How mashed potatoes can be turned into a globally successful brand
As New York-born restaurant China Grill touches down in Dubai, Penelope Walsh meets founder Jeffrey Chodorow to learn how mashed potatoes can be turned into a globally successful brand.
‘Time Out New York just called our steak the best in New York. Not the best in a Chinese restaurant; the best in New York.’ So begins Jeffrey Chodorow, founder of China Grill, when we meet him just before the brand-new Dubai branch launched.
Now open at The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, China Grill is in fact a 27-year-old concept, first opened by Jeffrey in the Big Apple back in 1987. Since swapping his legal training for the life of a restauranteur, and after a rebirth of the eatery five years in, Jeffrey has made a global success of menus with a brave cuisine mash-up (we won’t call it fusion just yet) at their hearts. Jeffrey has gone on to launch additional restaurant brands Asia de Cuba, RedFarm and more, which have opened globally in cities such as London, Miami, LA and Mexico City. Now, the UAE is next.
‘Going from law to food sounds like quite a big jump,’ Jeffrey admits, as he explains how his story as a restauranteur unfurled. ‘But I’ve always loved food. I was always interested in finding out which were the best restaurants. It was a passion of mine. When I was at college in London, every week I would make dinner with a friend for 12 to 14 people. It would take two days to make and two days to clean up,’ he laughs. ‘Restaurants always fascinated me, not just from a culinary point of view, but from an operational one as well. I couldn’t understand how they could get all that food out, on time, and properly cooked. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to own a restaurant. I thought, someday I’m going to open up a small restaurant, just so I can understand the operational part of it.’
That first restaurant was China Grill. In its first phase of life, it operated with a concept, which Jeffrey says had been brought to him, rather than one he had devised himself. ‘The menu was a version of the well-known west coast restaurant, Chinois, by well-known chef Wolfgang Puck. It was Chinese, but sort of Californian-Chinese. ‘When [China Grill] opened in New York, it was a big success,’ Jeffrey explains. But in New York, he says, restaurants have a shelf life. He says that diners in Manhattan seem to always be chasing after the newest ‘hip’ place to eat. Arguably, just like in Dubai. And revealingly, Jeffrey seems to have tired of China Grill himself.
‘Everyone kept saying that the restaurant was based on Chinois, which it is was, and I admitted that. But I was still bringing something to New York that it didn’t already have. If it was based on a restaurant in Italy, no one would have thought anything of it. But I got tired of that, and five years in, I wanted to change the concept,’ he reveals.
‘China Grill was like a moth that became a butterfly. The restaurant has of course evolved overtime, but there was one major evolutionary point and that was in 1991. I wanted to push culinary boundaries. I had travelled extensively and seen that Asian influences were appearing on menus everywhere, and I thought, “why can’t that be done in reverse? Why can’t I take my favourite dishes from around the world, and make them in an Asian style and create a whole new culinary world?” For example, at the time, my wife’s favourite dish was veal Milanese with salad on top. A classic Italian dish. So, I said, I want to do panko crusted veal, with an Asian salad.
‘I went to my chef and I said, “I want to do something really modern and different; a unique brand, like mashed potatoes”. He said, “You can’t do mashed potatoes in a Chinese restaurant”. I said, ‘‘That’s the problem, you think this is a Chinese restaurant.’’ But I was thinking wasabi mashed potatoes, lemongrass mashed potatoes, shitake, or even ginger mashed potatoes. People love mash, so let’s take something that they find comforting and familiar, and interpret it in new ways. So the chef quit,’ Jeffrey says with a comic pause. ‘He then tried to knock off my restaurant idea after I did it.’
‘I hate the word fusion,’ Jeffrey continues. ‘It’s overused, but this was back in 1991. I didn’t want to limit what we did to tradition.’ Instead, he terms what China Grill began doing as ‘inauthentic Chinese’. ‘The food became extremely interesting and pushed boundaries. We weren’t afraid to do a gingered scallop and oxtail risotto, for example. The first review we got when China Grill reopened said we went “from a clone to a classic”.
To say that it was a success, would be an understatement. ‘I had one of these “is this all there is” moments, so I decided open another one.’
Having spoken of his initial idea to open a restaurant as if it was something of a novelty project (or ‘just for fun’ as Jeffrey’s biography states), he seems to be equally laissez-faire when telling us about the subsequent growth of his restaurant empire. ‘Let’s just say the project got out of control a bit. It got a lot bigger, and I loved doing it, so one thing led to another and I decided to open another one. That’s sort of how it happened.’
This success continued at the new branch of China Grill in Miami, which opened in 1995. Jeffrey deems it a ‘rocket ship’ for the manner in which the concept took off. ‘There was a three-month reservation list. I couldn’t even get a table,’ he quips. ‘I had to call security to let me inside because I couldn’t get into my own restaurant.’
Buoyed by the success of his Asian reworking at China Grill, Jeffrey subsequently launched a new Asian-inspired concept, this time with a Latin twist in the form of Asia de Cuba.
‘I’m definitely not a chef, but I know food, and I know tastes, and what goes well together. And I generally think I know what people like. But I’m open to input from my chefs, and I take suggestions. I wrote the original menu for Asia de Cuba myself. I couldn’t explain to people what I wanted, so I wrote a menu. I gave it to three chefs and said make the dish.’
Asia de Cuba opened in London in 1997, rather bravely, some said to Jeffrey at the time, as there were fears that London didn’t have a strong enough frame of reference for Latin dining to make this fusion concept work. But it’s still going strong and an additional branch popped up just two years later in LA.
So now, (with China Grill still ‘a work in progress’ as one team members says, at the time we spoke to Jeffrey), why has the restauranteur picked Dubai to open a China Grill? And not, for example, London.
‘Well, as a matter of fact I’m working on one in London,’ he counters. Dubai it seems, has been in his sights since in 2005. ‘I was invited here, I spent three or four days here and was shown around. They were building Burj Khalifa at the time. When I said how tall is it going to be, they said, “we don’t know yet”.’ Following the global financial crisis, Jeffrey’s plans to open in Dubai inevitably hit a wall, and lay dormant until recently. Now, with his first UAE venture ready to launch, Jeffrey reveals that he is has something of a Middle Eastern expansion in mind. Coming soon (but not soon enough that Jeffrey is happy to give opening dates) is the launch of Asia de Cuba in Dubai, as well as additional branches of China Grill and Asia de Cuba coming soon to Abu Dhabi. With murmurs of further GCC launches on Jeffrey’s lips, it looks like you should watch this mashed potato-shaped space. China Grill Dubai is now open. The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, Al Sufouh Road, Dubai Marina (04 511 7333).