Christian de Berdouare, South Florida's Eccentric CEO of Chicken Kitchen, Sets His Sights Higher Than Fast Food

On a cloudy afternoon in late October, South Florida's most recognizable fast-food magnate approaches a chainlink gate outside a waterfront property on ultra-exclusive North Bay Road in Miami Beach. Christian de Berdouare scrolls his finger and thumb along a large padlock. After several seconds, the lock drops with a clank, and de Berdouare pulls on the gate, which gets stuck on the ground's uneven gravel. By the third pull, the gap is wide enough for his slim frame to slip through. He walks several steps, until he's standing in front of his masterpiece -- the 17,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom, ten-bath home he's spent the past three years obsessively designing.

On this day, the yard is still a barren construction site littered with heaps of rubble and scraps of wood, and inside the expansive concrete structure is a mess of exposed beams and flooded floors -- more Hurricane Recovery Project than Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

But de Berdouare, who has poured more than $20 million into the project, sees only the splendor that is to come. "There is a waterfall here, on the side," he says, motioning above a gravel pile to a wall on the home's exterior. "Here," he says a few minutes later, passing through a bare future dining room, "we're going to have a 1,000-bottle cellar of wine. All glass, illuminated. All specially designed."

His end goal: "Honestly and very humbly, I can state that it's going to be the most beautiful house ever built in South Florida."

De Berdouare is 58 but has the frenetic energy of a 25-year-old on three cans of Red Bull. When he speaks, which is often, the words tend to pour out loudly and so quickly he often doesn't have time to form actual sentences.

Tall, with piercing blue eyes and a shock of thin, jet-white hair, he wears a blue silk shirt and gold jewelry. On the whole, his appearance and vague French accent suggest a mysterious European aristocrat, or maybe a Bond villain, albeit one with a disarmingly quick and goofy smile.

For most South Floridians, that grin is a familiar feature: As CEO and owner of Chicken Kitchen, de Berdouare has his portrait plastered on billboards and the front door of every one of the chain's 30-some restaurants -- he's the "Chief Chickenologist" in the white lab coat, oversize round scientist glasses, and, of course, that smile.

But there's much more to de Berdouare than poultry. Miami's most eccentric entrepreneur was born in Africa; doggedly reared a fledgling company in Mafia-tied, crime-ridden New York; emerged from bankruptcy; and then was forced to buy back his own stores after a bitter divorce -- only to nearly lose them again to a financial fraudster.

Chicken Kitchen has come through the turbulence poised for major expansion, but these days the Chief Chickenologist himself is at a crossroads.

After discovering a second calling in architecture and design, he spends hours every day obsessing over real-estate listings and renderings. De Berdouare made global headlines by buying a pink mansion once owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and considering the demolition of a house with ties to the Beatles. His initiatives have earned praise from collaborators, like the renowned New York-based designer Jennifer Post, who calls him "a great visionary."

But not everyone has been enamored of de Berdouare's development plans, and it also remains to be seen whether the high-octane CEO can usher in a new rollout for his company while simultaneously raising the bar on Miami high-end real estate.

"I think," says his wife, TV journalist Jennifer Valoppi, "you kind of have to choose one."

De Berdouare was born in 1956 in Sudan, where his father, a Frenchman named Jean-Michel, was stationed for his work in the oil business. But just a year later, Jean-Michel was killed in a car accident, and de Berdouare's mother, Katy, who was from a Greek family that had transplanted to Ethiopia, moved back to that country to raise Christian and his older brother, Alain.

By the time he was 8 or 9, De Berdouare was a skilled negotiator.

As a kid growing up in Asmara, a midsize Italian colonial city 8,000 feet up and near the Red Sea (and now the capital of independent Eritrea), de Berdouare was both fearless and entrepreneurial. There were no toys around -- "You couldn't buy a pair of shoes if you wanted to," he recalls -- so he spent much of his time building his own gadgets, like a kind of street bobsled. With spare truck parts, he fashioned a steel platform, added wheels, and attached a lever in front to be gripped and steered with his tiny hands. Then he and Alain would blaze down the city's hills, often leaving skin and blood streaked on the asphalt.

By the time he was 8 or 9, de Berdouare was a skilled negotiator, bargaining on his mother's behalf at open-air markets, and by the time he was a teenager, he had fallen in love with American capitalism. He read Businessweek and Time and dreamed of becoming a successful entrepreneur. "I'm going to be a millionaire when I'm 25 or 30," a pimple-faced de Berdouare would often tell an uncle he grew up with. "He used to laugh at me and say, 'Of course you are.'"

