Inside the Mind of Culinary David Dadekian
The Cranston native is working to bring a food emporium to Fox Point.
On a warm summer afternoon, as tourists line up for the new Newport ferry at India Point, David Dadekian peers over the nearby chain link fence surrounding the concrete skeleton that once was Shooters. Back in the day, Shooters was a very popular Providence nightclub.
And that day once included Dadekian. “I remember coming up from New York to visit my family and going to this place,” Dadekian says with a smile.
The long-gone club was demolished in 2011, down to the giant slab of cement atop sturdy concrete columns, a dormant site the state took by eminent domain in 2000 for the Route 195 relocation project. “I remember the pool room, and probably listened to Steve Smith and the Nakeds here,” he says.
The next time Dadekian steps foot inside a complete building at the site, he’s hoping it will be the fruition of his brainchild: the Eat Drink RI Central Market, a two-story, 30,000-square-foot hub of culinary activity including a permanent market, a commercial production facility, cooking demonstration spaces, perhaps a brewpub and cafe, an educational component — and killer views on all sides of the city’s waterfront and skyline from the top floor.
Dadekian, a Cranston native, is a committed foodie and self-taught chef who founded his marketing firm, Eat Drink RI, seven years ago. Many consider him a major force in the Rhode Island food world, connecting and promoting farmers, the state’s more than 3,300 restaurants, chefs and others in an industry that generates $2.5 billion a year for the state’s economy, according to the governor’s office. He did this to tout a local food sector that really wasn’t one for a long time, but in the past fifteen years or so has garnered national publicity.
The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) owns the Shooters site, and had unsuccessfully sought to place a business there. In 2014, Dadekian applied for a fellowship grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, one of several hundred applicants. He went on to win a $300,000 grant, payable in $100,000 chunks over three years. Since then, feasibility studies have been conducted and tentative plans drawn up.
Just about everyone, from chefs and farmers across the state all the way up to Governor Gina Raimondo — who earlier this year appointed Rhode Island’s first-ever director of food strategy to create policy for the state’s entire food system — is on board with the project.
The only stumbling block is the usual big one: funding.
The DEM, which also approves of Dadekian’s concept, is trying to find money for the roughly $9.8 million it will take to not only build the market — which Dadekian, in turn, would rent — but also revitalize the shabby parking lot and spruce up the adjacent waterfront.
“As a guy who started his own business and was a freelancer,” says Dadekian, a onetime wedding photographer, “I’m used to making a decision and just doing it. Now it’s two and a half years later with no firm date set and it’s a little frustrating. I totally understand how this process works, and believe me, am very happy everyone’s been so positive about it.
“But,” he says with a sigh, “I’m like, ‘Why can’t it move a little faster?’ ”
Many people in the culinary world get interested in food young. Not Dadekian.
“We always had family dinners on Sunday, and I remember going to my grandparents’ for meals, always Armenian food, like lamb, pilaf, choereg, dolma,” he says of ethnic cuisine he shared with brother, Andrew, and their Armenian parents. “But I didn’t cook as a kid, and we didn’t eat out much. When we did, it was Twin Oaks, naturally, since we lived in Cranston.”
But he watched cooking, notably at the home of a childhood friend, Dino Ciccone, where Dino’s mom, Pia, would whip up pasta, sauces, rabbit, old-world Italian cooking that fascinated the young Dadekian. “Dino’s house is probably the first place I had squid,” he says. “Watching his mom was inspiring.”
He was also keenly interested in movies, often doing short films for school projects at Cranston High School West on super eight film — including a parody of Julius Caesar for an English class — enlisting friends and his brother.
He was always a creative guy who didn’t show an interest in food, but in arts, filming, photography, music, and he was a huge influence for me,” says Andrew, who at forty-two, makes a living in Los Angeles creating film trailers for major movies. “That’s why I got into this business.”
That his big brother became involved in the culinary business doesn’t surprise him, Andrew says, “because food is an art form, in my opinion, so this was a pretty good progression for him. He loves it and does well at it.”
“He was a very precocious child,” says their mom, Julia Dadekian. “He was always trying, always thinking, he played piano and wrote music. He went to gifted schools and did very well.”
And apparently a bit prescient. She tells the story of how, as a kid, David would collect comic books with his paper route money, mostly the ones he thought could have greater market value down the road.
“Then when he was marrying Brenda,” she says of Dadekian’s wife of ten years, “he sold them to buy her an engagement ring.”
It’s a great story, one that her son keeps under wraps.
“That’s David,” she responds with a proud laugh. “He’s a very modest, very humble person.”
The site of the future Eat Drink RI Central Market, the former Shooters location.
Dadekian, who’s now forty-five, moved to New York in 1989 after graduating high school to study film and television at New York University. After that, it was off to Los Angeles to try making his bones in the film business.
“I hated L.A.,” he admits. “It was an interesting time, but I was like an assistant to the executive assistant, making popcorn and answering the phone. I missed New York. I was a New York guy.”
