Mr. Chodorow was not born into money—his father died when he was a baby, and Mr. Chodorow’s mother, Lila, a manicurist, moved them to Miami, where they lived with an aunt and her children. He has said that his mother would take him with her on dates to “glamorous” restaurants and nightclubs. After high school he went north, to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and then Penn Law. After graduating in 1975, Mr. Chodorow made his first millions setting up real estate investment transactions in Philadelphia; there was also a first marriage, to a college sweetheart, and a second marriage to his current wife, Linda, a former model, the day after his divorce was finalized, in 1982. (He has two sons: Zach, a senior at Penn, and Max, a freshman at Boston University.) After a failed bid to buy the New England Patriots in 1987 (the same year he opened China Grill), Mr. Chodorow bought Braniff Airlines and attempted to turn it into a viable low-cost carrier. That venture would eventually lead Braniff to bankruptcy (twice) and Mr. Chodorow to jail, for four months in 1994, for fraud relating to his handling of the bankruptcy proceedings. Today, Mr. Chodorow says he doesn’t need the money his restaurants provide, and even his critics agree that there are few, if any, restaurateurs who open so many different kinds of restaurants at such a frenetic pace.
“I think the city is better and richer for the existence of entrepreneurs who are as willing to take risks on restaurants as Jeffrey Chodorow clearly is,” Mr. Bruni, The Times critic, wrote in an e-mail. “It gives all of us more choices, and every so often, it gives us a restaurant that’s a worthy keeper.”
It’s doubtful Mr. Bruni’s kind words will remove the sting—emotional and more particularly, financial—of that zero-star Times review. Mr. Chodorow has said that at Kobe Club he is offering diners an experience they can’t get anywhere else. Perhaps the relevant question, then, is whether New York diners still want the kind of experience where you pay $225 for a “samurai flight” of American, Australian and Japanese Wagyu beef while sitting under the 2,000 samurai swords which are stuck in the ceiling. (And yes, your bill arrives at your table skewered by a small sword.)
“I think Kobe Club is ill-conceived,” said Ben Leventhal, who runs the restaurant blog Eater. Mr. Leventhal has chronicled—some might say gleefully—every twist in Mr. Chodorow’s long-running offensive against the New York restaurant press. “The timing is off, and we certainly know the price point is off. I wonder how he’s calculating demand for that kind of thing in New York. Of all his restaurants, Kobe Club is the least appropriate for New York.”
It’s true that a discernible air of the late 1990’s lingers in Mr. Chodorow’s establishments—the restaurants often seem like what someone from the suburbs would consider a “cool” New York restaurant. At Asia de Cuba, it’s the Philippe Starck design and electronica soundtrack; at Wild Salmon, it’s the hundreds of copper fish hanging from the ceiling, and the glass-enclosed wine “cellar” suspended above the dining room. Then there are the menu choices—with three varieties of salmon, five different ways it could be cooked, and eight sauce options, there are 120 different possibilities for how one could eat a piece of salmon at Wild Salmon. He spent $11 million in 2004 to open Ono, his Japanese restaurant in the Hotel Gansevoort (an investment he says he has recouped), and $2.5 million to turn the former Mix space into Kobe Club. But in an age when so-called “haute barnyard” destinations are packed and restaurant décor has taken a turn for the unadorned, is there still an appetite for what are, essentially, incredibly expensive theme restaurants?
Mr. Chodorow does seem to have sensed that the tide of popular opinion has turned. He likened his new Malaysian place with Mr. Pelaccio to the way a big movie studio might have a smaller arm that produces art-house fare. Mr. Pelaccio and his partner, Rick Camac, will run the restaurant through their company, New York Restaurant Services Group, with Mr. Chodorow providing financing. “He’s sort of handing the ball over completely, saying, ‘I trust that you’re going to make the good decisions,’” Mr. Pelaccio told The Observer. “But out of deference and just the fact that I respect his opinion and like him tremendously, I run the major decisions by him.”
The Maxim restaurants—a series of steakhouses called Maxim Steak, built and managed by China Grill Management—is another project that Mr. Chodorow describes excitedly. “People’s impression of Maxim is wrong, by the way,” he said. “Maxim has 14 million readers, okay? It’s the No. 1 magazine in the 18-to-34 age bracket. Thirty percent of its readers are women. … Their demo is very high. When they called me, I asked my son about it, and his friends all read it—they work at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
“I call it an intelligent steakhouse for intelligent people,” Mr. Chodorow continued. “This generation is very intelligent, very knowledgeable—they have the Internet, they’re very value-conscious. They’re much more worldly than I was. They don’t want to pay for a 16-ounce steak they’re not going to eat, and they don’t want a doggie bag to take home—they’re going out afterwards! Basically, we’re doing a very female-friendly steakhouse, with a sexy environment. But it’s not overt! It’s not Hooters steakhouse. … It’s basically an international European sensibility steakhouse that’s very female friendly—a lot of salads.” Mr. Chodorow said he personally approves every dish at each of his restaurants.
Whether or not the concept will work, diners continue to flock to Mr. Chodorow’s flagship, the original China Grill in the CBS Building, for which he recently signed a new 20-year lease, and which he says is on track to gross “north of $11 million” this year. That’s not counting the China Grills in Chicago, Las Vegas, Mexico City and Miami (“I’ve been offered a tremendous amount of money to sell China Grill,” said Mr. Chodorow); or the still-flush Asia de Cuba, with its branches in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Scottsdale, Ariz.
So even if the Wild Salmon space has been home to two other restaurants in the past five years, and Rocco’s was followed by the short-lived Caviar & Banana, and a collaboration with Alain Ducasse failed, Mr. Chodorow’s cash cows have been chugging along spectacularly—enough so that he owns four homes (in Miami, Manhattan, New Hope, Penn., and the Hamptons), a private jet and a yacht.
Nonetheless, said Ms. Bakhoum, “Jeffrey’s very misunderstood. That’s the problem. … When you’re bigger than life, people love to jump to conclusions.”
“People make assumptions,” said Mr. Chodorow. “Really, the truth is, I’m really here because I love it. I don’t need the money anymore. We did north of a quarter billion in sales last year. We do extremely well.”
“It’s a passion,” Ms. Bakhoum chimed in.
“Oh, I didn’t bring my pepper mill,” Mr. Chodorow said, staring down at his “Artychoke” Benedict with truffle porcini sauce. “I’ve got my own pepper mill.”