Had he grown up in the States, de Berdouare says, he likely would have pursued business or finance degrees. "But instead I came from Ethiopia, and I didn't have a pot to piss in." At 18, he moved to Paris and enrolled in law school but dropped out after only a few weeks. At 23, he started his own business brokering commodities. Two years later, he landed a job working for the notorious French businessman Jean-Baptiste Doumeng.

Nicknamed Le Billionaire Rouge -- "the Red Billionaire" -- Doumeng had grown fabulously wealthy exporting European agriculture to the Soviet bloc, and the ambitious, finance-savvy de Berdouare was tasked with setting up a new coffee- and cocoa-trading operation. The way he tells it, he was wildly successful, delivering three times the profits Doumeng had demanded. According to an agreement he had made with the tycoon, he says, the performance entitled him to a lucrative bonus, but Doumeng reneged. "'He said, 'What do you mean bonus? You're way too young to be making that much money!'"

De Berdouare quit on the spot and soon moved to New York, eager to start a business but with no idea what kind. Walking with Alain one day in Manhattan's Upper East Side, he smelled it: fresh-grilled chicken, wafting through a cramped, 300-square-foot restaurant on 62nd Street -- the original Chicken Kitchen. "They had the line outside the block," de Berdouare remembers.

He approached the owner, a Greek businessman, whose office was filled with smoke from the kitchen below. "I was thinking, I want to buy this business," de Berdouare says. "I want to make it into a 1,000-store chain."

Within three months, he and Alain had closed a deal to buy half of the three-restaurant company.

"Of course, everything he told us was lies," de Berdouare says -- he had unwittingly thrown all of his savings into a company that was more than $1 million in debt. "We didn't even know about lawsuits and stuff like this. We should have sued everybody for fraud and misrepresentation."

Instead of scrapping the venture, though, the 28-year-old de Berdouare doubled down, resolving "to just slug it out," he says, "one chicken at a time."

He worked out a deal to acquire the other 50 percent of the company, opened two more stores, and transformed himself from a savvy financier into a hard-nosed, hands-on CEO. He fired underperforming cooks and managers, obsessed over everything from food preparation to menus to seating arrangements, and spent hours getting greasy in the kitchen.

He also quickly became versed in the rough side of 1980s New York, the heyday of the city's drug epidemic. Chicken Kitchen delivery boys often doubled as dealers, he says, using the public phones outside restaurants to take drug orders they'd deliver while on chicken routes.

Once, de Berdouare was called to rush a kitchen worker to the hospital after he was stabbed in the neck, he says, by another worker who had pulled a blade from under his tongue. Another time, he was called by a manager to the same store, on 67th Street at First Avenue, and promptly led to the basement. There sat a two-kilogram bag of cocaine -- a drop with a street value of maybe a half-million dollars.

De Berdouare says he deliberated and then decided to leave the bag where it was, figuring that was the best way to avoid retribution from either the intended recipient, who could become angry if de Berdouare turned it over to police, or from the cops, who couldn't be trusted not to turn on him. The next day the package was gone, "and everything was forgotten," he says. "Back to chicken."

But despite de Berdouare's frantic efforts, Chicken Kitchen struggled. In 1987, crushed by rising poultry prices and supplier debts, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Two days later, he was sitting in his office in Long Island City when a man with a stern expression walked in without knocking. He sat down across from de Berdouare, plopped his feet on the young business owner's desk, and announced de Berdouare owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The visitor was one of the tri-state area's largest chicken suppliers. He was also, de Berdouare says, a prominent Mob affiliate, married to a daughter of the Gambino family. (New Times was unable to corroborate de Berdouare's story of Mafia threats, although links at the time between the New York poultry business and the Mob have been well documented, including in a 1986 presidential commission report on organized crime.)

"You know you owe me this much money," de Ber-douare remembers the man saying. "And you understand that if you don't pay me 100 percent, I'm going to break your fucking legs."

De Berdouare says he protested that under bankruptcy law he had to treat all of his creditors equally, but the strongman wasn't having it. "It's your fucking choice," he told him. "You choose between jail or having no legs.'"

The young business owner soon found a third option.

By the late 1980s, de Berdouare was fed up with the corruption and expense of doing business in New York. He looked to South Florida and saw a city on the rise. "I thought Miami was going to be the most exciting city in the world," he says -- and the ideal place to build a chicken empire.

He wasn't wrong. As the Magic City exploded into a glimmering, cosmopolitan capital, Chicken Kitchen would thrive, its signature Chop-Chop dishes and sauces eventually inspiring a cult-like following. But even after 30 years in business, de Berdouare still regularly jolts awake in the middle of the night -- "maybe because of too many scars of the battle," he says. "I lost everything."

After repaying his debts and emerging from bankruptcy, he opened his first Miami location at Bayside Marketplace in 1988. That September, he married Starr Porter, the daughter of wealthy Miami socialites who founded the International Fine Arts College. With a $380,000 investment from Starr's colorful father, Sir Edward -- the beneficiary of a Vatican honorific -- de Berdouare pushed ahead with expansion.

By 1990, Chicken Kitchen had a half-dozen Florida locations, and the restaurant's then-novel concept -- fresh grilled chicken that offered a healthier alternative to fast food -- was a local smash. "The low-cholesterol, low-calorie, low-fat char-grilled flesh is seductively delicious," read a Miami Herald review that March. "Tender, juicy, moist, plump, succulent... Finally! Truth in menu!"

De Berdouare had his real first taste of financial success: a membership at La Gorce Country Club and fine European clothing. In May 1992, he and Porter became parents of a set of twins, Annalee and Jean-Michel. Finally, the chicken entrepreneur was flying. But his world was about to come crashing down.

That August, de Berdouare and Porter separated. Three months later, on November 20, she was granted a temporary restraining order: In divorce papers filed ten days later, Porter alleged that she had been the victim of repeated domestic abuse and that she was "in fear of her life" due to "particular threats."

"You can wipe your ass with the 49 percent," de Berdouare says. "They kicked me out of the company."

She also accused her estranged husband of misappropriating corporate funds, including siphoning cash from Chicken Kitchen into his own possession, issuing spurious "loans" from company accounts to relatives, and using company money for a lease on a new Lexus sports car.

On December 3, Porter and her father ousted de Berdouare from Chicken Kitchen. With Sir Edward's investment, the elder Porter had assumed a 49 percent stake in the company, and Starr, who had invested $10,000, had assumed 2 percent -- leaving de Berdouare with less than a controlling stake. "You can wipe your ass with the 49 percent," de Berdouare says today. "They kicked me out of the company."

De Berdouare responded in court with his own allegations. He accused Starr of defamation, related to the abuse and misappropriation claims and other statements she had allegedly made, calling him "a thief" and that he "had only married her in order to obtain legal residency."

Neither de Berdouare nor Starr was ever criminally charged over any of the complaints. He adamantly maintains that her allegations were baseless. "It's still very hurtful," he says of the allegations. (Starr Porter didn't respond to New Times' requests for comment.)

The rancor between de Berdouare and Porter, in any case, didn't contaminate his relationship with his two oldest children. "He was just so much fun," remembers Annalee Berdouare Porter, now 22 and a senior at the University of Michigan. "My brother and I were just in love with him."

Annalee, who grew up mostly in San Francisco with her mom, says she still enjoys shopping trips with her dad -- "we laugh like little girls whenever we're together" -- and has always been awed by his indomitable work ethic. "It was honestly inspiring," she says, "to see him still putting in such an effort, day in and day out."

A judge eventually finalized the divorce and ruled that de Berdouare would maintain possession of Chicken Kitchen's intellectual property rights, but his ex-wife and her father were granted the physical restaurants. De Berdouare was crushed. At one point, he says, all that was left to his name was $200 and a mountain of debt.

Still, even as the company he had poured his life into existed only on paper -- Porter continued operating the restaurants after changing the name to Starr's Chicken Grill -- de Berdouare remained resolute. "I had the same vision," he says, "that I had the day I saw Chicken Kitchen in New York."

De Berdouare soon met a charming businessman named Roberto Veitia, who ran an Orlando firm called CRG that organized investors for emerging companies. Veitia, professing a belief in de Berdouare and his vision, helped secure $4 million so de Berdouare could buy back stores from Porter and open new locations. "It was something that was very exciting for me at the time," de Berdouare says, "having somebody who was throwing around all kinds of money."

With the new investments, Chicken Kitchen was resurrected, going public on the Nasdaq in 1997 and soon announcing record sales. But it wasn't long before de Berdouare's excitement turned into something darker.

Only after he became involved with Veitia, he says, did he realize the investor's whole operation was actually a pump-and-dump scheme. Veitia would invest in a small company and take it public, boost its stock value through advertising and marketing, and then abruptly sell off the shares.

Dismayed, de Berdouare -- who had made sure to maintain controlling ownership, a lesson he says he learned from the divorce -- refused to sell any shares, even as Chicken Kitchen reached a high of near $3 from an initial 40 cents.

In 1999, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a federal lawsuit against CRG, Veitia, and seven associates, alleging securities fraud; in 2003, he was ordered to surrender $44 million in profits and pay a $1.4 million civil penalty.

