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

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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.

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach