Failure Was Not on This Restaurateur's Menu

First came success, then near ruin. Now this former economist owns two thriving restaurants

by Amy Zavatto
second acts image
Dey chose all the design elements for her 11,000-square-foot Manhattan restaurant, At Vermilion
Photograph: Pascal Perich

Rohini Dey strides purposefully through the doors of At Vermilion, the swanky Manhattan restaurant she opened in 2008. The trickling sounds of a dazzling floor-to-ceiling waterfall and the murmur of soft music make the midtown rush seem far away. She bounds up sleek stone stairs to the main dining area, all gleaming white furniture and bright sunlight. In a few hours, the local NBC affiliate will shoot the final cook-off competition of the Women in Culinary Leadership Program, which Dey created in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation. Her gaze sweeps the room. “No, this won’t make a good visual,” she says to the restaurant manager. “I want it to look resplendent! Not like an empty dorm room.” In quick time, she and her team reconfigure potted plants, tables, benches and chairs until Dey is satisfied.

The senior event director, Irene St. Onge, dashes over with a folder of résumés and presses it into Dey’s hands. Dey glances at the contents and beelines for the kitchen, checking with her chef to make sure he’ll be ready to take her through a tasting of the day’s dishes. At the far end of the kitchen, eight female chef competitors are busy preparing their mise en place. Dey clips down the line, flashing a large, warm smile. “Hi, I’m Rohini,” she says. “I’m so excited to see what you all have in store for us today!” Less than 15 minutes has ticked by since she walked through the door.

Eleven years ago, with no experience in the restaurant industry, Dey, now 45, left a successful career as an executive at the global consulting giant McKinsey & Company and put $1 million—most of it from eight private investors—on the line to launch a sexy, spice-laden Latin-Indian fusion restaurant in Chicago, which she named, simply, Vermilion. Six years later, buoyed by its success, she sank $4.8 million—again, mostly from investors—into creating At Vermilion in New York, now a foodie favorite and one of the city’s go-to sites for corporate events. But food was far from Dey’s first passion.

Born and raised in India, Dey aspired to follow in the footsteps of an uncle who lived in Washington, D.C., and worked for the World Bank. At 12, she walked into the lobby of the World Bank’s New Delhi office, near her school, and asked the receptionists, “How might I acquire a job here?” The three women behind the desk all laughed. They told her to run off, get a PhD and come back later.

And so she did. She began the path toward her PhD in the United States at the University of Texas at Dallas. After her first year, Dey set her sights on one of the World Bank’s 40 coveted summer-intern positions. She wrote to 50 of the top executives and followed up each letter with a call. “I got one or two polite refusals, one from Larry Summers,” she says. The next summer, she asked her PhD adviser to put in a word for her with a friend at the World Bank who worked in the department that handled water and sewage projects. “I sent him a diatribe of an essay on water and sewage,” says Dey. That worked. Dey interned at the World Bank’s D.C. office in the summer of 1994 and then took a leave of absence from her PhD program to work there full time.

In 1996, having logged thousands of miles traveling the globe, Dey returned to Dallas and completed her PhD. Two years later, she married her childhood sweetheart, Sajal Kohli, a consultant. And she was offered a job at McKinsey.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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