So he moved back to the Big Apple, where his love of food took root.
“Being in New York, you go to places like the Union Square Greenmarket, which was a big factor in my starting to cook,” he says. “I just enjoyed it; it’s something I wanted to try.”
He visited friends in the south, learning that region’s cooking style. He watched cooking shows with Alton Brown and Fall River’s Emeril Lagasse, the latter often mocked, Dadekian says, for “being a showy guy, but his passion was something to watch.”
Dadekian was in New York on September 11, 2001, and lived about three miles from the Twin Towers. Experiencing that tragedy changed his image of his adopted city.
“It reinforced my perspective of how good people are, especially in New York,” Dadekian tells me as we sit at the cafe at Easy Entertaining in Providence, owned by friend and chef, Kaitlyn Roberts. “The whole city was one for weeks. There’s the gag about people in New York wanting their own space, that we don’t interact with others. But when we have to, we’re decent people.”
By 2003, he was working in digital content making good money, which housing costs devoured, he says, because, “I was spending it all living in a 350-square-foot studio.”
He thought about moving south himself, but instead came back to Rhode Island to help his parents pack up their house as they were retiring to Florida. Readjusting to Rhode Island’s slower pace wasn’t easy.
“But it grew on me,” he says. “I looked at the state, saw it had come such a long way. Providence was booming; the food was getting better. I’d go to New York for great food but by 2005, found myself going there to eat less and less.”
He combined his passions — food and photography — finding work not only shooting weddings, but as a food photographer, which he reveals, “I didn’t even know was a thing.” He shot for Edible Rhody, other publications and restaurants. He took photos for Derek Wagner, the chef/owner of Nicks on Broadway, around 2008. Wagner suggested his friend put his work online.
“Facebook was just really getting going, and I knew a bit about working online, and tried to figure out a name,” Dadekian says. “Eat Drink RI was available, and I started putting stories and photos on the web. The food scene was growing, there was a need and I was looking to focus on the extremely local food movement that was coming about.”
It snowballed. He contacted people about promoting their restaurant or farm, including Ann Marie Bouthillette, owner of Blackbird Farm in Smithfield.
“He did great photos, and he knew the ins and outs of chefs, what makes them tick,” Bouthillette says. “I needed that education about it. I had beef and pork to get out, he knew how to get into the brains of chefs to get somewhere, and he really got me started.”
They remain friends and supporters of each other, she says, acting like “brother and sister, so I can tell him to go to hell every once in awhile.”
By 2011, he began something that quickly became his company’s signature event: the annual Eat Drink RI Festival, which showcases food and beverages from around the state. It’s now held at the Rhode Island Convention Center, having outgrown the cozy confines of the Providence Biltmore hotel.
The four-day festival draws about 1,500 people altogether, hundreds alone for the popular Grand Tasting, which offers dozens of tastings of local food and drink. In typical Rhode Island fashion, Dadekian says with a laugh, “I think I know just about all 600 people who show up.”
The popularity of Eat Drink RI means good things for nonprofits, like the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. “Through Eat Drink RI and their Truck Stop Festival, David enables us to raise more than $100,000 each year to help acquire and distribute food across Rhode Island,” says food bank CEO, Andrew Schiff.
Dadekian is also passionate about promoting what he sees as a largely unrecognized segment of the cooking world: female chefs. He produces the annual Dinner by Dames event, which highlights the culinary skills of the state’s women chefs.
“We started it about three years ago as a kind of a protest thing,” he says. “Time had just done a cover story on chefs changing the world, mostly male, maybe one female.”
He was talking to Easy Entertaining’s Kaitlyn Roberts one day, who thought the Time piece was ridiculous, he says. “How do you not mention women?” Dadekian recalls.
Later, a conversation with female chefs at the opening of New Harvest Coffee and Spirits at the Providence Arcade gave rise to the question: “Why can’t we do something?” They rounded up five female chefs statewide and created Dinner by Dames.
It was a huge hit, with “every one bigger than the one before,” Dadekian says, with plans for another this fall.
“He tries to bring to Rhode Island things that are no brainers to people who live in Rhode Island,” Roberts says. “We appreciate him advocating for us, as restaurants and individuals. If we need help with licenses or marketing, he’s there for us.”
He also judges cooking competitions, including a recent one for students in Newport, where, he says, “the team from Davies [Career and Technical High School] was amazing. Watching those five girls cook, they were as good as any kitchen professional I’ve seen around here. I gave them contacts in the industry and said, ‘If you go to school, great. If not, you could leave here and get a job.’ ”
For now, Eat Drink RI officially runs on the power of two: Dadekian and his director of development, Katie Kleyla, thirty, who fresh from graduating from the University of Rhode Island in 2009 was elected to a two-year term on the East Providence City Council. That experience is helpful; she’s familiar with the often sluggish governmental machinations of getting things done.
Though she works for Dadekian, they’re more friends than boss and employee, sharing a love of food and music. Kleyla sings in a twenty-piece swing band, and she and Dadekian, when they need to unwind, often just ride around listening to music.
Is Dadekian a low-key guy? She laughs.
“Well, he can play it cool, but I think because we really know each other well, he can open up to me about the anxieties he has about the market project,” Kleyla says.
Very often, she says, people or businesses will seek his advice, which he’s happy to dispense, usually free of charge, prompting her to remind him, “Hey, this is a business, we need to make a little money here. He feels bad about saying no, so I say, ‘You just forward that along to me, I’ll take care of it.’ It’s like the good cop/bad cop thing.”
The next big step in the project, she says, is getting investors, which they’re working on, and it frustrates Dadekian because it’s not moving as quickly as he’d like.
“Every day I’m like ‘Namaste, namaste,’ ” she says smiling. “ ‘Everything’s going to be okay, David, don’t worry.’ ”
THe curse and blessing of working in the food world is too much of a tasty thing. Dadekian has a passion for the bagels at Olga’s Cup and Saucer, and eats lunch and dinner out a few times a week, more at busy times. It took its toll: He became dangerously overweight, easily spotted at events as the chubby, bearded guy in the bright plaid sports jacket chatting up the crowd.
“My blood sugar and cholesterol were sky high, and just about everyone on my mom’s side of the family had diabetes,” he says. “My doctor said ‘You’re going to be diabetic if you don’t fix it.’ ”
So in his typical why-wait way, he did. “I basically ate less.”
He dropped thirty-five pounds, lowering his sugar to acceptable levels. His cholesterol remains on the high side, which he says is likely genetic and managed with meds. He is lean, trim and healthy. He’s always eaten wisely, albeit abundantly, favoring local, seasonal and healthy fare. And nowhere more than at his Coventry home, where he does all the cooking.
“He packs lunches for us, makes breakfasts and dinners, every meal,” says his wife, Brenda, a schoolteacher. “I clean up — and do the snow-blowing in winter, when he’s always ready with hot chocolate and cookies for me when I’m done.” He particularly loves cooking with their girls, Brigid, eight, and Moira, six, teaching them how to wash and chop veggies, laughing while learning the healthy way to make food.
He seems so calm. Where does he get his drive? Brenda fairly roars.
“Calm?” She laughs. “Eh, I’d use the word passionate. If he believes in something, he’s gung ho, no middle ground. If he’s in, he’s in full blast and wants it to be the best, from the best hot dog you ever had to the best food market for the state of Rhode Island.”
In July, at the concrete skeleton at India Point where Dadekian’s dream dwells, Eat Drink RI held a preview of what the Central Market will be, featuring local farm goods, food producers and artisans. Hundreds showed up and raved about it and wondered when the real thing will happen.
So does Dadekian, remaining patiently convinced of its viability. He points to a study by Union Studio in Providence, funded by his grant, that outlines similar very successful markets worldwide, including the Boston Public Market that opened last year and Seattle’s 109-year-old Pike Place, the biggest tourist attraction in that city.
Dadekian knows his Central Market will be much smaller, but in the smallest state in the country, size matters. A few years ago, he met Senator Jack Reed to talk about the food industry in Rhode Island. Not in Reed’s Cranston office, but at the nearby Garden City Newport Creamery. Where they had cabinets. Which he put on Facebook.
“My New York friends were like ‘You met your senator?’ ” Dadekian says. “I realized it’s Rhode Island: We can interact with the Providence mayor or the governor or our senator. It’s tight knit and good that way.”
Dadekian is the market’s driving force and, he reluctantly admits, one of the Rhode Island food economy’s as well, but quickly adds, “not without this fantastic community behind me. Yes, there are moments of frustration — why can’t we make this happen faster; why doesn’t the state have a loan program like other states do — and moments when I think this is crazy.”
But he adds, “I see it happening, I talk to people, they get it, they see what we’re saying.”
Others think so, too, like his friend Ben Sukle, co-owner and chef of Providence restaurants birch and Oberlin, a James Beard Best Chef nominee.
“He has the most per-pound food persona of anyone I’ve ever met,” Sukle says. “He’s always trying the best thing, a new way to not just bring more light on us nationwide, but to make Rhode Island more aware of what it has.”
Which if all goes well, includes showcasing the state’s food richness at Eat Drink RI Central Market, carved from that concrete skeleton at India Point where Dadekian hung out, back when.
“We’re not opening a space port, we’re not inventing something new and bizarre that’s not been done before,” he says with a sigh. “This will work. Our projections bear it out.”
And as always, Dadekian says, it will happen, not just because of his resolve, but also because of the kindness and support of the state’s food-loving souls.
“I want to see this happen because I love what we have here, and want to see people succeed,” he says. “Because so many people support me, I’m able to do what I do. That’s the beauty of it: We’re all trying to make this work.”