Chodorow’s Kobe Club is a pricey steakhouse that features Australian, American and Japanese Kobe and/or Wagyu beef on its menu. Its high-rent location on W. 58th St. in midtown Manhattan was formerly the site of another Chodorow operation, the now-defunct Mix.
To give you the tenor of its reviews, here’s a line from New York Magazine’s write-up of the place: "The namesake specialty at Jeffrey Chodorow’s new steakhouse is fine. Beyond that, run." Bruni piled on in his review this way: "The 2000 samurai swords dangling upside-down from the ceiling at Kobe Club shouldn’t cause you any concern. The food and the bill should."
Reviews like these are not what you want to hear when you’ve just invested a pile of money in a new restaurant, especially if you’re a successful and experienced operator and the place seems to be running OK to you. Most operators would seethe about the bad reviews silently, but not Chodorow. He seethed publicly, taking out a full-page ad in the Times (at a cost reported to be more than $100,000) to present his rebuttal. Here’s what he spent all that money to say, presented in the form of a letter to Pete Wells, Bruni’s boss. Note the footnotes.
February 21, 2007
Mr. Pete Wells, Editor
Dining In/Dining Out, The New York Times
Dear Mr. Wells:
Recently I opened a restaurant in New York City called Kobe Club on west 58th street. It is a restaurant I am particularly proud of. It features, not surprisingly, the fi nest Japanese, Australian, and American Wagyu ("Kobe" and "Kobe style" beef) available in this country, as well as traditional and non-traditional American prime beef and other steakhouse fare. I and my staff worked extremely hard on this project and the response has been, frankly (no pun intended), overwhelmingly positive. People love it, well, most people. Three of New York’s and the country’s most important and respected critics loved it - Gael Greene of New York Magazine1, Bob Lape of Crain’s2 and John Mariani, restaurant critic for, among others, Esquire Magazine3. These critics have over 80 years of combined restaurant critique experience and I invite you and anyone reading this letter to read their comments in full. Unfortunately, based on his comments in his recent review of Kobe Club (February 7, 2007) in your newspaper, your "critic," Frank Bruni, did not. I was surprised but not shocked. As anyone who read the review can see, the review was as much or more about me than it was the restaurant (as opposed to the three reviews referenced above which were solely about the restaurant). Ever since my ill-fated collaboration with Rocco DiSpirito on the TV show, The Restaurant, critics for the New York Times (and certain other publications) have been very hard on me. This was no exception. Admittedly, there was that one errant clam (out of a 3-tier seafood tower). Unfortunately, bad clams happen... occasionally, but how does a review in which the main player, Kobe beef, is acknowledged by Mr. Bruni to be perfectly prepared, warrant zero stars?
I don’t know what I actually did to engender these personal attacks on me. I opened Rocco’s with the best of intentions. After all, what’s a better story than a talented avant-garde chef going back to his roots to cook the food he grew up on with the mother he loves. I also love my mother so it was easy for me to be seduced by the idea. I don’t think anybody could have predicted that outcome.
After Rocco’s, I opened Caviar & Banana in the Rocco’s space - bad name, great restaurant. Almost everyone who ate there loved it, but the critics killed it before it could develop enough critical mass. Some called it the Rocco’s curse. In fact, I was going to walk away from that space and its karma, but decided not to for one simple reason - there were a lot of great people who worked at Rocco’s and I was determined to keep them employed. I failed, with the Times’ help. Fortunately I can afford to take the hit; most restaurateurs couldn’t. As unusual as it was to have had the ghost of Rocco’s haunting every review of Caviar & Banana, I am even more at a loss as to the signifi cance it has to Kobe Club.
This time, fortunately, the vitriolic comments come too late... Kobe Club is booming. Even a rival publication commented that same Wednesday, in an article lamenting the bastardization of the traditional steakhouse genre by these non-steakhouse steakhouses, that two of these offenders, Quality Meats and Kobe Club, across the street from one another on west 58th street, were mobbed, the former, in part, because people were unable to get into the latter. I open restaurants for people, not critics. Kobe Club, with its 2000 samurai swords dangling blade-down, and its over-the-top luxe menu is not for everyone, but do we really need another traditional steakhouse in New York City?
Why then, one might ask, did I need to take out this full-page ad? For two reasons. First, and foremost, you need to understand that, as often happens, the intended target (in this case, me) does not get injured - innocent bystanders do. I have been too successful and battle-hardened to be affected by this, but my restaurant staff, who are some of the nicest, most hard-working people I have ever worked with are affected, and they deserve an apology. They have created a great restaurant, and you should have critics on your staff that celebrate and support the efforts of people who work in New York in one of the most diffi cult and demanding industries there is. Criticize, but do it fairly, honestly and objectively and through people with credentials, like the three bona fi de critics listed above.
