Chef Brad Wise’s foray into the world of foodservice took place when he was just 12 years old while tagging along with a friend to a pizza and cheesecake spot. Jake’s Pizza was located in his hometown of Cape May, a seaside city at the tip of southern New Jersey. The serendipitous tag-along led to a job mopping floors, and right off the bat, Wise liked the comradery the restaurant industry offered. At the time, his peers had a bigger impact on him than the culinary side of things, he admits. Then, at 14, Wise began working at the Washington Inn, also in his hometown, under executive chef Mimi Wood and sous chef Doug Marandino. “I’m very close with both of them today. They nurtured me, teaching me the right ways,” says Wise, who now owns a portfolio of six restaurant concepts running the gamut from fine dining to a butcher shop to an ice cream window.
“Something I think is a lost art is when people start from the bottom, and work prep for three years before even touching something on the line,” he notes. “They taught me how to make stocks, sauces, soups, all these things that people come out of culinary school now and they’re like, ‘Oh, I want to be a chef,’ and they didn’t go through the rigorous training that some others may have.”
But before founding his hospitality collective—TRUST Restaurant Group—in 2016, Wise found himself living in Southern California and working for a hospitality company called Eat.Drink.Sleep for nine years, where he was running culinary programs at various independent hotels or at parks.
“Then I realized I wanted to get out of the operations and go more into the culinary side of things, and that’s where the birth of Trust started. I had never cooked the food that I cook now,” he says. Wise describes his culinary style as “not fancy by any means, but bold flavors and textures and things like that is what excites me, not necessarily the way the dish looks. Although they’re not ugly, at least I don’t think so, but they’re not foofy.”
In 2016, Wise opened Trust Restaurant with the idea of marrying food, beverage, and service. The concept focuses on shared plates, familiar ingredients emboldened with big flavors, and modern cooking techniques—but the foundation is an open flame. Dating his now wife whose family has roots in California’s Central Coast region, Wise fell in love with wood-fired, Santa Maria-style grilling for everything from meats, sustainably-sourced seafoods, and vegetables, to creative sauces and purees. The barbecue style dates back to the mid-19th century and is a regional culinary tradition, where everything is cooked directly over the fire, typically over red oak wood.
Trust’s dinner menu is split into categorizes “Farm,” “Ocean,” and “Ranch,” and ranges from oak-fired potatoes with tzatziki, pickled turnips, sumac onions, moroccan garlic crunch, and puffed farro from the farm to charred swordfish with satay sauce, noodles, peanut crunch, bean sprouts, pickles, and herbs. Wise’s team also offers whole-grilled branzino with herb relish, campari tomatoes, shaved fennel, and grilled lemon.
“I’m a firm believer in pushing everything to the limit,” Wise says. “You want to push people out of their comfort zone in a sense of, everyone can get the same ingredients I can. You as a consumer can go to a farm and grab the same tomatoes, same everything I’m getting, but I would like to create something that they don’t normally do at home.”
Wise continued to push his own boundaries by opening a “big sister” concept to Trust—Fort Oak in Mission Hills, California. A U-shaped bar seats 23 people and circles around what was once an old Ford dealership showroom, while the exhibition kitchen seats 16 at a counter with a view of the culinary action. While Trust focuses on more elevated comfort food plates, Fort Oak is more of a raw bar with seafood and composed entrees, Wise explains. The restaurant has received numerous accolades, like a Michelin Plate Award.
Fort Oak’s sophisticated menu and Mid-Century design signaled a progression in his preferred cooking method, which sparked Wise’s imagination to what was possible. When many restaurateurs were shutting down operations and hunking down in homes, Wise was dreaming up new concepts—then opening them. In early 2020, Wise launched Cardellino, an Italian chophouse with handmade pastas and pizzas inspired by Wise’s South Jersey, Italian influences.
Next up was Wise Ox, a quick-service retail butcher and sandwich shop with artisan-style meats, which debuted in September of the same year in North Park and also offers a monthly meat subscription. Then came Mr. Trustee Creamery, a walk-up ice cream window adjacent to Cardellina. Spearheaded by Wise’s executive pastry chef, Jeremy Harville, Mr. Trustee is open every night and offers small-batch, artisanal ice cream with unique flavors like cereal-themed Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Lemon Meringue Pie.
Yet, Wise’s journey wasn’t without challenges. A boilermaker bar concept folded after just a year, but inspired what Wise considers perhaps his greatest invention—Rare Society, an homage to vintage Las Vegas steakhouses, which he first opened in November 2019.
“I’ve learned a lot in three years, and this year, I’m really drilling down on how to be better and operate better. I do a lot of soul searching in that fashion,” Wise adds.
Rare Society offers cuts of dry-aged ribeyes, wagyu, and other retro steakhouse classics like Oysters Rockefeller, snow crab legs, and Caesar salad (one of Wise’s favorites on the menu). Indulgent touches like seafood towers complement a progressive cocktail program plus a playful dessert selection.
Following a warm reception to the first Rare Society location in San Diego’s uptown area, Wise and his team ventured into North County with a second location in Solana Beach. “I might be the brainchild behind a lot of this stuff, but I can’t do it without [my team],” he says. “I’ve got to give them the tools to succeed, and affirmation is a big one we’re learning this year that makes the difference on why people want to show up and work these long hours.”
The through-line between all of his concepts (aside from Mr. Trustee) is the wood-fired grill. At Rare Society, signature meat boards showcase a variety of the restaurant’s 30 to 40-day dry-aged steaks, as well as a selection of the kitchen’s favorite prime cuts. Wise and his team opened the third Rare Society location in July 2022 in Santa Barbara, and in February, opened a fourth store in Mill Creek, Washington—marking the concept’s first expansion outside of California. As far as future growth goes, Wise wants to open 15 more Rare Society locations throughout the U.S. over the next five years.
When asked what he thinks the key element to creating and growing a successful restaurant group is, Wise says “don’t deviate from your plan. If you have a plan and it’s working, stick with it and see it through. Learn from your mistakes and failures. Just be aware, and write everything down.”
“You have to partner and work with a group of people that share your vision, and give them the freedom to be themselves,” Wise adds. “You’ve got to believe in what you do and treat people with respect at the end of the day, but still hold people accountable.”