“I WANT TO MAKE GREAT FOOD, TO MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY”
From Vancouver to Qatar, Chef Justin Bazdarich has opened 15 restaurants. Through all his travels and lessons learned, one sentiment has remained clear: he loves “approachable” food and believes in its importance in any neighborhood.
His latest effort, Speedy Romeo, a casual, top-quality joint serving wood-fired pizza, seafood, steaks, and ribs, has been off to the races since it popped up in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill in 2012.
A lot like the racehorse of its namesake, Speedy Romeo bounds along, with plans to expand across the river into Lower East Side this summer.
But the track hasn’t been easy. Along the way Justin has faced the draining stresses of the services industry as well as his own drug addiction. Sober now for two and a half years, he is feeling healthier than ever – exercising, eating better, meditating twice a day.
Hailing from Kansas City, Justin is friendly and understated with a warm personality that comes through in Speedy Romeo’s atmosphere. He has a knack for visual art and design and occasionally daydreams about taking courses at the neighboring Pratt Institute. But for now, in what used to be an auto parts shop, Justin’s creativity shines in his jazzy community restaurant.
Changing the game with meditation
THE JALEPEÑO: You’re a real talent as a chef. Did you go to culinary school?
JUSTIN BAZDARICH: Yea. I started cooking when I was in college to make money. I worked at different restaurants in two cities.
Then I dropped out. The Food Network was a huge inspiration.
I love the team aspect of it (running a kitchen), and there’s no room for procrastination.
As a student, I never did my homework. Or, if I did, I did it ten minutes before it was due. A three-month project? I’d start a day before it was due.
THE J: Where’d you end up?
JB: French Culinary Institute in SoHo. I didn’t want to take two years. I had some experience and I wanted to start working. This program was six months, so I chose that.
My first couple weeks in school, I called Jean-Georges restaurant to work as an intern for free. They told me to come the next day.
They hired me in their café, Nougatine, a less casual dining room. I went from intern to sous chef. I worked every station in the kitchen. I got that fine dining experience.
THE J: As a kid, were you interested in cooking?
JB: A little bit. I used to make grilled cheese on my own when I was a kid. As a family we spent a lot of time in the kitchen. My dad’s side is Italian, so we had that heritage. That ties into these flavors. These flavors meant a lot to me for opening a restaurant of my own. And they’re approachable by all.
THE J: How long were you with Jean-Georges?
JB: Three years. I opened Perry St in the West Village. I was sous chef, then the chef de cuisine after three months. I was the chef there for three years. We got a Michelin Star there.
THE J: Serving all kinds of dishes?
JB: Yea. It started out with none of my recipes. When I left, 75% of the menu was made up of my recipes. Then Jean-Georges asked me to travel with him.
THE J: Where to?
JB: Three years on the road. I opened 15 restaurants for him. Two in Qatar, a lot of time in the Middle East, Istanbul, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Vancouver, Cabo, Park City, two in Atlanta.
THE J: All different styles?
JB: All different styles. There was a trend of steak houses, market restaurants, like a hotel restaurant, something you can really approach. This is where I started learning about and understanding the business side.
Jean-Georges told me: “Culinary genius won’t pay the bills.”
You need to remember this is a business. It’s not an art exhibit. You need to bring people in to keep this thing afloat.
THE J: Was that unexpected?
JB: At the beginning, I thought that’s where I could sell at: extremely creative plates, fine dining.
When it came down to it, I didn’t want to eat like that anymore.
I wanted food that was approachable. I wanted to create a restaurant you could eat at more than once a week, one that’s approachable by all demographics.
That’s why pizza is an anchor in this restaurant.
THE J: How do you differentiate?
JB: There’s close to a hundred thousand restaurants in NYC and surrounding boroughs. So how do you open a place that’s unique in a city that’s got so much, and be successful at that?
That’s where the wood fire came into play.
We have no gas. The wood-burning grill and the wood-burning oven, that’s it. Basically the whole menu and restaurant were created around these two things.
I want to make great food, to make people happy.
In my travels I learned what an institution is, as a restaurant. The places I went, where I’ve come to enjoy eating at, are institutions – old restaurants that’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time.
The more times you do it, the better you get at it, it kind of becomes engrained.
THE J: And you picked these nuances up along the way, working for Jean-Georges?
JB: Yea. The great thing about working for one person is I learned the most I possibly could. I wasn’t starting over, switching chef to chef.
THE J: Developing a strong relationship.
JB: And getting a true understanding for how to do it, how to be successful, how to understand the business, getting over the ego.
There’s a lot of that out there – “Look at how amazing my dish is!”
Figuring out what I enjoy, timeless restaurants, places that are a part of the neighborhood.
There’s no air too Speedy Romeo. From five to seven it’s like Chuk-E-Cheese in here. Especially when it’s nice out, there’s no reason not to bring the kids in.
I think we’ve achieved our goal of being an institution.
THE J: To be part of the community must feel good. And you’re doing collaborations with other local restaurants?
JB: Yeah we do a chef collaboration, a pizza project. It’s a good way to hear how someone else sees food. It’s fun for those chefs to come in here and see how we cook without gas and go about our day. It changes things up for our guys and for me.
THE J: As you were learning through your apprenticeship with Jean-Georges, what were some of the things you took away? Did you always think you’d go off on your own?
JB: That was always the goal. I was lucky to have the opportunity to open so many restaurants.
A big thing the culinary students don’t understand is management experience. They go to culinary school and think they want to be a chef right away.
But there’s nothing that can prepare you for people, for human relationships.
THE J: Other than experience.
JB: Right. So many kids come out and say: “I want to be the chef”. And I tell them they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.
I went around the world. I dealt with personalities from Mormons in Salt Lake to Muslims in the Middle East. Every type of strong pride Turk.
I’ve gone through the gamut.
I’ve trained so many people to get their job done. That’s why I have comfort in doing my own place.
The food part is easy, human relations is not.
You need time and experience and to go through all the bumps and all the shit to understand how to deal with people.
THE J: What finally made you make the decision to go on your own?
JB: I’d had enough. It kind of went sour. I was just fixing places, dealing with people getting fired, it was a downer.
After 15 I think I got the chops to do it on my own.
THE J: Did you go right into opening Speedy Romeo?
JB: I stopped working for Jean-Georges, I started working at Roman’s on Dekalb. They have a wood-burning oven. I was intimidated by the food.
I thought I’d open a steak house, with small sides to share with your meats or fish.
Not until I started working at Romans did I realize the wood fire and the wood grill thing. This grill we have here was used in Vegas at one of Jean-Georges’ steakhouses.
I fell in love with it. So when I had the idea to do the steak, seafood, and pizza on the wood fire, I thought it was really gonna work out.
THE J: It has taken off. What’s next?
JB: Working on our second restaurant now, in Manhattan, Lower East Side.
THE J: Will the new one be similar to this?
JB: Pretty close. We’re gonna pump it up just a bit. We’ll try to get some higher end ingredients. I can cook a gamut of high-end cuisine that I’m not doing here.
This is a neighborhood joint, it’s harder to move product that’s more expensive. At the new place I can. I look forward to having tuna crudo, maybe some dry aged meats, foie gras.
Sky’s the limit.
THE J: What brought you to this location (Clinton Hill)?
JB: I lived in Fort Greene and I saw how that neighborhood changed. I saw that coming this way. When I was starting to put my business plan together, I took a walk – I saw this big sign out of the corner of my eye.
I loved the façade. It looked old.
That’s what I’ve wanted. I wanted it to look like it had been here a long time.
THE J: Why’s that? Because it suggests quality?
JB: A little bit. I think it’s warmer. I think it’s inviting. Some places are a little too polished. You’ll get people to think: “That’s not for us.” That’s how I feel. I used to always want to go to the fanciest places to eat. Can’t even think about that now.
THE J: It’s laid back, but top-notch food. Do you still do music here?
JB: We used to do blues on Tuesday. We did jazz on Monday night. We still have a trio on Sunday brunch. We were too busy to have the bands here during the week, so we stopped. Every night is busy.
THE J: To your point about approachability – everyone seems to like it.
JB: They do! Not only do the young families bring their children in, but young adults bring their parents in when they come and visit.
THE J: What about the namesake?
JB: Todd’s (Justin’s business partner’s) parents owned a racehorse named Speedy Romeo in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. He was a trotter who raced at the Meadowlands and other tracks in the Tri State area.
Todd told me about this picture he had in his basement growing up. We thought it’d be cool to open a bar named after him. Just a dive bar. Dark place, old register, his (Speedy Romeo’s) picture above the register with a light on it, and that’s it. I found this location and said: “What about a restaurant?”
THE J: Wasn’t it an auto parts store when you found it?
JB: Yeah, we cleared that out. We basically bought the lease from the guys who had the bodega across the street. We signed a waver that said we wouldn’t open another bodega. We took my money, my dad’s money, and Todd’s money to open it.
THE J: What did it take, on a personal level, to start this restaurant in such a competitive city?
JB: Confidence. It never fazed me. I never worried that we weren’t gonna have people in here. The first night we opened we ran out of dough.
I guess it was just confidence.
THE J: Based on experience. Earned.
JB: Yea. But now I’m doing the second one and I’m a little anxious [laughs]. But I think the food will hold up in the city.
I’m excited to cook for my peers. There’s so many people that I worked with at Jean-Georges who are now chefs around the city.
We gotta be bulletproof. That’s fine. Elevating my game there is only gonna elevate my game here. Everyone will win.
THE J: How was it starting out?
JB: Hard. I’m a drug addict, I’m an alcoholic.
I’ve been sober for two and a half years now.
When Hurricane Sandy came, I got in a fight with my business partner and went on a four-day bender. Then I just split. It wasn’t the best thing, but it was something I needed to do to get sober. That’s been a huge turning point in my life. Running this has become much easier.
My business partner was my college roommate. I’ve known him for twenty years. It was a tricky scenario.
How are we going to be better tomorrow than we are today? Otherwise you go stale.
THE J: What are some things that have helped you get over your addiction?
JB: Exercise has been a big thing. A good thing on this journey of recovery for me, you know, has been changing my bad habits to positive habits.
I had gone to rehab. I had talked to my buddy who has been sober for ten years. Someone recommended this therapist. I started working out. My trainer taught me how to eat, recommended a diet. I was taking all these healthful suggestions.
I meditate twice a day. Transcendental Meditation.
THE J: Observing your breathing, watching your thoughts come and go.
JB: Yea. I had done an event for the David Lynch Foundation. I kept trying to reach out. I went to the classes. They gave me a scholarship. It has been a game changer, Transcendental Meditation. I came out of it just before coming here tonight.
THE J: A lot of admirable people credit their success and longevity to meditation.
JB: It’s a lot about longevity.
THE J: What else has it done for you?
JB: I do it first thing in the morning and it sets some structure to my day. It reduces my stresses greatly, in life and in business.
My relationships have gotten better and I tend to be more patient with people.
The second meditation of the day is around four or five. Usually before dinner service. This hits a reset button on my day. It gives me a little boost of energy to push me through service and puts me at a better level of clarity.
I look forward to it daily and can’t wait to see its life-long benefits.
THE J: Was starting this business instrumental in you getting over your addiction?
JB: No. It was detrimental. It’s a progression. You say you’re not gonna do something, then the unacceptable becomes acceptable. “I’ll never start drinking in the morning”, then I start drinking in the morning. I always said maybe I’ll stop when I have a child, maybe when I get married.
Then I said when I open this restaurant, that’s when I’ll stop.
Of course I designed the kitchen with eight beer taps. It’s a progressive disease. I started drinking at 5pm, then at noon. I thought it’d help, but I was the worst. It was a lot of pressure, a lot of eyes on me.
THE J: What made you finally stop?
JB: My dad had bailed me out once. A few things happened. Three years ago. I think it was Halloween, I went to party and it was off to the races. The next day was when the hurricane started (Hurricane Sandy), the restaurant was full, there was only one person working. We ran out of ingredients.
My business partner and I had an argument. I left and didn’t come back to work for three days. In the meantime, I couldn’t face my parents.
I had two choices: I either go to the airport and fly to Hawaii or I go to rehab and try to figure out life.
Luckily my brother was in town. He found me. I told him what was going on and we went to get help.
I called a rehab place in Jersey and they took me in. That was it.
THE J: Congratulations.
THE J: There’s a nice feel in here, did you design it?
JB: I did lay out the restaurant but I had a company named Hecho help with design as well. When I was in college I studied industrial design, product design. I drove past Pratt today and thought “Man, it’d be so nice to go back to school, learn, do a good job, be creative”, then I remembered I’m about to open a new restaurant, plenty of opportunity to create something awesome.
THE J: How’s the design going for the new place?
JB: I have a little anxiety because I want to create something awesome. I feel like the pressure is on. I’m under size constraints. I know the food will be good, but I want it to look cool.
And it’s hard because I don’t have the vision right now and I have a lot of work to do on picking out everything from the floor to the furniture to the walls to the ceiling to the bar.
THE J: Does your dad help? Is he actively involved?
JB: My dad looks after all the money.
THE J: Do you have a good relationship with him?
JB: We do. That came from sobriety, 100%. Our relationship is the best it’s ever been.
THE J: What’s the philosophy behind your endeavors?
JB: How are we going to be better tomorrow than we are today? Otherwise you go stale.
THE J: Last thing. You’re from Kansas City. Royals fan? George Brett fan?
JB: I am. He signed an envelope for me at a restaurant when I was a kid.
I went to Game Seven last year. That was rough.
You want something to eat?