It’s a frigid yet bright Chicago morning, and I’m on my way to meet Brendan Sodikoff, who somehow has become the It-Guy restaurateur in a city that boasts marquee names like Bayless, Achatz, Kahan, Mantuano and Elliot. Arriving a bit early at our appointed meeting place, his sprawling steak-frites joint Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf, I decide to man up against the cold and do a lap around the block, when I spot a guy in covetable red and black Nikes dashing in a side door. Is it him? Is it Sodikoff, the elusive 34-year-old dude who fled Southern California to train in Paris kitchens as a teen, parlayed an Alain Ducasse recommendation into a gig at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, then wound up here, in Chicago, where in about two years he’s opened a slew of packed restaurants, bars and doughnut shops?
My lap completed, I poke my head into Bavette’s, and sure enough, the too-youthful guy I saw outside is Sodikoff, who summons me to the back of the restaurant and hands me a Montreal-style bagel. Bagel? Yup, Sodikoff and his team of busy beavers are taste-testing noshes for his soon-to-open Dillman’s Jewish Deli, one of three anounced projects set to open in Chicago in the coming months.
A day earlier, I’d flown into town from New York and immediately headed to lunch at Sodikoff’s hyped-up Au Cheval, a noir-ish diner with a crowd-pleasing menu and a rep as a late-night hot spot. With snow falling outside the big windows in the cozy dining room, I watched, and drooled, as a burger with a steak knife plunged into it was set before me; a pint of Three Floyds was riding shotgun. I sliced open that burger, bit in, and instantly was willing to buy into Sodikoff’s mystique. It was the perfect combination of beef, bun, crunch and umami. If his spot could produce a burger this memorable in a setting this cool, surely he’s worthy of all the buzz in the local, and increasingly, national media.
Back at Bavette’s, we sit on weathered sofas, drinking French press coffee and picking at our bagels, and discussing his unusual rise, his insane drive, his up-and-down past with Thomas Keller and what he might do when he opens a restaurant in New York City. Soon.
You have a lot of projects going on simultaneously. What drives you?
A very basic drive: I like things that are good. It’s really that simple. If there’s a certain genre of restaurant in town that I love going to and I feel like it’s on point, I go there all the time. And if there’s not, it’s generally something I want to go to. So we build it. It’s very straightforward. Maybe even borderline childish, like, we want it now.
Give the people what they want — but don’t know?
We want to be able to go there and experience it. That’s it. At the simplest level I want to be surrounded by wonderful food establishments with lots of integrity and a clear vision. We never start out like, “How can we make more money?” We’ve never done that. If we wanted to be purely financial we could just open the same concept over and over again. It’d probably be much easier for people. But it’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to contribute to and preserve the culture of food and dining. [For more on this, check out the website for Sodikoff’s Hogsalt.]
How much of this is you giving Chicago what you think it needs?
Not just Chicago. We’re doing stuff in other cities. We have a project in London we just opened, a partnership with Soho House, the Electric Diner, on Portobello Road. We’re looking to partner on another three in London this year, I think. Possibly doing something in New York as well.
Let’s take it back a bit: You started as a chef?
Yes. You told me you’ve interviewed René Redzepi? I was in the kitchen at the same time as René Redzepi at French Laundry, a very dynamic time there. My whole history is culinary. It still is in a very different way. It wasn’t until three years ago that that drastically changed. I’m still very involved in food and what I want to see out of the food.
What did you learn at French Laundry?
What did I learn at French Laundry? Uh, well, I learned that I loved working with Thomas. I loved his empowerment of people. How he would require you to take responsibility for your area no matter how large or small it is, and make you think about it, and if you weren’t willing to do it, you weren’t allowed to work there. That was really one of the greatest lessons of leadership I could have gotten there at that time. The thing that was most inspiring was that relationship to people and that mentoring of people and the organization as a whole.
Before you got to French Laundry, you worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in France and then came back to the States as a junior member of the kitchen at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. Did you know back then that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I don’t think you think about it then. Then I was just surviving. The days were really long. I knew I liked what I was doing. I always had the idea of opening something on my own. That was always there.
But not to this extent, right? You have a lot of establishments for such a young guy.
We have Doughnut Vault, Gilt Bar, Maude’s [Liquor Bar], Au Cheval and Bavette’s. We’ll call that five plus the Electric, so six. And then this year’s big, so we’re going to be adding a ramen shop, a Texas-style barbecue, a delicatessen and the other London stuff. So we’ve kind of doubled every year, which for most people I would say is a horrendous pace.
But not for you?
It hasn’t felt like that or I wouldn’t have done it. It’s felt pretty organic.
How’d you wind up in Chicago?
I was at French Laundry for four years. I opened Bouchon Bakery, Per Se, Bouchon Bakery Vegas, reopened French laundry — primarily I was at French Laundry, but then kind of got in the mix a little later, working on the Bouchon cookbook. And had kind of this breakup with Thomas. I did something he thought was shitty; I thought he was being totally unreasonable. It was some miscommunication. The whole thing was ridiculous. I thought I had some day off scheduled and someone else said I didn’t. But I’d been there like five years, and I was like, Thomas, I’ve never missed a day…If you still want to question me on it I’m going to go do something else. A little overreaction on my part — I just didn’t want to deal with it. I think that inside of me I needed a change.
So what’d you do?
