Focus and Fusion
For renowned chef and entrepreneur Rohini Dey, innovative cooking is just the beginning.
Rohini Dey earned a Ph.D. in management science, worked for years at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and traveled the world as a consultant for McKinsey & Company management consulting firm. But in 2004, she turned her back on this high-profile business career to do something completely different: start a restaurant.
Dey is the creator of Vermilion, a widely-acclaimed eatery in Chicago, Illinois, which fuses the cuisines of India and Latin America into unique and delicious results. Take for instance the Tandoori Skirt Steak, a favorite dish of Dey’s, which combines traditional Argentinian cuts of beef with Indian flavors like cumin, coriander, yogurt and garam masala. The restaurant’s Lobster Portuguese, a dish which melds succulent seafood with coconut and curry flavors, earned the USA Today newspaper’s rank of the top dish worldwide, a mere two weeks after the restaurant opened. Magazines like Esquire and Bon Appétit also quickly fell in love with Vermilion, adding it to their “Best Restaurants” list.
Such early, meteoric success was no guarantee though, and Dey now wryly describes her decision to found a restaurant as “stupid and reckless in hindsight, especially as an outsider” to the restaurant world. It was a long-held love for Indian food, coupled with a desire to be an ambassador for Indian cuisine at a unique moment in time, that made her take the entrepreneurial plunge.
“I had spent over 15 years as a consultant, eating out compulsively on an expense account, and saw that new frontiers were booming,” says Dey. “There was a growing awareness of global cuisines like Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese food. My zealousness was to create the same awareness for Indian cuisine.”
In founding Vermilion, Dey chose to fuse Indian and Latin American influences partly because the culinary traditions share many common ingredients. It also reflects the blending of cultures that the cross-migration of Portuguese, Persian, Moorish and Spanish populations sparked across both regions. “I also wanted to do something provocative,” she says. “Our fusion of cuisines was unique and a lot of people asked about it. We stood out from the pack.”
Today, Dey not only leads Vermilion, but shares her business wisdom with students via her role as an entrepreneur-in-residence at several American universities. “First and foremost, if students want to be chefs or found restaurants, I try to dissuade them,” she says, with a laugh. “Ninety percent of restaurants fail, and it’s a very fickle business with high capital intensity and huge liabilities. People seem to have this misconception that you enter, suddenly become a celebrity chef and roll in the dough,” she continues. “The reality is very different.”
Dey describes grueling work and low pay as norms when pursuing culinary greatness. “Kitchens are mostly grimy, competitive, hot, with physical, repetitive labor, and completely without glamour,” she says. But if students still express interest, Dey encourages them to intern at a restaurant such as hers.
Beyond hands-on experience, Dey says, right training is key to success. “Aspiring chefs or restaurateurs should invest in themselves, and take business and financial courses,” she advises. “You’re regularly working with more than 60 food, beverage and maintenance vendors, as well as investors, and for legal permits. So, if you can’t understand numbers, profit and loss, and how to raise money, you’re going to fail quickly.”
Dey’s mentorship efforts include her work as the co-founder of the Women in Culinary Leadership program for the James Beard Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit culinary arts organization, where she also serves as a trustee. The initiative is a vehicle through which Dey strives to increase female leadership within the restaurant industry. “For years now, I’ve been talking about how having women be only 21 percent of the United States Senate or 3 percent of the top 100 CEO’s [chief executive officers] is not enough,” she says. “In my industry, the statistics are far worse, and it’s something we’re striving to change with concrete action.” Current pro-women cultural movements in the United States, like Time’s Up and me too., are variations on the same theme, and she hopes that the growing momentum will collectively help women across all industries.
As Dey continues to innovate in the kitchen, boardroom and classroom, one of her key goals is to encourage women not just to speak and be heard, but to, in her words, lead and own. “I fundamentally believe that empowerment comes from ownership of your own enterprise,” she says.
“To grow Vermilion further would be phenomenal,” says Dey, explaining that she dreams of expanding her unique culinary brand “directly or through partnership, not just in Chicago, but in other locations around the United States, back in India and elsewhere around the globe.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.