Brendan Sodikoff doesn’t relax much. In fact, he doesn’t really enjoy relaxation. As he said in our interview, he visited “some beachy place” once, but he felt lost because of a lack of purpose. Sounds crazy, right? Then again, to open multiple thriving restaurants in just over two years, you’d probably have to be a little bit crazy.
For those of you who haven’t heard the name, Brendan Sodikoff, 34, is an immensely successful restaurateur — in 2012 he was listed as Chicago Magazine’s 75th most powerful person in the city. He currently has five Chicago establishments (with more to come), including Gilt Bar, Doughnut Vault, Au Cheval, Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf and Maude’s Liquor Bar. If you haven’t been to any of these eateries, you’re missing out.
Despite Sodikoff’s claim to swear off interviews after a Timeout Chicago article back in February, we were fortunate enough to snag a spot on one of his couches at Bavette’s and ask him a few questions.
When did you first decide to become a restaurateur?
It was kind of a process. I mean, in my first restaurant job I was 14 or 15, but it doesn’t mean I was committed to that path. It was probably around when I was around 20 or so.
What were the influences behind the concept of Gilt Bar, your first Chicago restaurant?
It was a scary one. We weren’t particularly well-funded. You never know what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. Personally I put everything I had into it. And the inspiration behind it? We wanted to have good food, we wanted to have good drinks, but really it was more of, ‘What could we do?’ rather than, ‘What do we want to do?’ We were limited by equipment and all sorts of stuff like that. Most restaurants fail because they start with what they want, but they don’t start with what they have or what they can do. The trademark of Gilt Bar was how it was so dark. It’s a lot brighter now, but it was so dark when we first opened because we couldn’t afford lights. So we just put candles everywhere, and people were like ‘Oh, it’s great, it’s all dark and candlelit.’
Was there any part of your earlier experiences in the kitchen that helped you as an entrepreneur?
Oh yeah, sure. I’d say primarily work ethic. Being an entrepreneur is about having this deep longing to produce something. Against odds, against obstructions, against whatever, in order to bring ideas into reality. It’s very hard. I think it takes a lot of work ethic, and the majority of why people fail or aren’t as successful as they want to be is because they just don’t see it through enough.
There has been a rumor of a Neapolitan pizzeria coming. Could you elaborate?
It got really complicated. We have a lot of things as back burner projects, and they just go in order because we can only open up so quickly. So we’re doing this delicatessen concept, barbecue concept and then a pizzeria concept.
You don’t see prominent restaurateurs opening up delicatessens. Why are you opening yours?
Yeah, I see the death of the delicatessen and I want to do it. I like history, I like food culture, I like all those things, and I think I’ve said it quite a bit, but I’m not really interested in things that are new. I’ve spent a good portion of my career up to now pursuing ‘new things,’ but then I realize they were never new. I just didn’t know enough yet. We just kind of focus on food, and if there’s an opportunity to carry on some sort of heritage or philosophy, I think it’s fun to do that.
Do you ever get back into the kitchen of any of your restaurants?
Not really. I mean, thankfully for everybody else. I don’t think that’s my strength, but I do have a lot of influence on the menu and on culinary theory for a lot of guidance. I think my strength is that I know a little bit on a lot of things and I’ll do a lot of research on it. And I do have a lot of experience with food and restaurants all over the world.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
People told me I’d fail, so you’ve got to be careful what you listen to. If you want to do something, it’s definitely possible. You just have to be sort of relentless with it. No one told me that, but it’s been my experience. When I was living in Paris, I went to cooking school after high school, and I wanted to stay there. Everyone told me I couldn’t stay there or I couldn’t get a job. I’m like, ‘Fuck that, I’ll figure it out somewhere.’ I looked for the three Michelin star restaurants that were the best in Paris and looked for the one closest to where I was standing. I walked over there and said, ‘I want to work here.’ And they said, ‘Well, you can’t,’ and I said, ‘Well, why not?’ The guy looked at me, and I told him ‘I’d just work, you don’t even have to pay me.’ The guy’s like, ‘OK, fine.’ There was my first shot. I called everyone else back and just said, ‘Go fuck yourself, I’ll be here for another six months.’ You just have to be fearless. What’s the worst that’s going to happen?
Geographically, you tend to group your Chicago eateries together. For example, Gilt Bar, Bavette’s and Doughnut Vault are all within a minute’s distance, and Au Cheval is close to Maude’s Liquor Bar. What’s the business tactic here?
I like it close so I can walk there. It’s pretty selfish. I don’t believe in location. A good location is a good location because somebody made it one, so you can either be the person who comes in and pays premium rent, or be the person who comes in and makes it a ‘good location.’ And it’s a good location because it’s desirable. So how do you make it desirable? You put something there that people really want to go to. There are bad locations, don’t get me wrong, but if I can walk there from downtown River North Chicago in 20 minutes, then it’s a good location. I don’t care if it’s on a corner or the backside of the street or the front side of the street. If what you produce is good, people will find you.