I decided to leave. Within a week I moved to Colorado. A couple of friends of mine had just moved there to open a restaurant from French Laundry. It’s called Frasca Food and Wine. At that point I was 26, had amazing experience, and I’d done all these great things and I was absolutely dirt poor. Because at that level you’re always working for the experience. I don’t think I’d ever made more than $24,000 or something like that. So I said, this isn’t going to work. I was like, I’m gonna take a different road.
Here, Sodikoff goes on to describe moving to Phoenix and meeting Rich Melman, founder of Chicago-based restaurant giant Lettuce Entertain You, who became a friend and mentor over the course of a summer in Arizona.
I was talking to Rich about really wanting to do my own place. I met with him like twice a week for a whole summer. I’d just go over, cook lunch, we’d hang out, and at the end of it he said, Brendan, I’m going back to Chicago, here’s my thoughts: I think if you do a restaurant now by yourself, you’re going to fail. Flat out.
Wow. How’d you react?
I was like, God, what an asshole. But he said, if you want to learn more about the operational side of restaurants, you should just come to Chicago. We’ll give you a job in the kitchen, the test kitchen, we’ll work on stuff. Then it started creeping in; just like Ducasse or Keller or Ferran, all those people, this guy’s like a legend of business. He’s opened more individual successful concepts than anybody in this era. So I decided: I’m totally ridiculous. This is such a beautiful opportunity. So I took it. I came here.
You worked at Lettuce Entertain You?
I did exactly what he told me to do. It was two or three years working with him. Meanwhile, [I spent] that last year looking for what the next opportunity would be. I ended up coming to the conclusion that I didn’t want to just partner with somebody. I wanted to fail because I fucked it up; I didn’t want the safety net. That’s how it came to be. I found a first spot which was way too big for what I wanted, Gilt Bar. Literally built the whole thing by hand with friends’ help. We repurposed as much as we could. No PR. All we did was just open the door. We still have no PR for any of our places.
I know! It was hard to track you down.
Sorry. It’ll change pretty soon. We’re building an actual office, so there will be a number to call to direct people. That’s the story of the company. As Gilt opened, an opportunity for where Maude’s is came my way. That was originally the space I wanted. It had been tied up but then they called me and said the space was up and did I want it. We had literally just opened Gilt bar like a day or two in. Didn’t have any money at the time. Zero. Didn’t have any money to operate Gilt Bar — the bank account was like $700. It was ridiculous. So I said, yeah, sure, I’ll do it. My thought being, if Gilt Bar failed, it would be bad. Bad for me — I had a lot invested. I am carrying a lot of risk. I’m the guarantor on a lot of things. It’s like, what’s the difference, if I’m gonna fail—
Yeah. It would be bankrupting me completely.
But you didn’t fail. Then came Au Cheval, which has been praised around the country. Especially that burger!
We tested hundreds. Burgers, donuts, bagels — if we have an idea for a concept we’ll start working on it. I won’t commit to the concept until I believe in the product, that we can execute. Au Cheval, we started working on it a year before it opened. It was eight months before we found the space. It wasn’t real. Some people have a hard time working [like that]. They need to have a tangible thing going on. But that’s how we’ve been able to move so quick is we don’t stop. As we’re opening Bavette’s, we’re already working on barbecue [and ramen]. We test things relentlessly. The more you learn, the less rules there are.
It’s pretty risky to open so many places in such a short time in Chicago. There’s a high standard here. You have Grant Achatz and neighbors all around you doing incredible things.
I like it. What’s the risk? If you’re the weakest link on the block you’re not going to be very busy, but if you work to the level of your peers it benefits everybody. It benefits the city. It benefits the neighborhood. Restaurants are pretty powerful tools. If you have a really shitty neighborhood and you put in a really bangin’ restaurant, within a year or two that neighborhood will be a good place to live. I don’t believe in competition. I like competition. I think it’s necessary for any food city.
Does it help drive you? Anything you’ve seen lately that has inspired you?
All the time. I don’t want to be a big fish in a small pond. I want to be in a big ocean. I want to be challenged. I haven’t been getting out as much to other people’s places but I went to Trencherman last night for the first time. It’s a totally different food style than I would ever do — it’s not my thing—and had an awesome time. I love the room. What a great addition.
What could you do in New York? Its’ a tough city if you don’t live there.
Kind of my philosophy behind the company is the preservation of food culture. So I don’t go into any place and say I’m going to bring something that’s new, that people haven’t seen. That’s bullshit. People have seen everything. In New York I feel like, well, they have everuything, so we can do whatever we want.
Do you have an idea yet?
I have a couple of things. Nothing crazy. I’d like to do a variation of Au Cheval there — different name, slightly different concept. I’d like to do it with a raw bar component, which I think would be really fun. Like gastronomic-ish but traditional diner, like off the griddle shit just like Au Cheval, add oysters and I think you’ll knock it out of the park there.
Are there New York restaurateurs who’ve inspired you?
I love what David Chang does, I love what Danny Meyer does, Keith McNally, what Thomas does there. Small operators in Brooklyn like Fette Sau. Love Maison Premiere. There’s so much really cool shit. I’d like to participate. I’m not trying to – I don’t think I’m going to come in and be better than someone. I think I can be as we are and I think it’ll fit in good.
Last question: Did you and Thomas Keller make up?
Oh yeah. It wasn’t like a giant divorce. I love Thomas and every time he comes out here we sit down and have dinner. It was just me being a 20-year-old punk.
More FR Interviews on Food Republic: