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

As a young associate, now living in Chicago, Dey traveled nonstop, saturating herself in a different area of business every few months. “For four years, I was on the road from 5 am Monday until 10 or 11 pm Thursday,” she says. She ate out a lot, and as she experienced the multitude of flavors from the world’s top restaurants, Dey was struck by two things: the absence of a sophisticated Indian establishment where she could take clients, and the natural affinity between the culinary cultures of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico, on the one hand, and the cuisine of India. “You’ll find almost the same foods in a market in Mexico as in an Indian bazaar,” she says. Tamarind, guava, lychee, plantains, corn, cilantro, ginger, lime—the ingredients began to spin and mix in her head with the dishes she knew from having lived all over India.

One evening in 1999, she, Kohli and another couple were hanging out, relaxing after a long run. The four, all sweaty and hungry, started talking about food. “I believe there’s room for a great Indian restaurant,” Dey remembers saying. Combining Indian flavors with those of Latin America would make something new and exciting, she added. It was the first time she’d voiced the thought. “They all said, ‘If you do it, we’re in!’ ” she recalls.

Two years later, in early 2001, she got pregnant. After her daughter was born in October, she went on maternity leave. The time off got her thinking about the restaurant. In January 2002, with Kohli’s enthusiastic support, Dey extended her leave by two months to research the possibility of opening a high-end Indian-Latin hot spot.

Dey attacked the challenge with the same total-immersion technique she’d adopted as a consultant, interviewing more than 40 restaurateurs and restaurant managers. In May 2002, she left her toddler in the care of Kohli, by then a director at McKinsey, and their housekeeper-nanny, and went to live for three weeks in the home of a Los Angeles restaurateur, the uncle of a childhood friend from India. Dey shadowed his every move, leaving for his Bel Air–based restaurant at 9 am and not returning home until after 10 at night. “I got a crash course,” says Dey. “He went through the numbers with me. I checked them and asked questions. I knew that 90 percent of new restaurants fail.”

Dey decided to take the risk. In December 2002, she handed in her resignation at McKinsey. To raise money, she tapped into her professional network and cold-pitched anyone who seemed appropriate. She also secured a Small Business Administration loan. “My McKinsey background enabled me to talk to banks and do the spreadsheets, and gave me cachet with investors,” she says. But nothing during her consulting days had prepared Dey (then pregnant with her second child) for the misogyny she encountered in her dealings with vendors. “One liquor vendor came up to me, touched me, leaned in too close and said, ‘Honey, why don’t you get your manager for me?’ ” says Dey. “I remember thinking, Should I kill him on the spot? They don’t expect a woman at the helm. I said, ‘I’ll see you when I’m ready,’ and I kept him waiting.”

Vermilion was scheduled to open in January 2004, but two months before the launch, Dey lost her executive chef. She went on a high-speed interviewing campaign, finally hiring a young, female Indian chef, Maneet Chauhan (who has since become a prominent judge on Chopped). And then came the biggest hurdle. Dey’s daughter wasn’t supposed to be born until two weeks after Vermilion’s opening. She arrived five weeks early—and developed the flu after one week. “She had a temperature of 104 degrees,” says Dey. “I sobbed in the hospital. She was so tiny that they couldn’t find her veins. I had to go straight from the hospital to the opening. It was a very unsettling day.”

First published in the October 2013 issue

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