"He's just a thief," Dowda says. "He took our money and he didn't issue our shares."

De Berdouare, who was never named in the SEC complaint, hung on to a growing Chicken Kitchen. "I was smart enough to save my ass on that one," he says.

But some investors claim de Berdouare saved his own at the expense of theirs. Dean Dowda, who worked for CRG, invested $100,000 in Chicken Kitchen in exchange for preferred convertible stock, which investors can redeem upon serving a notice to pull out at a certain price. Dowda says de Berdouare received a total of $2 million from those investments, but when the group issued its notice, de Berdouare simply refused to make good on his agreement to sell, breaching his contract.

"He was such a dirtbag," Dowda tells New Times. "He took our money and he didn't issue our shares."

With Chicken Kitchen stock bombing -- according to Dowda, driven down by de -Berdouare -- the group of investors eventually gave up and accepted a nominal payout. "I want to say I got maybe $2,300 back," Dowda says.

De Berdouare denies any wrongdoing. He says the stock was actually driven down by investors attempting to wrest control of the company, and is adamant that his refusal to sell any shares was both legal and in the best interest of Chicken Kitchen.

"I was just trying to protect everybody's interests," he explains. He also says he now regrets ever dealing with Veitia. "I'm a very ethical person, and I don't like to be involved with people who are not sharing the same ethics."

Recent years have been kinder to the poultry magnate. By 2010, Chicken Kitchen had grown to 36 stores, and de Berdouare was named Ernst & Young's Florida Entrepreneur of the Year. The company has added a few franchises in Colorado and Houston, as well as one in Abu Dhabi and another in Panama, but the chain has remained essentially a South Florida establishment.

It may not be for long. Art Gunther, the former president of Pizza Hut and a friend and consultant of de Berdouare's, is convinced Chicken Kitchen is ready to explode. De Berdouare, he says, is a fast-food visionary on the level of Dave Thomas, of Wendy's fame, or Ray Kroc, who transformed McDonald's into a global empire.

"Almost 30 years ago, he had this crazy notion that a grilled product was healthier," Gunther says. Now the rest of America has finally caught up, he says, and no fast-food company is better positioned to take advantage than Chicken Kitchen.

"This is a jewel in the rough, and it's my intention to help him blow that thing up, to make it the biggest, most successful chicken chain in America."

Every morning, usually by 7 o'clock, de Berdouare heads out the front door of the five-bedroom, 8,000-square-foot, $6 million North Bay Road mansion he shares with Valoppi and their sons Julian, 17, and Jordan, 15. He walks through the exclusive bayfront neighborhood -- the same one that's home to Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade -- to the parking lot of Mount Sinai Medical Center and then back, for a total of about five miles.

De Berdouare is religious about his morning walks. The exercise is great, of course, but the route also helps him with his real-estate groundwork. Like a cop walking a beat, he chats up neighbors for any tips and takes notes -- all to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite neighborhood. "I think two or three moves ahead of time," he says. "It's like chess."

De Berdouare's passion for real estate and design is boundless. His iPad contains more than 12,000 images of various renderings related to the current project. "If you ask me about a bathtub, I can show you 200 bathtubs that have been done around the world," he says. "If you ask me about kitchens, I can show you kitchens for the next two days." Nothing gives him more satisfaction, he says, than creating beautiful properties.

But some of his real-estate plans have inspired backlash. The home where de Berdouare lives now was once visited by the Beatles during their famous 1964 invasion of America. An iconic Life magazine photo was taken at the pool in back. When de Berdouare quietly applied last year for a permit to demolish the house, some fans were incensed.

"I don't see how anybody could knock it down knowing the Beatles were there," said Grant Epstein, a Beatles fan who also grew up in the neighborhood. "It's like another piece of Miami history gone to the wrecking ball."

De Berdouare brushes aside the criticism. He himself is a huge Beatles fan, he says, and besides, the famous band's brief stay hardly qualifies the home as deserving preservation -- not that it's in de Berdouare's nature to dwell on the historical. "He's really very forward-thinking," Valoppi says.

De Berdouare met his second wife in 1994, after she had recently moved to the area from New York to take a job at NBC 6. The two were married three years later in a small ceremony on Fisher Island. Jose Diaz-Balart, the Univision anchor and brother of congressmen Mario and Lincoln, was best man. (De Berdouare still considers Diaz-Balart his best friend. "Happy birthday querido," the journalist recently wrote to de Berdouare in a text message. "Having you as a friend is one of my life's blessings.")

Valoppi had planned to return to New York, but persuaded by de Berdouare's passion for Miami, she decided to put down roots here, and the two bought their current home in 1997, moving in the same day Valoppi gave birth to Julian.

