingredients have to be the best. “Being a chef is one of the careers where you have to be a craftsman as well as an artist to accomplish your vision. It’s extremely rewarding, continuously teaching me new things, keeping me on the hunt for the finest ingredients, demanding in hours spent in the kitchen and impossible deadlines on a regular basis. And all of that,” he says, “is just a part of one average day.”
Prohibition Kitchen is located at 119 St. George Street. Visit them online at www.pkstaug.com.
Written by Lauren Eastman and photographed by Brian Miller.