Brendan Sodikoff’s restaurant empire
The man behind Gilt Bar, Au Cheval, Maude’s Liquor Bar, Doughnut Vault and Bavette’s isn’t slowing down (though several people would like him to).
The most-loved, most-hated restaurateur in town has rivals who would like to see him go away. But he’s doing the opposite. He’s opening a barbecue spot, a Jewish deli, a Japanese noodle bar and a pizzeria, and probably a few more places in London, where he’s already opened the Electric, a modern diner in conjunction with Soho House. He will do all this in a matter of years, faster than some of his competitors can complete a build-out, and he’ll do it while running a side project, an editorial website that bears the same name as his company: Hogsalt.
The restaurateur is sure it won’t last. “I know that I have a lifespan,” he says. “I know for a fact that I will not [always] be in my prime, and that there are other people who will do better down the line.” Best for him to open now, when investors are knocking down his door, while he’s on a roll.
How long does the most-loved, most-hated restaurateur figure he has? Five years? Ten?
“I hope it’s 30,” he says.
In other words, the restaurateur isn’t planning on going anywhere.
Five years ago, nobody knew him. Brendan Sodikoff was a name in the Lettuce Entertain You employee directory, not a name mentioned in the same breath as Lettuce president Rich Melman. Moreover, Sodikoff wasn’t a restaurateur back then. He was a chef, which is what he had been, more or less, since he was 15 (he’s now 34).
Sodikoff’s cooking career started in California, where he grew up (on a skateboard, he says, which, if true, sure isn’t revealed by his preppy haircut), and continued in France, where he went to cooking school; at Ducasse in Paris; in New York, where he helped Alain Ducasse open his first NYC restaurant; back to California, where he spent five years working closely with Thomas Keller; Boulder, Colorado, where he helped open Frasca, a wine-driven restaurant that put Boulder on the culinary map; and Arizona, where he was the opening chef of a massive grocery-restaurant concept called Olive & Ivy.
During all those years, he didn’t enjoy cooking. It was tedious—“repetitious acts are really hard for me, and that’s all cooking is,” Sodikoff says—and he was slower than almost every other cook in the kitchen, which meant he had to work longer hours. Not that he had much to do in his few off hours anyway; in most of the places he cooked, particularly in Paris, where he barely spoke the language, he had no social life. So he ended up working 18-hour days, arriving at 6:30am and leaving at 12:30am. Eventually he started to believe that his career choice—for which he had forgone college and moved to France—was a mistake.
But every time Sodikoff tried to leave the field, he’d get a phone call that would drag him back in. In 2000, after his stint at Ducasse in New York, Sodikoff returned to his parents’ house in California and reconsidered his options. That’s when he got a call from Ducasse’s assistant, telling him to go see Keller—Ducasse had apparently recommended Sodikoff for a job. “I did not want to do it,” Sodikoff recalls. But the phone call was something like divine intervention, or that’s how it seemed, anyway, and Sodikoff couldn’t force himself to say no.
It was the same way several years later, when Sodikoff was driving in Arizona and received a phone call from somebody claiming to be Rich Melman, the president of Lettuce Entertain You.
“Fuck off, who is this?” Sodikoff replied.
But it was not a joke. Melman had heard about Sodikoff; he invited him to come to his house in Arizona and cook lunch.
By this point, Sodikoff had plans to open a place of his own with the owners of Olive & Ivy (in fact, wherever he went after France, he tried to open a restaurant, hunting for spaces but never finding the right deal). But he cooked for Melman anyway. After a few lunches, Sodikoff told Melman about his plan.
As both parties recall, Melman felt Brendan had more learning to do, and his response was: If you do that now, you’ll fail. Melman offered Sodikoff a position in Lettuce’s test kitchen in Chicago—a legendary incubator for chefs—instead.
Sodikoff left Melman’s house in a huff. (Back then, he left a lot of jobs that way. “I was the problem,” Sodikoff says. “I was a brat. … I don’t like people telling me what to do.”)
But unlike, say, when Sodikoff left Frasca in a huff, this time he reconsidered. He called Melman and accepted the job. A short time later, he and Melman’s sons, R.J. and Jerrod, were caravaning, Sodikoff’s belongings in tow, to Chicago.
He spent the next two years developing new dishes for existing Lettuce restaurants and helping the company develop new concepts. It was a time Sodikoff describes as being deeply influential. “Rich provided the final piece of the puzzle,” he says. “Without Rich, nothing would work in my company. … How I process what I want to get out of a restaurant is a direct reflection of him and his beliefs.”
The warm feelings were mutual—“I thought he was a really good cook. We had a lot of fun,” Melman recalls—so much so that when Sodikoff announced he would open Gilt Bar on a relatively shoestring budget of $400,000, Melman let Sodikoff stick around as a full-time employee while Gilt got off the ground. Melman also opened Lettuce’s services to him, offering Lettuce’s online department to assist in Gilt Bar’s website, and Lettuce’s designers to help with Gilt Bar’s logo, all for no fee. (Sodikoff ended up not using Lettuce’s designs.) And then, in 2010, Gilt Bar opened, Sodikoff left Lettuce and, finally, he wasn’t a chef anymore. He was the restaurateur.