This feature is part of a regular series called “How I Got Promoted,” spotlighting the stories of how top hospitality professionals took their careers to the next level. Today’s edition focuses on Brad Willits, the young executive chef and partner at Camperdown Elm in Brooklyn, who found a way to stand out and move up in every restaurant he worked at, through his grit and hustle.
My dad owned a restaurant in Florida, where I grew up, so I was bussing and doing dishes from age twelve. Eventually, I started working as a busser at a local restaurant. I volunteered to work extra shifts as a garde manger. I was always the one asking questions and tasting dishes, even more so than any of the veteran servers. So, they eventually asked me to stay on full-time in the kitchen.
I soon moved to the fine dining outpost of that restaurant and worked across every single station, from pastries to sauté to grilling. I played baseball all through high school, and I’ve always been really aggressive, competitive, and focused. I understood the importance of those qualities at an early age. I think because of this, I quickly got a job working in what was known as my town’s best restaurant, Tangos Steakhouse, even though I had never worked a station full-time. I was really intimidated, but I let that fear drive me. I learned really quickly. It was the kind of place where if you weren’t ready when the chef walked in, you were going to get screamed at. I had this mentality that I wanted to be the best, so I put my head down and worked hard every single day. I knew the chef came in the morning, so I’d just come before my shift to learn from him — whether it was how to break down a pig or a fish. Within a year, I was promoted to sous chef, and then I became chef de cuisine. The restaurant essentially became my show — the owner trusted me, at 23 years old.
After a stint in Charleston, I moved back to Florida when I learned my dad was diagnosed with cancer. The day I drove down, I had an interview to be the chef at the restaurant at the Kimpton Hotel. I was super sick. I was, like, dying. But the owner asked me to do a trail that day. So I went home, grabbed my knives, and was back at the restaurant, and ready to cook an hour later.
There were 90 reservations on the books and I was churning dishes out. By the end of the night, still crazy sick, I had the job.
While I was at the Kimpton, I learned how to do big productions and banquets. I didn’t want to do boring banquet food like filet mignons with asparagus — so I totally transformed our large-format catering program. My bosses were impressed and asked if I wanted to become the chef at another of their properties — to do what I did in Florida somewhere else. I moved to one of the hotels in Baltimore, switched gears from seafood to meats and sausages, learned a ton, and eventually, I was named best new chef by Baltimore Magazine in 2013. I even won a statewide crab cook-off. [Read more…]