Sitting under a vine-covered patio arbor, Ed Rudisell has a front-seat view on the changing dynamic.
From the courtyard of Black Market, one of Rudisell’s three restaurants, it’s possible to see the funky boutiques, specialty stores and high-concept restaurants of Mass Ave. in downtown Indianapolis.
Nearby, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail brings bikers, runners and pedestrians to the rapidly developing neighborhood, as well as past Rudisell’s other two businesses, Rook and Siam Square.
“It’s night and day different, across the board,” he said. “There was nothing downtown when I was a kid. When we opened in 2008, things were really starting to get some momentum. But the industry as a whole has taken off like wildfire.”
Rudisell, a Center Grove High School graduate, has had a hand in helping that along. He has forged a culinary niche in Indianapolis, owning or partially owning four of the city’s best-received restaurants.
He’s responsible for adding to the revitalization of Fountain Square neighborhood in his inviting Thai place Siam Square and bringing Asian-inspired street food through his eatery Rook.
At Black Market, he and chef Micah Frank have re-imagined comfort foods such as fried green tomatoes and grilled pork chops, exploring new preparations and new tastes. He is a partner — though not operating partner — at Thunderbird, a Southern-inspired bar and restaurant in Fountain Square.
“A restaurant is always a work in progress. We’re always tinkering,” Rudisell said. “The most important thing in the restaurant business is to always be evolving, challenging yourself. It keeps it interesting for our guests.”
‘A very cool kitchen’
In between impromptu business meetings and minor food delivery calamities, the 39-year-old Rudisell found some time to relax on his day off.Rook is in the process of moving into a new location. The new space will triple the restaurant’s size in late fall when they open two blocks north in the Fletcher Place neighborhood. The open kitchen design will serve to better connect diners with the food.“Everybody will be able to sit at a counter and watch all of the prep, all of the cooking, everything done,” Rudisell said. “It’ll be a very cool kitchen for Indianapolis.”
Rudisell has been working in the restaurant business since he was 16, starting out clearing tables and serving food before working his way up to night manager.
When he started, it was impossible to imagine an Asian street food joint surviving in the Indianapolis marketplace, let alone succeeding enough to expand. That is a testament to the vision of the chefs and restaurateurs, as well as the increasingly open minds of local diners.
“People are now interested in new flavors. They have a little bit more knowledge about global cuisine,” he said.
The 1994 Center Grove graduate emphasized that he is not a chef. His success has come from partnering with visionaries such as Frank at Black Market and Carlos Salazar at Rook to create an eclectic food experience.
He never envisioned restaurant work as his career. While managing at Buffalo Wild Wings, he attended IUPUI to study journalism, with designs after he graduated to be a photo editor.
At 29, he was interviewing for journalism jobs throughout the country. Opportunities at Newsweek and the Daily Press at Hampton Roads, Virginia, evaporated, to the point where Rudisell was frustrated with the entire photojournalism industry.
He was still working in restaurants and began thinking about other career outlets.
“My general manager and I decided that we would look at potentially buying a bar. That didn’t end up working out,” he said. “So that left myself and my wife to figure out what we were going to do. At that point, we already had it in our minds that we wanted to open our own place.”
‘Opened my eyes’
From his time at Buffalo Wild Wings, Rudisell learned the corporate management and operation of a restaurant. That experience was invaluable, teaching the logistics of managing food and liquor costs, ordering supplies, ensuring the kitchen is stocked and handling employees efficiently.It was around this time that Rudisell started paying more attention to “good food” — inventive cuisine using quality, local ingredients. He started talking to more chefs, trying more adventurous dishes and yearning to bring something besides hamburgers and fries to central Indiana.An ex-girlfriend’s mother introduced him to authentic cuisine. He learned about making Korean staples like kim chi and using ingredients such as shrimp paste that made dishes dance on the palate.
“She was the first person who opened my eyes to really interesting, from-scratch food. That was totally new to me,” he said. “But it was a while before I looked at that as a business opportunity. I just really liked good food.”
Rudisell and his wife, Sasathorn, decided to open their first place. Sasathorn is originally from Bangkok, so they opted to start a Thai restaurant, partnering with a friend who knew Thai food and would serve as chef.
“Our goals were very clear from the outset. We were not an immigrant family that chose to open a Thai restaurant because we knew how to cook. We were first and foremost restaurant people, that had a great Thai chef with us,” he said.
That was in 2008. Seven years later, Siam Square has served as an anchor for Fountain Square. The restaurant has seen the neighborhood blossom and welcome a diverse offering of top-notch eateries around it.
His success also made it possible to look into other restaurant opportunities. When Frank wanted to do a project with him, he and Rudisell created Black Market on Mass Ave.
‘This is our city’
The Indianapolis restaurant scene was just starting to emerge from more conventional fare, and the two wanted to be part of it.“There were things we wanted to see in the city that didn’t exist,” he said. “We wanted to bring the things to the city that we wanted to see. This is our city, this is where we live. It didn’t seem fair that we had to drive to Chicago to eat at these places.”Much of the food and atmosphere of Black Market is inspired by the Publican, a rustic-inspired restaurant in Chicago that has been lauded as one of the city’s best.
Exposed brick and weathered timbers give it that look. Shelves stocked with exotic rums and rye whiskeys stack up to the ceiling.
Rudisell pulled a bottle of rum off the bar shelf, explaining the back story behind it from a recent trip to Panama.
He seems to have a good story to explain everything that he’s done in his career.
Rook was inspired by a hankering for banh mi. Rudisell and Frank were hungry for the traditional Vietnamese sandwiches. But they didn’t want to drive up to 38th Street, one of the only places in the city where you could find one.
“It was joking around, that someone should open up a joint to do that,” he said. “But the idea changed very quickly. Initially, it was to satisfy that quick-sandwich need, but within 30 days of opening, it became something different.”
This time, Rudisell partnered with Salazar, a chef with experience and a fine-dining background who knew the food of the Philippines, where he was born. They sculpted a menu that attempted to redefine Asian street food.
‘Never any grand scheme’
In addition to banh mi offerings with Korean-style, marinated bulgogi beef or tandoori-spiced tofu, customers can order beet home fries, Korean burrito or ramyeon noodles.“Every restaurant is so different than one another, it keeps the day interesting,” Rudisell said. “There was never any grand scheme. People joke that I’m building an empire. I’m not building an empire.”Rudisell has said that he is done opening restaurants, instead focusing his energy on other projects. He has been active in businesses in the cannabis industry in western states such as California, Washington, Nevada and Colorado. Every six to eight weeks, he travels for business meetings or conferences in the burgeoning business.
“It’s the next big business. It’s the one that everyone is saying is the ‘next great American industry.’ This is an opportunity to not only affect social change but to be part of the end of prohibition,” he said. “I didn’t get the chance to do that last time around. This is a whole different thing.”
Home: Southside Indianapolis
Education: Graduated from Center Grove High School in 1994; graduated from IUPUI with bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2005.
Ed Rudisell’s restaurants
Where: 936 Virginia Ave., Indianapolis
Executive chef: Chutikan Souvannachack
What: Thai cuisine in a cozy Fountain Square location. Souvannachack oversees traditional curries, seafood dishes and stir-fry in additional to offerings such as fried bananas and Thai iced tea.
Where: 922 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis
Executive chef: Micah Frank
What: Comfort food updated for modern palates, served with eccentric beer, wine and cocktails. An emphasis on unique rum sets it apart from other Indianapolis eateries.
Where: 719 Virginia Ave., Indianapolis
Executive chef: Carlos Salazar
What: Asian-inspired street food such as bahn mi Vietnamese sandwiches, bulgogi beef rice bowls and college ramen noodles.