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

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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.

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Trevor Bach
Contact: Trevor Bach