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.”
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.”
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