Eleven years later, they bought the second North Bay Road property for $3 million. The idea, Valoppi says, was to renovate the existing property and sell it quickly, but her husband eventually convinced her on the idea of knocking it down entirely and beginning anew.

When de Berdouare hired big guns like interior designer Jennifer Post, Valoppi assumed that her husband -- who had worked on designing Chicken Kitchen restaurants but never any homes -- would step out of the way. "I'm like, 'OK, and now you put it in the hands of the professionals and you let them do what they know how to do, and you do what you know how to do, which is Chicken Kitchen,'" she says.

Instead, de Berdouare went on a "rampage," obsessively orchestrating every element of the project, even selecting which designer handbags would be displayed in the renderings of the woman's master closet.

"He wanted to design the best," Post says. "We probably had 20 different bar executions. Was it in stone? Was it in glass? Was it in mirror and glass?"

On the afternoon tour, de Berdouare continues through each room, articulating in vivid detail his vision. He points out imaginary vertical orchid gardens; the future gazebo with its sunken dining area; the eight-seat movie theater; the steam room, sauna, and gym; the custom-made Italian-marble kitchen cabinets; the bar that will appear, Bond-like, at the push of a button; the rooftop infinity pool overlooking the bay.

At one point, he stops along a wide-open space on the home's second floor and pulls open the doors of a massive wooden crate. "Look at this," he says, rapping his knuckles on a kitchen-size slab of fine marble -- the home's $150,000, 6,000-pound, custom Italian bathtub. "You don't have another one like this in the world."

"He'll start yelling and screaming to the point that the walls are shaking," Jaros says.

Zeb Jaros, the project's architect, says the Chief Chickenologist has established himself among the "1 percent of the 1 percent" in Miami real estate. "I foresee him to be a major player," Jaros says.

In countless meetings about Chicken Kitchen, Jaros, as much as anyone, has also been witness to de Berdouare's firebrand perfectionism. "He will get all excited," the architect says. "He'll start yelling and screaming to the point that the walls are shaking. And I know to wait five minutes; then you can start pouring some reason."

De Berdouare can't turn it off. These days he rarely visits Chicken Kitchen locations, he says, because it's too frustrating to see minor imperfections -- a chicken breast mildly overcooked or a speck of dirt on the floor. After 30 years, he's become weary of the grind that made him so successful to begin with.

"I don't like the day-to-day running," he admits. "It's only dealing in hassle and aggravation all day long."

Earlier that October afternoon, de Berdouare sits at the large table where he often works, overlooking the pool made famous by the Beatles. When his son Jordan, an exceptionally tall, round-cheeked 15-year-old, walks into the house, just home from school, de Berdouare promptly leaps up.

"Chief Chickenologist in training!" he yells.

"Yep," Jordan says, smiling shyly.

"So how long has it been since you wanted to be involved in Chicken Kitchen?"

"All my life."

"All his life!" he exclaims.

With the real-estate projects, the stable family life, and the expanding business, de Berdouare is happier than he's been since zooming down Ethiopian streets on a homemade sled. "This is exactly the kind of life I really wanted," he says. "The only thing is I would have loved maybe 500 restaurants."

But the Chief Chickenologist's future is harder to read. Over the years, he's been approached by numerous companies interested in ushering a large Chicken Kitchen expansion, including Fairfax Financial Holdings, owned by a man commonly known as "the Warren Buffett of Canada."

So far, he has resisted. None of the offers afforded the kind of control he's committed to hanging on to, and he has also floated the idea of waiting to expand until two of his sons come aboard. "Then I can have something that I can pass on to my kids," he says.

In the meantime, de Berdouare's real-estate holdings continue to grow. In November, he made an offer on another North Bay Road house, and he also received a bid for the former Pablo Escobar mansion down the street. The next month, he listed his master dream project with Sotheby's for $35.9 million.

Chicken Kitchen prospects, meanwhile, look bright. An investment bank has recently signed on to open ten to 12 new South Florida stores (with drive-thrus, a first for the chain), while Abu Dhabi franchise owners are discussing adding 30 restaurants there.

"The Middle East would be absolutely fantastic for us," he says. "They love rice, they love chicken, they love sauces."

Maybe, in the end, de Berdouare won't have to choose between pollo and property development. "I'm opening Chicken Kitchen stores and I'm doing houses," he says. "I'm doing both."

He has reason to be optimistic. One December afternoon, de Berdouare says, while walking along Arthur Godfrey Road on a rare trip to the post office, he was unexpectedly reminded of the reason he got into this business in the first place.

"The whole neighborhood... smelled like chicken. It was amazing."

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach