Dominique D'Ermo, owner of the Washington restaurant famous for such exotic fare as rattlesnake and lion, is considering an offer to sell Dominique's and concentrate on different game: chicken.
Not just any chicken, but Dominique's Golden Musical Chicken. Soothed on strains of Mozart, Strauss and Ravel and fattened on a chemical-free diet, chickens from D'Ermo's Eastern Shore farm will be available to yuppies everywhere by the end of October, D'Ermo said.
The reason for playing classical music for the 90,000 chickens that will be raised every seven weeks in state-of-the-art chicken houses is simple -- they stay awake.
"The more she's awake, the more she eats. The more she eats, the more she weighs," said D'Ermo, a smart businessman who knows that the fatter the chicken, the higher the price.
Though most closely associated with the Washington restaurant that bears his name, D'Ermo's business enterprises also include a Dominique's restaurant in Miami Beach and one that will open next month in Annapolis, a line of canned gourmet soups such as U.S. Senate Bean Soup that is sold in local Giant and Safeway grocery stores, cookbooks and a column he writes for an in-flight airline magazine.
In addition, Dominique is considering proposals for a shrimp-import business and another restaurant in Key West.
His various businesses brought in about $11 million last year, he said. Not bad for a former French Resistance fighter who landed in this country with $10 in his pocket and little English.
D'Ermo sidestepped questions about whether Dominique's will be sold, saying that he'd been made an attractive offer by a buyer he would not name and that he must talk with tax consultants before making a decision at the end of this week.
"When you're successful in business, the government becomes your partner automatically," said D'Ermo, relaxing with a cognac in a corner of the restaurant where the walls are covered with photographs and Oliphant cartoons.
"It's very difficult to sell a restaurant," said D'Ermo of the business he started in Washington in 1974. "But I have to look at my life to see whether I should be doing something else. The business is difficult. It requires many, many hours. With all my other projects now, with my chicken, I have to think about it. There are only so many hours in a day."
And many of those hours he now spends thinking about the chicken business, to which he already has committed more than half a million dollars.
D'Ermo began thinking chicken after a Paris food show he attended where a Saudi businessman asked him to help the Saudis find a source for 25 tons of chicken a week -- an order that U.S. producers couldn't fill, D'Ermo said. He noted there is already a tremendous market for chickens in the United States, where per person consumption of chicken has risen dramatically in recent years.
Now, he figures he could become the French version of Frank Perdue. Like Perdue, he'll appear in ads for his Golden Musical Chicken -- appropriately conducting an orchestra.
On his 200-acre farm in Chestertown, Md., chicken houses (not to say coops) are being constructed now. They are, said D'Ermo, the "Cadillac of chicken houses," totally automatic. The three buildings will have space for 30,000 chickens in each. And the wonder of it, he said, is that while it takes 90 employes to keep his Washington restaurant running, it will take only one couple to push the buttons that control temperature, feeding and, of course, music for the chickens.
No one has ever tried raising chickens to music, according to D'Ermo, who has discussed the concept with Conagra Corp., the company that will process and market his chickens. But he is convinced that the music will make a better chicken.
"Music softens the thinking," said D'Ermo. "The chicken will be so nice and tender, maybe she sing while she cooks.
"You have to do things unique in life," he continues. "Everyone is doing the same thing. . . . That is why I always tell people I'm 29. I have lots of ideas. It keeps me young."
Yet, in spite of the fact that D'Ermo says he needs more time -- time to spend fishing, time to spend at a house in Key West -- he demures when asked again about the sale of the restaurant. Under the present offer, he would remain president of Dominique's Corp. and a member of the board of directors.
The restaurant business, after all, is where it all started for him. In 1956, he was the pastry chef at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach -- working for Laurence A. Tisch and Preston Robert Tisch. Now, Laurence Tisch is president of CBS and Robert Tisch is Postmaster General of the United States. "And I," said D'Ermo with a laugh, "am the famous Dominique."