Five years ago, love brought a talented young chef to Cleveland. Today, thousands of diners at Fat Fish Blue in Downtown Cleveland have fallen in love with Southern transplant and master showman, JR Grady.
Gulf Coast born and raised, Gary “JR” Grady Jr. spent his early years sautéing up and down the Gulf Coast from local BBQ houses to high profile kitchens like The Riverhouse in New Orleans, La., and Hank’s Seafood in Charleston, S.C.. To augment his real life experience and expand his fundamentals, Grady attended Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school in Charleston. After graduating summa cum laude, Grady decided to try his hand on a different coast. So, he joined his new bride on the north coast…aka Cleveland.
Describing his cooking style as “Southern comfort with a touch of Creole bourgeois,” Grady immediately added his cherished family recipes to the Fat Fish Blue menu. When customers dig into Grady’s chicken and sausage gumbo or pan-seared hog snapper, they have a hard time remembering if they are in Cleveland, Ohio…or Cleveland, Ga.
Like any true Southerner, Grady also brought his affinity for Mardi Gras with him. One only needs to take one look at his stuffed alligator to understand that Grady means business on Fat Tuesday. Now in its 20th year, the pre-Lenten party is a Fat Fish Blue tradition that draws record crowds.
As the executive chef for four locations, Grady spends more than 180 days a year on the road. But, after five years…his heart remains in Cleveland. Cleveland, Ohio, that is.
Q&A with JR
1. How long have you been at Fat Fish Blue?
2. We know that love brought you to Cleveland. As a Southerner, what do you love about this town?
The cold weather. (laughter) No. I like the diversity. Tons of different people. One of the constants here that really reminds me of the South is the passion involved in the people. Whether restaurant people or Browns and Indians fans, there is a real passion and zest for life here.
3. What is the best part about being a chef?
When I was younger, it was the women. Now that I’m married… (laughter) No. Every day you meet someone new. You have the unique opportunity to make someone’s day. We get a lot of vegans, vegetarians and people with allergies in our restaurant. They tell their server of their dietary limitations and then the server comes to me. I like the challenge. Generally, I’ll come out, meet the customer and tell them to pick out whatever they wanted to eat. Then it’s my job to make it work.
The hours. Well, not really the hours, but the pressure that comes with it. Some days you will work 12 hours and feel like you didn’t accomplish anything. We have four other locations, and I’m the corporate chef for those locations too. I spend about 180 on the road, but I like to have my entire staff feel like they can come to me with any problems.
4. What is your favorite dish to prepare at Fat Fish Blue?
Crab cakes. They are lots of work to make, but I like making them and was proud to have won the award for best entrée at the Taste of Cleveland. I also enjoy making shrimp and grits—mainly because not many people in Northeast Ohio know how to make true shrimp and grits. It’s tough to pick a favorite. I enjoy cooking all of ‘em.
5. How would you describe your cooking style?
I would say, “Southern comfort with a touch of Creole bourgeois.” I grew up in Alabama, but my food is definitely influenced by New Orleans. I’ve worked and cooked in restaurants all over the country. I guess you could call it Southern comfort with a big city mentality.
6. It’s a cold, blustery day in Downtown Cleveland and you are badly in need of some “comfort food.” What are you preparing?
I will probably make chicken and sausage gumbo with warm cornbread. If still in need of more food—maybe a pan-seared hog snapper with bacon tomato sauce.
7. The tables are turned and you are the diner. What are you looking for in a restaurant? What do you expect from the chef?
Ah, good question. I expect a well-balanced meal. I don’t always go out for the frills of it (presentation, etc.). I just want the 3-4 components in the dish to work well together. That’s it.
8. If you could have a meal prepared for you by any chef in America, who would you choose and why?
Maybe Mario Batali. He always uses fresh ingredients and puts his heart into his food. He’s not dialing it in. Plus, I want to try some of his pasta to see if it holds up to mine.
9. If someone comes to Fat Fish Blue for a job as a cook, what are you looking for and why?
I want guys who have only been in the business for a year or two. They generally have no bad habits yet. What’s the saying? It’s hard to teach old dog new tricks. I was trained by classical French chefs who had a certain way of doing things. But, I want people that are hungry for knowledge. We have a hands-on teaching environment.
10. There are plenty of amateur cooks in our region. What is the best piece of advice you could give to someone who is just starting to fall in love with cooking?
I would tell them what I told my wife a long time ago, ‘don’t be afraid to cook.’ Don’t be afraid to try things you may think taste good. Being a chef is about trying new things. Then you eliminate as many bad opportunities as you can. I’ve walked dishes up to our GM and some have not worked. You really have to have a passion for it. Two to four years ago the market got flooded with budding chefs with no real passion. They didn’t really care. I’m lucky to have found this very young and commit my life to it. I don’t regret doing this. You may miss holidays or birthdays here and there. But, then you realize there are 300 people you are going to cook and you become a part of their special occasions.
11. Downtown Cleveland has received national recognition as an emerging culinary scene. How would you describe the culinary scene Downtown? What do you see happening?
There is a lot of talent down here that, for a while, was overlooked. Not to knock on Michael (Symon), but he sort of stole the spotlight a bit. I guess what he did do is shine a light on some of the darker areas that may not have shined. He started this boom for us. Where I see us going is that as long as we can push through, we have a lot to offer downtown. There are plenty of different cooking styles. You can eat in four different styles and only be a block away.
You know…everyone is in this together. When we lost LeBron and people thought this was the end of the world, you’d be shocked at the number of e-mails going to restaurant GMs and owners. Restaurant week means we are all working together. You know, if Jonathan (Sawyer) needed to borrow 2 bags of lettuce and I only had 3 I’d give it to him. If we’re busy, we’ll send people to Fourth Street and vice versa. For the most part everyone gets it. Everyone gets along.