Jeffrey Chodorow has invested many, many millions of dollars in the restaurant business. And he says his restaurants did over a quarter of a billion dollars in sales last year. But he’s not content.
He famously tussled with chef Rocco DiSpirito on the NBC reality show The Restaurant (and, later, in a series of lawsuits); he tangled with New York Times critic Frank Bruni by taking out a full-page ad last February rebutting Mr. Bruni’s zero-star review of his midtown Japanese-themed steakhouse Kobe Club. For good measure he started a blog that, he said, would counteract Mr. Bruni and New York magazine critic Adam Platt’s mistaken impressions of New York restaurants.
But on a recent morning, over breakfast at Norma’s at Le Meridien Hotel—a few blocks from Kobe Club and the headquarters of Mr. Chodorow’s company, China Grill Management, named for his first restaurant, which opened in 1987—Mr. Chodorow’s attentive publicist, Karine Bakhoum, kept trying to steer the conversation back to the future. “Let’s not talk about the past,” she cooed. “It’s just not interesting.”
Instead, she wanted the 57-year-old Mr. Chodorow, who has a closely trimmed beard and curly black hair with hints of gray, to focus on his many upcoming ventures. There are his investments in two new restaurants on Broadway and 77th Street: a 90-seat Malaysian-themed coffeehouse with Fatty Crab co-owner Zak Pelaccio (who also runs Mr. Chodorow’s Borough Food & Drink on 22nd Street) and a 150-seat restaurant with Ouest’s celebrated chef and owner Tom Valenti, which Mr. Valenti told The Observer will be “open all day and all night. There are no grown-up bar-slash-restaurants up here.”
Then there’s what Ms. Bakhoum termed a “classic American steakhouse concept” in the Empire Hotel at 64th and Broadway. (“We’re just going to try to make phenomenal creamed spinach,” Mr. Chodorow said.) Mr. Chodorow is also planning on opening China Grills in Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Hawaii, Dubai and Moscow, as well a Kobe Club in Miami sometime next year. In Los Angeles, Mr. Chodorow is bringing the Citronelle chef Michel Richard from Washington, D.C., to help open a new incarnation of Mr. Richard’s old L.A. restaurant, Citrus, which closed in 1998. He also has two restaurants opening in hotels in the Dominican Republic, and what he calls a “big Italian project” in New York.
Finally, there’s his collaboration with racy men’s magazine Maxim for a series of Maxim steakhouses; the first will open in Atlanta early next year and he’s scouting for a New York location.
But Mr. Chodorow cannot help but return to the case of Kobe Club, Mr. DiSpirito and, more generally, his perception that he is singled out for unfair treatment at the hands of New York critics.
“The reality and the perception of Kobe Club are so different, it’s sort of mind-boggling,” said Mr. Chodorow. He wore a light blue checked shirt under a blue-gray V-neck sweater, and a houndstooth wool blazer. He has a slight paunch and a wide, friendly face. As he spoke, the iPhone next to him on the table buzzed several times, though he never answered it. Mr. Chodorow had a busy day ahead of him. At noon he had a meeting about two new projects; at 2 p.m., a meeting with his lawyers; and at 3:30 p.m., a meeting with the editor of Maxim. At 5 p.m. he would be talking to one of his chefs whose visa was about to expire; at 5:30 p.m., an interview with the Globe & Mail; at 6 p.m., two art openings; and at 8 p.m., dinner with Ms. Bakhoum and some others. (“My life and my work blend seamlessly,” Mr. Chodorow said. “I don’t play golf or anything like that.”) The following day, he would leave for Italy for a weeklong truffle-hunting expedition. “I think Kobe Club may be my favorite restaurant in America,” said Ms. Bakhoum, who has represented Mr. Chodorow for several years. “It’s that decadently beautiful and delicious. The creamed corn with the truffles? I want to lay down and die.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Mr. Chodorow. “Last night, I had dinner at China Grill … and the waiter comes over and says, ‘The young woman over there asked if that was you.’ She made some comment about—and please don’t take this the wrong way!—but she said, ‘I saw a star.’ She’s from Omaha. So I went over to her, and she said, ‘I loved that show so much.’ She says, ‘I own a business, and you were so right.’
“I’ve had thousands of people stop me—it’s unbelievable, the number of people—and say, ‘You know what, in the beginning they made you seem like an ogre, but after I watched the whole show and after I really saw what was going on, you were 100 percent right.’ I never had one person say to me, ‘You screwed over Rocco.’ That never happened,” Mr. Chodorow added.
“Oh, you’re so sweet!” said Ms. Bakhoum. “He’s a mushy-mushy.” She said this in the cadence normally reserved for babies and poodles.
“So anyway,” Mr. Chodorow continued, “I was thinking to myself last night, you know what’s so funny? I think a lot of what happens to me in New York, critic-wise and press-wise, really stems from a blowback from the show, because people thought I was a publicity-seeking—” Here he stopped. “Look, I didn’t even want to do this show.”
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