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Entrepreneur shifts from terabytes to restaurant bites

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 13. 2012 9:10PM
Jeff Dudley, owner of 11Eleven Bistro, prepares for his grand opening on Oct. 23, in Manchester. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER - After a successful career with high-tech startups in New Hampshire, the last of which was sold to Dell Computer, Jeff Dudley could have comfortably retired at 42. Instead, he decided to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a chef and owning a restaurant.

That dream will become a reality later this month, when the 11Eleven bistro opens at 36 Lowell St., with Dudley as owner and head chef. The new restaurant will open at the address previously occupied by Richard's Bistro and more recently, 36 Delux.

Dudley, now 47, spent the past five years preparing for this opportunity, making the transition from high-tech entrepreneur to hands-on restaurateur. 'I'd always wanted to go to culinary school,' he said. 'Basically, I had to make my money first.'

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell with a degree in industrial technology, he started with Motorola and eventually became one of the founders of EqualLogic, a developer of networked data storage units based in Nashua.

The company was one hour away from an initial public offering (IPO) in 2007 that would have made its founders millionaires, when a deal was struck with Michael Dell for $1.4 billion in cash.

'I basically retired at that point, and started my non-profit work,' said Dudley, who is board chairman of the American Red Cross, New Hampshire Chapter, and a board member of the Daniel Webster Council, Boy Scouts of America.

That 'retirement' was short-lived. 'I had always wanted to go to culinary school,' Dudley said, 'so I decided five days after I got out of the high-tech industry and sold off to Dell that I would do that.' He enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute of Boston, graduating at the top of his class.

'I went to Le Cordon Bleu to hone my skills in the kitchen, knowing that some day I would have my ultimate dream of offering my food at my restaurant,' he said.

He continued his preparation with a recent three-week visit to Italy, taking classes from chefs in the Tuscan region and cooking with the head of the Italian Culinary Academy in Lucca.

While studying at Le Cordon Bleu, he met Joseph Drift, executive chef and owner of the Saffron Bistro in Nashua. Drift knew Itamar and Flavia Isakov, owners of Carmel Produce in Nashua and the chief investors in 36 DeLux. The Isakovs told Drift they were closing the Manchester restaurant and looking for a buyer.

'Joe contacted me and said, 'I've got a possible opportunity for you,'' Dudley recalled.

The deal closed on Sept. 7 at 11:11 a.m., thus the name, 11Eleven.

Drift will serve as executive chef for the new enterprise, while continuing as executive chef and owner of the popular Nashua bistro.

'I worked for Joe at culinary school and we became very good friends,' said Dudley. 'I've been giving him a lot of business advice with my background, and he's been honing my culinary skills for five years now.'

The new restaurant will open on Oct. 16 for what Dudley calls 'a dry run,' before the grand opening on Oct. 23. 'We'll be serving classic bistro-style food - simple one-pan meals, a lot of multicultural type dishes,' he said. 'I have a real affinity for Italian cooking, so we'll have a lot of Italian specials.'

The atmosphere will be casual, with pricing in the mid-range, $17 to $27 for entrees. 'We think there's a better market in that range,' he said. 'We want people to feel comfortable walking in off the street.'

An open kitchen concept will be retained and enhanced through extensive remodeling of the interior, Dudley said, with a dining room that seats about 80 and a quieter function room for 30 to 40 patrons.

The owner and chef of Manchester's newest restaurant is undaunted by the high failure rate of such enterprises. 'I've always taken challenges and always taken risks,' he said. 'This was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. I have the financial backing for it, and right executive chef, and the passion for the business. I'm pleased to finally bring that passion for cooking to the people of New Hampshire.'

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