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.
Throughout all this, my dream was always to work in New York. My best friends lived there, and who doesn’t want to cook in New York? A few friends recommended me to the chef George Mendes, and, after a daylong trail at his Michelin-starred spot, Aldea, he told me that he would give me a cook position and if I really excelled, I would get a chef position. He was one of the most demanding chefs I have ever worked for.
I did everything plus more and got promoted up to chef de cuisine, later helping George to open another restaurant, Lupulo.
After Aldea, Lupulo, and eventually, Agern, Claus Meyer’s fine dining spot, I had developed my own unique identity as a chef. I had made meaningful change on the menus of all those restaurants. I knew it was time to open my own place. I never dreamed my first restaurant would be in New York; I thought it would be in Florida. To have a successful place here in Brooklyn — it’s really exciting.
In order to move up in this business, there’s no other way but to hustle. I love to have fun, but at the end of day, I have always focused and tried my hardest. I am always doing extra. You simply can’t excel unless you are willing to do the work.