Simply Harper

A young chef reclaims – and refreshes – his Southern roots
with a welcoming restaurant in downtown Suffolk.

by Michelle Washington
photography by Keith Lanpher

Friday night brings a swell of customers to Harper’s Table, and the temperature in the kitchen quickly hits 95.

A roaring oven and the clang of pots combine for an ear-ringing din. Harper Bradshaw and his staff keep their conversation to a minimum, working smoothly together as dish after dish leaves the kitchen for the dining room.

Bradshaw mans the grill, rotating steaks through degrees of doneness, finishing pork chops already made velvet-tender by an overnight sous-vide bath, adding thick slices of cheddar and Benton bacon (you should, says the menu) to sizzling burgers.

Each dish gets a quick scan from Bradshaw before it heads to the dining room, a careful drizzle of red wine butter sauce on a rib-eye, a pass with a serrated knife through a burger a guest has asked to share.

Although Bradshaw has worked in and led kitchens at several of Hampton Roads’ best restaurants, Harper’s Table marks his first endeavor as chef and owner. The menu bares his Southern roots and upbringing. His kitchen and the way he runs it reflect years honing his craft. And his dining room illustrates his belief that a superior dinner depends on more than the food – it requires comfort, timing that seems effortless, and hospitality that makes the entire experience one to remember.

“At the end of the day you don’t have a business without customers coming through the door,” he says. “It’s really important to me that you have a great time while you’re here.”

At first, cooking seemed to Bradshaw like something to do until he found a real job.

He tossed salads and topped pizzas at a restaurant until the guy at the   grill left. Bradshaw took his place. On that day in 2003, cooking started to seem like something serious, a real job of its own.

Bradshaw worked in restaurant kitchens all over Hampton Roads, including Brutti’s and Todd Jurich’s Bistro. His work took him to Vintage Tavern in Suffolk in 2006, where he became chef de cuisine – head of the kitchen.

After five years, during which he was part of the team that guided Vintage Tavern to local and national acclaim, Bradshaw had another epiphany about the career he had stumbled into.

“I realized I was totally committed to following my dreams of being a restaurant owner. I made up my mind,” he says. “I told them the next day.” In a month’s time, he quit to start planning his own place.

That first Monday, freshly unemployed, with no money, no place to start and no plan, Bradshaw sat at a desk in his father’s financial planning office in Franklin and tried to figure out what to do next.

He headed to North Carolina, touring barbecue joints from Lexington to Charlotte. It’s an area with fierce loyalties and deep divisions on the proper way to cook a pig, as well as what kinds of sauce might best accompany it, which vegetables might possibly honor meat as succulent as roasted pork. He ate at restaurant after restaurant that elevated the cuisine of the region to giddy heights.

By the time Bradshaw returned to Suffolk last summer, he knew he wanted something similar: a place to celebrate Virginia’s food legacy as well as his own.

“Coming down the line!”

Cooks shout the warning to avoid accidental scaldings as they walk down the narrow passage that separates prep areas from blazing burners. Bradshaw anchors the line; other cooks take positions at the flat-top stove, at the fryer and oven, at a station to make desserts and salads.

Nearly every member of the staff joined it to learn from Bradshaw.

Gina Smith makes the salads and the breads; she’s still in school at the Culinary Institute of Virginia and has the least experience of anyone on the cooking team. “Harper took me under his wing,” she says. “It’s great because of the guidance he gives.”

Fish sizzles as Verdell Godfrey Jr. sears it in olive oil, adding a crisp brown crust before finishing it in the oven below. He has cooked in restaurant kitchens all over Hampton Roads and was head chef at his last gig. But he, too, wants to open a place of his own one day. “You have to give yourself an opportunity to learn more,” he says. He’s learning about building, financing, meeting with lawyers – all the business stuff that comes ahead of the first day in the kitchen.

Bradshaw, in turn, credits the other chefs he worked with in the area for providing the techniques that keep his kitchen running smoothly. He learned that a tidy kitchen runs more smoothly than a messy one. He assimilated styles and memorized standard sauces by watching other chefs prepare them dozens of times a night, and then asking to take over. He learned to favor simplicity over elaborate technique, seasoning with generous hits of salt and pepper, adorning plates with pinches of fresh thyme, parsley and chives.

That preference for simplicity put down roots long ago. His grandma’s black cast iron skillet figures prominently in his childhood memories of food. She made fried chicken, sometimes hamburgers, stirring up dish after tasty dish in the same heavy pan.

“It’s a prime symbol of Southern cuisine,” Bradshaw says.

She and his grandfather owned a restaurant in Burkeville, a simple place with burgers, steaks and a sign that boasted “salad and potato bar. Breakfast any time.” His grandfather kept a huge wheel of cheddar in the refrigerator. Bradshaw realized that his grandparents ate what they loved, simple foods that tasted good.

He did not attend formal cooking school – he thought his “real job” would involve a career working outdoors, so he took classes in recreation management at James Madison University.  He left in 2003, just shy of graduation. He earned part of his food education through hands-on experience in restaurant kitchens. Reading about food and about restaurants through menus, magazines and books has been “critically important” to his understanding of creating a great dining experience. Bradshaw points to the 1999 publication of The French Laundry Cookbook as a watershed: The Napa Valley restaurant and chef Thomas Keller’s techniques redefined American cuisine and American ingredients. Keller’s focus on an immersive dining experience that catered to all the senses was as crucial to the success of his restaurant as the recipes. And from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, Bradshaw embraced “homey roots, but a level of elegance using humble ingredients.”

As Bradshaw learned to cook, he recognized that Virginia rarely gets its culinary due. Our state, and Hampton Roads in particular, boasts an incredible richness of earthy ingredients that give backbone to dishes both hearty and refined: oysters, clams and crabs; pork salted, smoked or fresh; sweet potatoes, peanuts, greens. His menu features plenty of those local ingredients.

“We really need to embrace it,” he says.

Hampton Roads’ heritage shows itself in the space Bradshaw chose for his restaurant, as well. When he set out on his own, he thought he wanted a spot in a strip mall on a busy stretch of road. He reasoned he could convert the steady flow of traffic into a steady customer stream. But he quickly realized it didn’t feel like home.

He began looking at a location in downtown Suffolk. It’s his wife Laura’s hometown, and although he spent most of his youth in Franklin he finished high school at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. A shell of a building on Main Street provided a downtown location and a small-town address.

The spot offered pride of place and pieces of history. Bradshaw used wood from a peanut warehouse in his wife’s family to create a canopy over the seating area. He used more salvaged wood to create table tops and serving boards branded with the Harper’s Table logo, a small H and a big T fashioned into a chair and table. Paintings of farm scenes decorate each booth; burlap like that used to make peanut shipping sacks covers the lamp shades. An 18th-century barn door, cleaned and preserved, provides camouflage for a flat-screen television.

Bradshaw helped during demolition to save a few bucks in renovating the place. As he swung a sledgehammer to expose the original brick walls, he discovered the lower part of a century-old painted Coca-Cola mural, its vibrant colors protected for decades by layers of drywall. Bradshaw had to reconfigure his plans to incorporate the mural into the design of the restaurant; it became a showy centerpiece for his bar, along with a support beam he’d salvaged to create a liquor shelf.

“That shelf is one of the coolest things in the whole building,” he says. “And it was just a piece of rotten wood.”

Finally, he paid tribute to his grandmother and her kitchen. He serves side dishes like potato salad in miniature iron skillets.

Local ingredients and cooking in the old way star on the menu at Harper’s Table. He makes his own butter and buttermilk, ingredients that find their way into and onto steaming squares of golden, slightly sweet cornbread. He smokes meats and tomatoes. Trips to the farmer’s market snare seasonal produce for menu additions like butter beans made savory with a soak in a pork-scented pot liquor.

For $10, Bradshaw serves a juicy hamburger on brioche, made with red Angus beef from Windhaven Farm in Isle of Wight County. His inability to stop snacking on handsful of local raspberries prompted him to create a salad using the berries along with prosciutto from Windhaven and fresh goat cheese. On a plain white plate, colors combine with the effect of a scattering of gems, each ingredient allowed room to shine. Salty pork contrasts with the sweetness of the berries, and the creaminess of the cheese resets the palate for another bite. Chesapeake Bay flounder, seared outside, moist and flaky inside, comes with stone-ground grits, a broth rich with tomatoes, and baby okra, slender as a lady’s pinky finger.

Most of the menu items Bradshaw features describe in just a few words what a diner will be eating. He uses English words, even for French techniques like sous-vide, a kind of low-temperature slow braise that entered the popular gastronomic lexicon through television shows like Top Chef.

“American food has created enough of an identity for itself,” he says. The regional ingredients he cares for so deeply stand on their own in his dishes. American cooks once deemed sweet potatoes too dull to eat without a drift of marshmallows. Bradshaw puts them on the menu unadorned as “old myrtle sweet potatoes,” and serves them in cubes with greens under a massive pork steak. It’s a simple presentation with a technique refined to bring out the best in each ingredient.

The plain language underscores another part of Bradshaw’s restaurant recipe. Even more than he wants the food to be great, he wants people to be comfortable, to find such a gracious plenty of hospitality that eating there feels like eating at a good friend’s place. He dined at the French Laundry about eight years ago; it was his first four-star restaurant experience. Servers replaced toasted brioche after one bite because it was “better warm.” He ate caviar and chose from five types of salt, one from the ocean floor off the coast of Japan, to adorn his course of foie gras.

But even as the food dazzled him, the experience of dining in such a refined place intimidated him. “This is supposed to be fun,” he said. “Why am I so nervous? Why am I so stiff? Why am I wearing something I’m not comfortable in?”

On this Friday night, dinner hour brings sailors in blue camouflage, families with small kids, a man in pressed denims with a belt buckle like a tricycle tire, couples dressed in date night finery.

As guests get comfy out front, Bradshaw gets serious in the kitchen.

His favorite combinations play “fancy” against “down home” to stunning effect: one dish features lowly mackerel topped with crab. He presents seared foie gras with sauteed and fresh apples on a ribbon of sorghum. Smoky molasses acts as a foil for the richness of the foie gras. At $22 it’s the most expensive starter on the menu; nonetheless it sells well.

One dish offers a primer on Bradshaw’s style of cooking: Pork belly biscuits sit atop the menu for $3 each. “I think everyone should start with a pork belly biscuit,” he says. He loves biscuits, and pork belly speaks both to luxury and familiarity – it’s made from the same part of the pig as bacon, but it’s fresh rather than cured.

The biscuits arrive at the table piping hot, accompanied by a warm, salty aroma. Golden crust yields to a puffy, feathery-light biscuit. A crescent of thinly sliced Gala apple provides a snap of crispness before the fatty succulence of the pork belly. A hit of apple-onion butter adds a savory backnote.

It is Harper Bradshaw’s kitchen philosophy, layered on a sandwich: homey, fresh, local, decadent.