Photos by John Bragg
Good news, everyone: The ’80s-era metal gods in Iron Maiden are still amazing, like you can’t believe how amazing they are, it’s ridiculous, especially since they’re all like, what, 60? Singer Bruce Dickinson even had throat cancer a few years ago, but he worked his voice back and sounds perfect now. Did you know he had to get specially certified to fly the band and crew around in the band’s special 747, the one with the huge Eddie decal on the side?
I did know that, and I’m glad I did because it makes keeping up with Ed Rudisell significantly easier. We’re tucked in a post-lunch-rush corner of Rook, Rudisell’s sleek third restaurant, ostensibly to discuss his portfolio of Indianapolis eateries, his forthcoming Fountain Square tiki bar, and the manner in which he’s sniffing around potential involvement in the legalized marijuana industry (if Indiana ever gets around to doing that). But frankly, we started with Maiden and moved quickly to other relevant topics, like his take on Indy’s death-metal scene (it’s way bigger than you think), age-appropriate nostalgia for cassette mixtapes (Spotify makes curating a playlist convenient—and boring), and ability to recite the entirety of Slayer’s classic Reign in Blood album (guitar solos included), all in about 15 minutes. This is how he talks, bringing up and tearing through bands and liquors and books in a bang-bang-bang flurry of Stuff He Likes, a delivery system that only gets faster if you stumble into a field of shared interests, which you probably will.
There’s also the matter of the guy’s style. I showed up to Rook in a standard-issue button-up shirt and jeans, looking basically like Iron Maiden’s accountant’s dad, while the 41-year-old Rudisell—who, I remind you, owns this place—arrived in a black tee promoting the band Obituary that features a demogorgon made out of human guts rising from a pile of desiccated bones. Our first interview lasted two hours, and I never even got around to asking about his giant full-back Muppets tattoo. “I don’t even know how to quantify that guy—he’s like this metalhead nerd,” says Neal Brown, a fellow restaurateur. Carlos Salazar, chef and Rudisell’s partner at Rook, is a little more diplomatic. “He’s very surprising at first,” Salazar says. “People will tell me, ‘Hey, I just met Ed, and whoa.’”
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Yet the metalhead nerd at the table, stroking a long red beard that’s shot through with gray lightning bolts, whose arms are coated in intricate tattoos, and who has a policy of arriving at an answer after first visiting a half-dozen other topics has, in just under 10 years, launched a local culinary empire that includes Siam Square, Black Market, and Rook. (He’s also a minority silent partner at Thunderbird, the rock ’n roll cocktail bar.) He’s done so by not only backing into the industry in the first place, but by skillfully blending his personal and business interests and spending his entire time in it looking like some curious, upside-down version of a traditional restaurant guy. “I think of textbook restaurateurs as egocentric and narcissistic, and that’s not Ed,” says Arthur Black, the creator of the nonprofit Indiana Craft Beverage Association, who co-hosts a liquor-themed podcast called Shift Drink with Rudisell. “When you think of typical wine and spirit professionals, you think of old, overweight, bow-tie people. And with bartenders, you think of kids wearing skinny jeans and vests and mustaches. Ed crashes the stereotypes by just being genuine. It doesn’t matter how much you learn about beverages—I don’t think that any [title] entitles you to be a dick. And he and his partners have brought some awesome establishments to this community within the past decade.”
If all goes as planned, this month he’ll add a fourth one: The Inferno Room, a tiki-themed bar/restaurant that Rudisell takes pains to indicate does not mean Jimmy Buffett tiki, but authentic Polynesian. “People think tiki means boat drinks,” he says, echoing a Buffett song title, possibly without meaning to. “It’s much more ingrained in the culture in California, especially in the north. The last time we had a Polynesian bar here in Indy was the late ’70s.”
But the curious thing about all this is how none of it was part of some grand design, some master plan to become a Fountain Square mainstay, to brand himself as a back-tatted, Maiden-loving spirits scholar with a taste for rum and black metal. On October 4, 2008—at the dawn of the financial crisis, one of the worst times in recent history to launch a restaurant—Rudisell had the following: an unadvertised Thai restaurant in an empty neighborhood, a staff that starred four servers, a bank account that held his last $700, and a professional background that primarily involved serving hot wings to Colts fans—not exactly the ideal ingredients for building a future restaurant empire. “It’s always good timing, just luck and opportunity,” Rudisell says. “Siam was right place, right time. Realistically, we didn’t have enough money to open a restaurant. We weren’t even close. If everything didn’t line up, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”
That’s especially true in Indianapolis now, where more than 30 restaurants have closed since the start of 2016. That’s a natural correction to Indy’s insane flurry of restaurant openings over the past few years, but it still speaks to the dangers of the industry. “He’s a very good operator,” says Brown, “and he makes fast friends. He’s not afraid to reach out to a well-known chef or mixologist and befriend them. It’s wild. He’s obviously doing something right.” That Siam Square persevered, and that Rudisell is now readying a Polynesian tiki bar (in the Midwest) (in January), comes down to work ethic and that handful of swing moments, blips where circumstance met coincidence, where it felt like a Right Time. The first happened when he smiled his way through getting fired.
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I sit across from Rudisell for a good 30 seconds, struggling mightily to imagine this man working at a bank. At 21, Rudisell was planted firmly in a job doing phone customer service for National City Bank. This was in the late ’90s, before monitoring your own online finances became commonplace, so a lot of his job meant reassuring little old ladies that their deposits hit as expected. “I remember some of those women’s names,” he says. “They were just so nice.”
The work, however, was pulverizing. What’s more, National City was well engaged in regular rounds of “streamlining.” A first round of layoffs dumped him from customer service into “loss prevention,” a conspicuously blank term for tracking customers with balances of $0 and lower. A second round threatened soon after, and Rudisell’s noticeable enthusiasm gap made him a prime target. “I went into that meeting with HR with this big, goofy smile on my face,” he says. “I was so ready.” The HR people asked if he was all right, offered their condolences, announced that the company had made therapists available should he require their services. He assured them, no, really, I’m good. “It’s just,” they told him, “well, we’ve never seen anyone react like this before.”
Freed at 23 with four months’ worth of fresh severance in his pocket, Rudisell hatched a plan to land another job and bank a few months of double incomes, then promptly jettisoned that plan and burned right through his bank check. At the end of his final week of dwindling savings—and acutely aware of his lack of a backup plan—he caught a break in the form of a kitchen job at Buffalo Wild Wings. He figured on sticking around long enough to pay the bills, but it didn’t work out that way: All told, he ended up staying with BW3 for nearly 10 years as cook, bartender, manager, and student of the industry. His Plan B emerged midway through his tenure there. He enrolled at IUPUI with an eye on biology, but spot-switched to photojournalism when his registrant absentmindedly handed him an application for the wrong thing. Journalism, it occurred to him, afforded the ability to flit among interests, to travel between topics and worlds. He could obsess about something for a month, then move on, and that sounded better than biology. He pursued his degree while bouncing between the Indy and Bloomington campuses and working at BW3.
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Something more important happened during that time: He met and fell to pieces for a woman whose sister ran a Thai restaurant near his condo. The woman’s name was Sasatorn, she had just come in from Bangkok, and she didn’t speak a lick of English. Rudisell started eating an awful lot of Thai food. “My sister told me, ‘Hey, this guy might be interested in you.’ And he was kinda good-looking,” Sasatorn says, laughing. “And skinny.”
The courtship was reasonably whirlwind; Sasatorn had only planned to help her sister out for two months before returning home to Thailand. But she took a liking to the skinny guy, began learning English, and occasionally helped her boyfriend get around. “I was driving this beat-up old car with no AC, and I had to get in through the passenger side,” he says. “At first she thought it was great that I was opening the door for her all the time, until I told her, ‘Um, I need you to push my door open, please.’” Sasatorn felt her two-month plan change. They started dating in January of 2005, and by May they were married.
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Having found a stable relationship and car-entry procedure, next steps beckoned. Rudisell spent some time exploring photojournalism jobs, but the mid-2000s were a lousy time to break into print. By 2008, the Rudisells had been talking often about a Thai place of their own, but wanted to steer clear of the suburbs, so as not to compete with Sasatorn’s sister. There was just this one catch: For all the time they’d spent in restaurants, they didn’t fully understand what it took to open one. “We didn’t know what it cost,” he says. “Nobody would loan us money. If we wouldn’t have run across that building at that time, we couldn’t have done it.”
The building was in then-quiet Fountain Square, not yet the busy thoroughfare it is now. Construction was handled after hours by carpenter friends. If business had been bad, Siam Square wouldn’t have made it two months. The first two days were essentially silent. On Day 3, a lunch group wandered in from the Lilly campus, and people haven’t stopped coming since.
Journalism would have to wait. “From there, restaurants have guided our lives,” he says. For Sasatorn, it was the logical next step after an upbringing that stressed working hard to forge something of your own, and following whatever path is required to get there. “If you have money but no luck, you won’t be successful,” Sasatorn says. “They have to go together. I feel like I got lucky.”
Black Market was a similar almost-accident, born largely on a flight back from a three-day trip to Vegas. Rudisell had gone out there with chef Micah Frank, a regular at Siam Square with whom he’d struck up a friendship, and on the return trip they got to talking about how Indy could use a European-style gastropub, an idea that had come to New York but not yet made its way to Indy. Having worked at R Bistro, Frank had been literally staring at Black Market’s current location for five years, and Rudisell had a second restaurant on the brain. The conversation on the plane simply came at the right time.
Black Market evolved into a modern-farmhouse gastropub that opened with an eye toward innovative menus, but the idea also came with its share of question marks. “We were more limited with our offerings at first,” says Frank, “and evolved into introducing some odd cuts of meat that people weren’t really used to yet.” Rudisell is a little more blunt: “Back then, getting people to eat tongue or heart was pretty difficult.”
While the kitchen was finding its legs, Rudisell and Frank played another wild card in Black Market’s bar. When the restaurant opened in 2011, Indiana—like the rest of the world—was waist-deep in a bourbon craze, enough so that Rudisell and now-partner Frank made a decision to brand Black Market’s bar in an entirely different field.
“We decided, Let’s be the rum guys. And we Googled ‘best rums,’ and found we could get about 12 to 14 of them.” The problem with Googling “best rums,” of course, is that it does not necessarily land you anywhere near the actual best rums. “But we didn’t know!” Rudisell laughs. “We had no idea.”
Today he’s an authority. Black Market stocks more than 100 rums on its shelf. A few years ago, Rudisell cofounded the Black Market Rum Society, an unofficial collective that hosts sporadic events; on a Wednesday afternoon in October, a collection of food-and-beverage folks, rum aficionados, and people with generous work schedules spent two hours with Benjamin Melin-Jones of Rhum Clément, a company based in Martinique, one of a number of exotic locales in which Rudisell and his staff have spent considerable time. “What I probably respect most about Ed is that he has, in very short order, made himself a national figure in the rum conversation,” says Brown. “And that tells you that when he applies himself to a topic, he can really master it.”
Rum became such a part of Rudisell’s life that it catalyzed the launch of Shift Drink, a twice-monthly podcast that’s become a sort of localized Car Talk for liquor nerds. Born, you will be surprised to learn, on a lark during a night drinking in South Beach, it now comprises more than 30 episodes—including some recorded in Amsterdam and France—and draws a diverse guest list of industry experts, local mead producers, band members, and visiting liquor ambassadors, which all sounds very fancy for something that they record on the fly. (I ask Black, the podcast co-host, if they rehearse in advance, and he more or less laughs in my face.) Recent episodes have covered the French Caribbean liquor called rhum agricole, a noted tiki bartender named Brother Cleve, and the appeal of wines from the Alsace region in France, exotic stuff for an hourlong discussion often held at a table at Black Market. But if there’s a long-term business plan to the podcast, Black and Rudisell don’t know about it. The strategy right now is simply booze and civic pride. “We wanted to do something that would involve our industry, but also shamelessly plug the community,” says Black.
Frank agrees that fixating on rum was a gamble. “But Ed’s a guy who takes some risks,” he says. “It’s not like we’re making millions of dollars. But we keep our heads down, we keep our numbers in line, and we do what we love. That’s what it’s all about.” And Rudisell takes pains to make his rum angle accessible. “People will tell us, ‘I don’t know anything about rum other than you put it in Coke,’” he says. “And now people want to know, where is this spirit from? How is it different from the one next to it? Everything’s got a story, and I love telling stories. That stuff’s fun.” It had one other side benefit: From rum, it’s a pretty short hop to tiki. But more on that in a minute.
The first version of Rook opened in Fletcher Place’s pleasingly mod Hinge Building in the summer of 2013 and almost immediately outgrew itself. Initially conceived as a grab-and-go spot that focused on Asian street food and bánh mì sandwiches, the 1,400-square-foot storefront topped out at 28 seats, well cozier than Rudisell’s previous two projects. Designer Nikki Sutton had outfitted the place with what this magazine called a “deserted Saigon street scene, complete with felled telephone poles” and went on to dub “perhaps the restaurant-decor feat of the year.” But Rudisell and chef Salazar quickly found themselves hamstrung, Salazar by the space limitations and Rudisell by his own concept for a small menu. “We opened in June,” he says, “and by July I was like, ‘My heart is not into this, where the food never changes.’”
But their options were few: Rudisell had signed a five-year lease, not even a year of which was up yet. Feeling handcuffed in the first few months, they were looking at being in that spot until 2018. Until the day that the landlords, Craig and Todd Von Deylen, told Rudisell they needed to talk.
“What do you need to help make Rook more successful?” they asked.
Simple, he said. More space.
As it happened, the landlords had a cornerstone spot in a building west of Fountain Square, the bottom floor of the new Slate Building. It was a little off the path, and would extend the neighborhood’s reach a few blocks down Virginia Ave. But it was surrounded by windows, and would allow plenty of space for Salazar to explore the Filipino-inspired menu—and open kitchen plan—that he’d been pushing for. They tore up the initial lease and signed a new one; the refurbished Rook, with its sleek design, stark floor plan, and visible kitchen, opened in February 2016 and has spent the years since positioning itself as the home of one of Indy’s more adventurous contemporary Asian menus. (The more common term is “Asian fusion,” but everybody involved hates it. “You can put Asian ingredients in a taco, and boom, it’s fusion,” says Rudisell.) That expansiveness goes for both the restaurant and the bar—in fact, regular visitors may have noticed that Rook’s bartenders have been steadily offering more and more in the field of tiki drinks, all rums and fruits and frozen concoctions, all of which were a hobby of Salazar’s until one scorching July weekend in 2016 turned it into something more.
There used to be one catch to summer at Black Market: If the forecast called for highs around 90, its air conditioner—since fixed—could be counted on to suck. Just after July 4 two summers ago, the forecast called for highs around 100. Rudisell sat at the bar with general manager Chris Coy, nursing summertime drinks and managing expectations. “It’s gonna be a scorcher this weekend,” Rudisell said. “Nobody will want to eat here, the AC won’t keep up. It’s gonna be an inferno in here.
Faced with the prospect of a weekend of unbearable interior conditions, they made a decision to own the unbearable interior conditions: Black Market staged a pop-up tiki bar in its own location. Out came the place’s entire stash of boat drink–themed decorations—paper lanterns, parrots, aloha shirts left over in the storerooms. Rudisell fired up his social media accounts, made a “stupid little graphic,” and branded the sweat. “We told everybody to wear aloha shirts all weekend,” he said, “and said we’ll just call it The Inferno Room because it was so hot in here.” The place was packed.
Meanwhile, over in Fountain Square, Sasatorn had stopped by Rook and been chatting with Salazar about the chef’s desire to add more tiki drinks to the menu. “My wife and I talked on the phone that night, and it was like, yeahhhhhhh, this is kind of a weird coincidence,” says Rudisell. That was enough, he said, let’s do it. If all goes to plan, The Inferno Room—with Salazar as consulting chef—will be open by the time you read this.
At the risk of generalizing and sounding like my dad, Ed Rudisell looks pretty much exactly like the kind of guy who you’d expect to see lobbying for legalized marijuana, a fact that is clear to Ed Rudisell and a large part of why Ed Rudisell will not, anytime soon, be lobbying for legalized marijuana. “I don’t even know how to lobby. I don’t think anybody would listen to me if I walked in looking like … ,” he says, trailing off, giving a nod to the monster on his T-shirt.
But as the rum bar, Thai place, and podcast indicate, this guy is good at mingling the business and the personal, which brings us to the Arcview Investor Network, a San Francisco-based group whose members help fund cannabis-related projects in something close to Shark Tank fashion—attend conference, hear elevator pitches, write check. (“Cannabis is the next great industry,” the company says. “We look forward to building it with you.”) Rudisell and Sasatorn have been part of it for years. To date, Rudisell says, they haven’t dealt with anybody who actually, as Arcview calls it, “touches the plants.” “There are other ways to be involved besides selling buds,” Rudisell says. But his resolve is solid. “When you meet real-deal patients, when you meet people who benefit from it,” he says, “there’s no way you can humanly say it shouldn’t be legal.”
Indiana humanly says that all the time. On the whole, Indiana has pretty harsh pot penalties, including a 180-day sentence and maximum $1,000 fine for even first-time possession of any amount. But a WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana poll in October 2016 found that nearly three out of four Hoosiers support legalizing marijuana, and the movement has an unlikely new ally in Republican Rep. Jim Lucas of Seymour, who plans to introduce a bill to legalize medical (though not recreational) marijuana in the next legislative session. Across the country, 29 states have decriminalized medical marijuana. “I spoke with a lobbyist here in town,” says Rudisell, “and I told him, ‘It’s not somebody like me that needs to be out there. You’re wearing a $2,000 suit. Your hair’s perfect. Your clothes are all perfectly ironed. You’re the guy we need saying, Good things can come from this plant.’”
Rudisell says his budding side hustle (it is impossible to write about this without using marijuana puns, so I’m leaving it) is more of a hobby than a post-restaurant business plan. “I don’t know if we’d set up business ourselves here—our hands are so full,” he says. But then he catches himself, another train of thought kicking in. “But I also didn’t expect nine years ago to have more than one restaurant.”
In our last interview, I finally get around to asking about the Muppets tattoo on his back.
He started it at age 18, for the most popular reasons people get Muppets tattoos when they’re 18: They like the Muppets, and they’re 18. Kermit was first, then Fozzie, then Gonzo, at which point the tattoo artist was like, listen, are we committing to this or what? The end result is a full-back constellation of Muppets, rotating around a smiling Jim Henson, that involves everyone from Rowlf to the Swedish Chef to Dr. Teeth. And since we’re on the topic of skin, one of Rudisell’s arms is inked to depict the greatest scientific discoveries in history—making him probably the only restaurateur in town with an E. coli tattoo—and the other is an intricate tribute to Dune. There’s a cheetah on one of his calves, Hunter S. Thompson’s on the other one. The grand unifying thread is there is no grand unifying thread: They’re all things he likes, and he’d like you to like them too.
They also provide a convenient stream of conversational topics, which is helpful, because for a guy who talks this much, Rudisell is actually not a huge fan of talking about himself. (He agreed to do this story, he says, partly because he’s been encouraging his employees and partners to do more press, and partly because he’s probably lying, everybody likes talking about themselves a little.)
“It’s not like I’m building an empire here,” he says. “It’s mostly just, we can’t sit back and wait for somebody else to make the city how we want it to look like. We’re all chugging along trying to make our customers happy. When somebody strikes gold, it’s right place, right time. I feel really awkward sitting down talking about myself, because it feels like, who the fuck am I? We’re all just trying to figure out which direction we’re moving next.” It just happens that today’s direction involves opening a tiki bar in the Midwest in January while taking occasional breaks to go see Iron Maiden. That may sound unquantifiable, but it’s really not: If you can make people happy while looking how you want, doing what you like, and listening to whatever you please, you got lucky.