This brings me to my second reason for writing this letter. A couple of years ago, my wife and I attended a restaurant preview dinner at which we were randomly seated with a former food critic for the NY Times and his wife, he having recently left his position at the Times. They were extremely pleasant and my wife, out of curiosity, asked his wife where they like to have dinner, now that her husband is no longer the NY Times food critic. His wife replied that they live in Queens and eat mostly at home. She told my wife that before her husband became the food critic for the Times, they almost never went out to dinner. He was a great writer, I’m sure, as is Mr. Bruni. But, they are not really food critics, at least any more than any of us who eat out regularly. Mr. Bruni comes to us from Rome where he was not the local "expert" on Italian cuisine; he wrote about politics. In fact, there hasn’t been a real food critic with food background (except perhaps Amanda Hesser) at the New York Times since Ruth Reichl (now editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine). Perhaps that’s also why your reviews are so all over the lot, with great restaurants getting bad reviews, fair restaurants getting great ones, one star reviews that read like two star and three star reviews that read like one star.
Your readers would not expect your drama critic to have no background in drama or your architecture critic to not be an architect. For a publication that prides itself on integrity, I feel your readers should be better informed as to this VERY IMPORTANT fact, so that they can give your reviews the weight, or lack thereof, they deserve. In the interest of fairness, I am also introducing my personal blog, which will be a compilation of my food-related experiences and musings and a special section entitled Following Frank and After Adam, in which I will make a follow-up visit to restaurants they write about for the purpose of reviewing their reviews. My blog will appear at www.chinagrillmgt.com/blog. My friends in the restaurant business have warned me that there will be further retaliation against me for speaking up. So be it.
p.s. - Last week, WQXR and Culinary Gourmet Restaurant and Wine Journalist, Jay Walman, said Kobe Club is "The Best Restaurant to Visit in 2007."
1) Gael Greene appeared in "Ask Gael" column in the January 15, 2007 issue of New York Magazine. (http://nymag.com/restaurants/reviews/insatiable/26268/index.html)
2) Bob Lape review published in the January 15, 2007 issue of Crain’s New York Business. (http://www.newyorkbusiness.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070114/FREE/70114017/1073/lape)
3) John Mariani appeared in 12/31/06 Virtual Gourmet newsletter (http://www.johnmariani.com/archive/2006/061231/index.html)
Give Chodorow credit. He spent the money, he made his case and he’s got New Yorkers talking about his new place. It seems likely that many who read his ad will give Kobe Club a try, just to find out what all the fuss is about.
But what about that blog? Is he really going to follow in the footsteps of NYC’s top critics and give a second opinion on the restaurants they review? It’s a full-time job for them. Where is Chodorow going to find the time?
To date, none of these follow-up reviews have shown up on Chodorow’s blog site, http://www.chinagrillmgt.com/blog. But we have to take our hat off to him for his opening post. In it, he describes the challenges and rewards of opening and operating a full-service restaurant as well as we’ve ever seen it done. We include it here because we think our full-service readers will perhaps see some of themselves in Chodorow’s words. Here’s his entry.
Imagine you decided to start a small manufacturing business making a variety of products (30 to 40) designed to sell, for the most part, between $15 and $40. You’re not sure precisely what will sell well and in what amounts, but you have to, nonetheless, be able to produce those products at expected levels while staying flexible in case some don’t actually sell and productive capacity has to be shifted to other products. Imagine also, that each of these products need to be assembled using multiple parts and raw materials, and that they have to be assembled within small tolerances to work properly. Now assume that, to have any chance at profitability, the factory will have to operate multiple shifts, seven days per week, so that different people will be manufacturing the same products on different days, each with a different skill level and training background. Because of the labor pool market, the employees will likely be speaking different languages and even different versions of the same language.
You create a budget for the design and construction of the plant, but of course you exceed it. You’re also probably way behind schedule, but you likely began to hire and train employees based upon your expected schedule because you made commitments to people upon hiring them. So now, on top of your excess costs for construction and delays, you are carrying substantial labor with no actual work to do. Inspections and permits further delay you, but eventually, you open. Your products and your prices come under intense scrutiny. Everyone has an opinion. Some people write about your business even though they know little about it.
Now imagine that most or all of the parts and all of the raw materials are perishable.
What I have just described, in microcosm, is the opening of a restaurant, actually, a small part of opening a restaurant, that is, what happens, for the most part, in the "back of the house" (the kitchen). The list of other pieces to this puzzle are mind-boggling: What is the concept, the location, the design, the menu, style of service, price point, target audience, the uniform, the style of music (if any), the lighting; the dishes, silverware, and glassware; the advertising, marketing, and public relations plan--how does word get out, and get out well despite the inevitable mistakes and miscues that happen in any new business--especially when "critics" are sitting on the sidelines ready to pounce on any failure of even the smallest detail?
The restaurant business is one of the most difficult businesses in the world. Thank God....otherwise many more people would try to do it! I love doing it and, believe it or not, I don’t do it for the money. Not that I don’t want to make money, but with over 20 restaurants it’s no longer about that. There is no better feeling than walking into a restaurant that you’ve created and seeing people really getting it...appreciating what you’ve done and enjoying it...participating in your vision. That is why this blog will only be about positive experiences. Stay tuned!
Stay tuned? We’re betting a lot of restaurant operators will.