Like many kids growing up, Julian Bruell spent summers working at the family business. In his case, that business was Parallax, the Tremont restaurant that opened during his freshman year at Shaker Heights High. Instead of backpacking through Europe, dog-eared "Let's Go" guidebook in hand, the straight-A student ran food, bussed tables, polished wine glasses and suffered abuse at the hands of the owner.
"He was definitely harder on me than anybody else, by far," Bruell says of his demanding dad, Zack. "But that was good, because it taught me discipline. I would not have the work ethic that I do today if it wasn't for him."
Bruell the younger had a future in mind — and it had nothing to do with restaurants. He was accepted to Tulane University, where he would study landscape architecture in pursuit of a career in golf course design. But he was also admitted to Cornell University, "the Harvard of hospitality programs," an eventuality even he considered out of reach.
"I decided that I really loved hospitality and I couldn't see myself doing anything else," Bruell says of his decision to ditch tipsy New Orleans in favor of chilly Ithaca, New York. There, he immersed himself in coursework covering marketing, management, operations and human resources. To satisfy his 800 hours of practical work experience, Bruell spent summers in Argentina and Italy, working at two very different vineyards.
Upon graduation, Bruell had his pick of job offers, but one opportunity rose to the top: It was a management training program with Myriad Restaurant Group, which includes Tribeca Grill, Nobu, Bâtard and others operated by uber-restaurateur and, ahem, fellow Cornell University alum Drew Nieporent.
"I could have taken a restaurant management job right out of school, but I had to throw my ego out the window because I knew this would set me up for the future," Bruell says of the ostensibly entry-level position.
In seven months' time, after touching every position in the house, Bruell was managing the Tribeca Grill, one of the most respected, enduring and profitable restaurants in Manhattan. He parlayed that experience into an even more estimable position, that of service manager at Jean-Georges, a temple of gastronomy on the receiving end of two Michelin stars and a four-star review from The New York Times. He was just 24 years old.
"I thought I was going to get fired during the first couple weeks," Bruell admits. "You have to be insane a little bit. It is psychologically tough working at a place like that. It's militant."
As prestigious as that position was, it did not tick all of Bruell's boxes in terms of job requirements. His next move, which occurred after two years at Jean-Georges, would not only come with higher pay and an elevated title, but also the opportunity to be part of a restaurant opening. Sauvage, a painfully hip Parisian bistro in Brooklyn, came with all that and more, Bruell relates, such as 90-hour work weeks, kidney stones and an all-encompassing rage.
"I was drowning," Bruell confesses.
It was his father, Zack, who provided the life preserver. While he never pushed his son to come back to Cleveland, he was clear that the door was always open. By then, Bruell Restaurant Group had grown to a collection of eateries that included L'Albatros, Table 45, Chinato and Cowell & Hubbard. Julian's restaurant management experience would be invaluable, so a new position was created for him: director of service. In that role, Bruell seeks to elevate the standard of service at all of his father's restaurants.
"Why make excuses like, 'It's Cleveland,' or 'There are a lot of restaurants and not enough employees'? That's bullshit to me and it's a bullshit excuse," he argues. "You just have to work harder to train people. I want people to travel to New York or Chicago or San Francisco and say, 'I can get that in Cleveland. I can get better with nicer people who are just as qualified.' I do believe we can do it."