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

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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.

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach