When Jim Tracey and his soon-to-be wife, Laura Waters, took ownership of Red Bird Restaurant in 2002, it was hard to find, as the entry was off an alley that was redolent in dumpster aromas.
Red Bird’s located on the main floor of the Florence Hotel, Missoula’s most prominent example of Art Deco architecture. The building hasn’t been a hotel for decades, but it’s still referred to by its older name.
Jim Tracey’s upbringing introduced him, albeit marginally, to the food world. His family owned (and still does to this day) a candy store in Sea Isle, New Jersey. What’s remarkable about this chef is that he is almost entirely self-taught. He had been a finance major in college, but decided in his junior year that college and finance weren’t for him. So he went to work in restaurants in Colorado where, through observation of what was going on in the kitchen, he developed the impetus to learn everything he could about producing good food in a commercial setting.
His wanderlust brought him to Missoula in 1995 and his first job was in the kitchen at the Old Post, one of the town’s venerable watering holes. Working with the tutelage of Christine Littig, he began learning food preparation technique. When Christine left the Old Post to start Red Bird, Tracey soon followed. Her menu had Italian influences which she brought to Missoula from New York. It was a stab at fine dining, matching its then neighboring restaurant, The Alley Cat and its chef, Pearl Cash (featured in this magazine in 2016).
Mutual friends introduced him to Laura and the two hit it off almost immediately, soon forming a partnership that would lead eventually to marriage, but first the purchase of Red Bird. (Littig went on to found Missoula’s now well-known and highly respected Bernice’s Bakery.)
By this time, he had learned enough about creating restaurant-quality entrees and sides and the pair knew right away that they wanted Red Bird’s cuisine to be fine dining, a chancy leap in the Missoula of 2002. Much of the inspiration for their menu items came from the couple’s extensive travel, sampling food from restaurants in major and not-so-major cities around the U.S.
Diners in Missoula soon discovered Tracey’s innovative dishes, while Laura guided their customers through an eclectic but approachable wine list. The restaurant’s slogan of “Edible Artwork” is probably the most accurate description of what comes out of that kitchen.
Never one to sit on his laurels, Tracey soon began purchasing and butchering whole animals, using every portion to produce special “preparations of the week.” At the same time, he ventured into the world of charcuterie, producing sausages and cheeses that he featured in his starter courses.
The couple took a major leap in 2006 when they took on additional space in the Florence to create a wine bar, with a total redesign of the space that was the original restaurant’s dining room. The Art Deco touches remain and blend with modernist light fixtures and gilt wall coverings.
What’s changed in the past year is that Red Bird’s Wine Bar and Dining Room now share the same menu. The stress of preparing two separate menus in a relatively small kitchen is behind him now and he refers to it as a change that was long overdue.
The other major change that has had an immeasurable impact is the birth of the couple’s son, Max, eight years ago. It’s changed the way they travel (less), and the way they eat when they’re on the road. Tracey points with pride to his son’s willingness to try new foods. And the couple’s tasting exploits now focus largely on ethnic cuisines, especially Thai and Indian curries, freshly made pasta, and even barbecue.
Red Bird has always baked its own breads and rolls. Leftover rye bread, for instance, is used to make croutons or give texture to soups and stocks. And if you want a burger with the Tracey touch, you’ll get a house-baked bun to enjoy it on.
Nevertheless, he longs for an extended food-based journey through Europe, even though the family’s forthcoming vacation trip back to Sea Isle will include nostalgic visits to cheese-steak stands, fish markets, and other South Jersey food traditions.
There are many things one can learn in culinary school. But Chef Jim Tracey proves that desire, taste, determination, and hard work can also be a ticket to success in the tough world of restaurant cooking and ownership.