8 Questions for Brendan Sodikoff

By Sarah Freeman  |  October 9, 2013

“I’m not building restaurants to make everybody happy. I think that’s a direct path to mediocrity,” said Brendan Sodikoff, the restaurateur behind many of Chicago's hottest spots, including Gilt Bar, Maude’s Liquor Bar and Au Cheval. In a rare interview, he talked to us about his upcoming sixth restaurant - an authentic barbecue off Randolph Street called Green Street Smoked Meats - and the rest of his culinary empire.

Zagat: Why did you decide that barbecue would be your next concept?
Sodikoff: It was just the space. Once you see it, it will all make sense. It is a big - and in my mind, beautiful, but to most people it looks like an ugly warehouse - old Chicago industrial building. A really rough, lofty and massive room. I took the space totally raw with four brick walls and a concrete floor.

I needed to find something that made sense, so I wouldn’t have to decorate. I didn’t want to build walls and I didn’t want to paint anything, because it was too big. So, sometimes we have concepts we want to do and look for the space, and other times we have a space and figure out how to use it with a concept. I actually prefer it when we have a space that speaks to a concept. It makes things a lot easier. That was the case with barbecue. I can’t wait to get it open.

Zagat: What kind of barbecue will be featured?
Sodikoff: It is more Texas-style. We will have a wider spread than just what you normally find, but it’s a very simple menu. You order at the counter. They scale the meat. You get your sides. Put it on a tray, go find your seat and get your drinks at the bar. You have to fight your way around the space. We’re not going to babysit anybody; there are no servers. It’s just like a rodeo over there. We will see how it works out.

Zagat: Talk about your smoker.
Sodikoff: It’s a big, beautiful smoker from J&R. Cast steel and literally weighs 12,000 pounds - they needed to bring it in with a crane - which is really nice because of the amount of mass in it. Once it gets hot, it's really stable and heats evenly. We have a coal bed, which is a giant grill about 12 feet long, the majority of it is devoted to spits. We’ll do spit-roasted chicken, leg of lamb and we have baskets made for spit-roasted vegetables. We have a small coal grill primarily for grilling corn. It’s very simple.

Zagat: What will be going into the smoker?
Sodikoff: For lack of a better term, it’s barbecue bacon, which is totally redundant. You are smoking it a long time so it gets really tender. Beef short rib is fantastic. The food is serious. The beef short rib looks like a Flintstone chop with the giant bone. [We'll have] the classics like brisket, chickens and we will have some rotating stuff too. Sides like macaroni salad, potato salad, grilled corn and vegetables. It’s really good, honest food in a fun space. There’s no kitsch, it’s all about just being good.

Zagat: How does High Five Ramen fit into all of this?
Sodikoff: When we got into the space and started going through it, because it was literally a warehouse full of junk, we made our way around it and found this other side with access to this concrete basement. I said, 'This is awesome, what can we do in here?' Again, that is something where the space speaks. When we were in Japan, the ramen bars were six to 10 seats. And all of a sudden we uncover this space that could have a bar that’s six to 10 seats. It just worked. There is nothing else I can think of to possibly put in this space.

The menu there is very refined. We are going to have two offerings. You get a piece of ramen with different levels of spice. I’m calling that one dish. You can get it from mild, sweet toasty miso to absolutely blistering hot with shichimi pepper and numbing pepper. These two types of pepper - one brings the heat and one brings the numb. We’re doing that and a vegetarian ramen. To drink, you can have water, one beer - we're going to do these giant cans of this one beer we’re bringing in - or high-end whiskey.

Zagat: This will be a departure from your previous concepts. Why?
Sodikoff: Actually the next few things we have are very different. Just in general as far as aesthetics and feel. We have barbecue and the ramen bar, which is happening basically simultaneously but a few weeks after. Followed by what looks like Maxim’s. We’re not doing anything, just fixing it. Then we have fun things like space in Wicker Park.

Editor’s note: Since the time of this Interview, Sodikoff announced a third concept going into the Green Street space - a juice bar called Jack & Juice.

Zagat: Do you feel like you were pigeonholed by your previous concepts?
Sodikoff: I’ve always done what I can. I think that is what people don’t really realize. We just started is how I look at it. We’re coming up on our fourth year, so in that amount of time we went from zero. And the restaurant industry is hard to get into. Depending on what kind of spaces we were able to acquire on minimal budgets and how we were able to design it - we don’t pay designers, so in a lot of ways, of course it is going to look similar, because it is a reflection of the team that works in the group - we build what we like and what we know how. It’s a very simple process. I never thought I was stuck in an aesthetic, it was just part of our evolution. There will be a drastic departure with the next few, and we will see how it goes.

Zagat: After some harsh feedback from diners at Dillman’s who expected an authentic Jewish deli but got a trendy European delicatessen, are you nervous taking on another culinary genre with a strong cult following? And did you learn anything from what happened at Dillman’s?
Sodikoff: I think people don’t understand why I am in the restaurant business. That would be the best way I can answer it.

Yes, I learned a lot. I learned that there is always going to be a lot of opinions about how it should be, and I think I did a really poor job. I generally do a really poor job communicating to the public the vision of what a space should be. I let them figure it out; either they like it, don’t like it or will be surprised. I think I should have communicated more with [Dillman’s]. I don’t mind that people don’t get exactly what they want, but what really bothered me was that people were hurt. I never could have possibly imagined that would happen. They were so disappointed; they wanted a very specific experience that I had no interest in offering. I should have told people that, so it was a little clearer, and I learned from that. Going forward I will do a better job telling people what they will get.

Back to how I originally answered this. I’m not building restaurants to make everybody happy. I think that’s a direct path to mediocrity. You can look at that with huge brands, that’s literally how they make decisions all the time. When you try and make everybody happy, you essentially make no one happy. You will get complete acceptance, but you won't have any highs and you won't have any lows. You are going to be the definition of average, and I have no interest in being average. I want people to not like what we are doing and I want people to love it.

My only goal is to create experiences. Most operators talk about their guests, and that’s part of it, but it's much more than that. It’s the team, the people who work in the space, it’s me personally, my friends, family, strangers and all these things. I am totally fine opening restaurants that don’t make any sense to anybody. I don’t think they should all be like that, or otherwise you wouldn’t be around very long. Your brand needs to be sustainable, but you need to be on that edge. I think it's ok when people have different opinions about a space.

Some things shouldn’t work as well as they do. There is no reason a hundred people should line up for a donut on a Saturday morning. I think that’s f**king crazy. Every time I wake up in the morning and walk out, I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ I’ve been doing that for over two years every Saturday. I get up and walk by that line, it’s raining, it’s snowing and I think, ‘What are they doing?’ Every week I expect it not to be there on a Saturday, because I think it’s insane, and it’s always there. I don’t think it will be there forever.

I think those are unique views on this business. I don’t think a lot of operators share my feelings. I really love what I do. I think it's great when people like the restaurant we produce and I think it’s ok when they don’t. We’re still going to do it anyway.