Billy Dec, ’95 LAS, wears so many hats and sports so many interests that you think they can’t possibly belong to one person. Where to start? Best begin with his Chicago clubs and restaurants, at a current count of seven, all very different from one another. Under the aegis of Rockit Ranch Productions, they range from a mallard mecca (The Duck Inn) to perennial hot spots (The Underground and Rockit Bar & Grill) to his glam-modern concept, Asian-fusion Sunda.
“I’ve always had a passion for food,” Dec says. “Whether it was going to street fairs or flipping burgers or frying egg rolls. I love the emotional reaction people have to food. I love the idea of people coming together over food. It’s the power of the meal. You should check out my podcast, The Meal of My Life. It’s all interviews with actors, chefs and athletes about the one meal that changed their lives.”
Dec didn’t actually say that, at least not in person. He recorded it and sent it to me as an audio file because he happened to be on the West Coast filming Miss Arizona. Dec is, among other things, a busy actor. He has been featured on TV shows such as Empire, American Crime Story and The People vs. O.J. Simpson, to name but a few. Two years ago, Dec partnered with DeAnna Cooper, Kevin Cooper and Kat Stephans to launch a production company, Elston Films, which will begin shooting its first feature, Bury the Lead, early in 2018.
“I like to entertain,” Dec says on his audiotape, “and I know I’m good at it. It’s the mainstay of my life. Whether it’s unscripted like The Today Show in New York and the interviews I did last week with the top NBA players about their new Nike uniforms, or all the scripted acting I’ve done. There’s something really cool about acting. You create memories for people and provide value. It’s not just for fun. It’s really important. Life goes by, life is short.”
Dec has appeared a dozen times on The Today Show, doing cooking and grilling segments with host Matt Lauer. He has been a regular on Windy City Live and a commentator on WLS. He did the NBA interviews in Los Angeles as part of his latest gig as a contributing lifestyle editor for Esquire magazine.
Was he born a multi-talent? I ask when Dec finally alights in Chicago for a face-to-face chat at Sunda. Is he just naturally good at everything? “Are you kidding? I sucked at everything! That’s why I worked so hard. Some people have a natural talent for basketball or playing the piano. Not me. I was really bad. That’s why I worked twice as hard as everyone else.”
Full host mode
Dec has been called, with plenty of justification, relentless. He has long stood out as a non-stop hustling impresario in the world of Chicago nightlife. A Chicago Tribune reporter described Dec’s arrival at Rockit Bar & Grill from The Underground one winter night in 2006: “With his Blackberry in hand and earpiece hooked on tight—so he can talk to managers at both clubs—the 33-year-old is armed for what he calls a night in ‘full host mode,’ Chicago’s newest incarnation of a long-standing social archetype: the nocturnal playground director.”
Time has mellowed Dec some. He is less frantic, less obviously driven. In person, he is affable, courteous, at times, modest. He answers questions directly. He is no longer a hurricane of hype. Back in Dec’s adrenaline heyday, Steve Dahl, the outspoken radio DJ and no slouch in the art of self-promotion himself, slammed Dec on-air as “being famous for being famous.” When I asked Dahl what he thought of Dec today, he replied, “That was 20 years ago. These days, he actually seems famous for his accomplishments. I always end up liking him when I see him.”
David Zivan, editor-in-chief of CS magazine and long-time Chicago social chronicler, offers a similar assessment.
“People think Dec is a ruthless self-promoter because he’s been so successful expanding his empire. He’s always had hot clubs. He’s found ways to make his clubs feel new even when they’re not. Yet he’s fun to be around,” Zivan says. “He’s damn nice in person. He’s very annoying in that way.”
“The other mystery,” adds Zivan, “is where his energy comes from. He seems unstoppable.”
Dec will tell you he couldn’t have done it alone. He gets lots of help. He always credits his business associates and the people around him. “I’m a networker, a connector. I’ve had really great partners. I’ve been lucky with amazing assistants. Everything I do is a collaboration.” Dec is especially indebted to his family, the inspiration for his worldly culinary interests. He says he will never forget those years dropping by the bustling Sunday get-togethers at his grandmother’s home in Chicago “so [some relative] could shove food down my throat, and I’d pass out on the couch because I’d worked 18-hour days, seven days a week.”
Dec had a rough time growing up in Chicago. As a child, the son of Filipino parents (his mom was born in the Philippines, his dad hailed from California), he had to contend with schoolmates who made fun of the strange food he packed in his lunchbox. He was embarrassed at home when friends came over and complained about the smell in the kitchen. Barely out of high school, Dec was forced to grow up fast when his father’s business suddenly went bankrupt, and both his dad and brother developed serious health issues. “Everything came crumbling down. I had to house them and feed them. I had to pay off debts with zero money. I had to take care of my mom, who had just given birth to my little sister. It was hard.”
Those challenging times remain the source of his indebtedness to the University of Illinois.
“I was on my own with no money,” Dec says. “So the biggest moment was when I first drove down [to Champaign] and met with the people who were in the financial aid office. There were real people back then … behind the desks. [You weren’t interacting with them digitally.] After awhile, when they realized I didn’t have a place to go or a home, they came out from behind their desks. They pulled binders off the shelves, and worked overtime to find ways for me to go to school. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here.”
Throughout his time at Illinois, he supported himself with various jobs, most famously as a doorman and bouncer at the Chicago nightclub, Shelter. Its owners were taking some heat then, Dec has explained, for manhandling patrons, and they were looking for less-violent security guards with martial-arts training. Dec was a social animal who knew something about martial arts and got hired. It was there that he became what he now calls “a relationship freak.” When people couldn’t get in to see stars perform—the likes of Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran—Dec made sure they got in another night, forging relationships that have paid dividends in his entrepreneurial activities. “I used that experience to meet people, [and] they followed me,” he says. “They supported my string of businesses. It was crazy! They were there when I opened my first place during my first year at law school.”
You read that right. Dec enrolled in and graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law. He passed the bar on his first try. A career at the judicial bar, however, was no match for the bars in nightclubs and restaurants. Dec reveled in the lifestyle and the social swim. He liked it so much, he opened the Solo club at age 22. That was where Dec met actor David Schwimmer.
“I was studying law in the back room, and every hour I’d run outside so people could see me,” Dec recalls. “People said there was this guy from this new show, Friends. I literally bumped into him. We got smart, funny with each other; next thing, we were playing pool and people lined up to challenge the owner and this guy from the show. We had a ball. No one could beat us. We’re still best friends and travel together. He’s the first guy [I interviewed] on my podcast.”
Travel is where Dec gets his inspiration for food. It began on repeated trips to visit family in the Philippines and continued with an extended two-year backpacking trek through Southeast Asia. He went to markets in Cambodia and Vietnam, food stalls in Singapore; he visited homes and restaurants in Thailand, China and Japan.
“I absorbed a lot of amazing things you don’t see in America. Food from those countries is very different,” Dec says. “Travel has been my most productive way to discover culinary trends in culture. I like to bring back favorites, but also food that’s never been seen here before. A lot of it comes from the Philippines. I went back with the White House a bunch of times.”
Community builder—here and abroad
That is no idle boast. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Dec to his Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Dec’s website features a photo of him at an AAPI Task Force session on bullying. There’s another shot of Dec at the White House being thanked by Obama. Two years ago, Obama asked Dec to host the first Philippine American History Week at the White House. It was on Oct. 2, which happened to be his mother’s birthday, and Dec brought her with him and had everyone sing to her.
Dec came to Obama’s attention thanks to his work on behalf of the Philippines, often as the host of fund-raising events after devastating typhoons, but just as frequently as a community builder. And his charitable work is not limited to the Philippines. “I want to give back,” Dec explains. He has donated generously to a variety of organizations, ranging from Chicago’s innovative Lookinglass Theatre to Make-a-Wish, the foundation that fulfills once-in-a-lifetime dreams to children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions. He is a big supporter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a Chicago group that aims to empower the Asian American community.
How he squeezes in all this activity is, as Zivan says, an ongoing mystery. Just when you think you’ve mastered his resume, something else pops up. His company bio states that he went to Harvard Business School and I think, right, he probably dropped in for a lecture or two, maybe gave one. But no. Seems that when his clubs began to flourish in 2010, Dec realized that while he was great at “leveraging relationships” and had developed a huge database, his operations were suffering from “a lot of inefficiencies, to put it lightly.” So he enrolled in a three-year Harvard program called “Owner President Management.”
“It was all about creating structure and systems. It was all about mission and vision and building a team,” Dec explains. “It was fascinating. It changed my life.”
His life is about to change again, Dec told me the day we met at Sunda. He’s in the midst of some major transitions. After so many years racing ahead full-tilt, Dec has decided it’s time to focus on what he really likes, a notion that somehow got lost in the race to succeed. Top of the list is more acting and the start of production on, a journalism drama he found on the 2013 Black List, an annual collection of promising but unproduced screenplays. In business, Dec has decided to focus on a few of his top brands—Rockit Bar & Grill, Underground, Sunda—leaving the rest of his businesses to partners. At the moment, Dec is poised to open his first restaurant outside Chicago—a second Sunda in Nashville. He is very excited about these new horizons. He is focusing on spreading the brand. That’s what Dec sees in his future, and he is not alone.
“He’s trying to move his personal brand into a lifestyle,” says Zivan. “And if anybody can do it, he can.”