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

Her daughter recovered, and soon the restaurant too was thriving. Laudatory reviews poured in. Vermilion’s signature dish, lobster Portuguese, placed first on USA Today’slist of the “top 20 dishes.” Vermilion, whose name refers to the brightest natural shade of red and in India and Latin America also represents women’s beauty and strength, became profitable within three months.

In 2008, as her 40th birthday approached, Dey upped the ante and decided to open At Vermilion in New York City. The price tag would be $4.8 million. Undaunted, Dey leveraged her success in Chicago and attracted celebrity investors such as author Salman Rushdie. On August 8, 2008, Dey got the keys to her new locale, and two days later, Dey and Kohli left for a weeklong trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. At almost 20,000 feet, Dey was truly on top of the world.

Then a scathing review in the New York Times in January 2009—six short paragraphs in the Dining Briefs section—sent Dey’s fortunes tumbling. One of At Vermilion’s signature dishes, a spicy skirt steak cooked in a tandoori oven, was deemed “as stringy and tough as Clint Eastwood.” Reading the review online, “I felt like gravity was pulling me to the floor,” Dey says. “My blood ran cold. I e-mailed all my investors to apologize and told them, ‘If it kills me, I will turn the place around.’”

She was on a plane to New York the next day. “I asked myself, Is there truth to this?” she says. “Until that point I had delegated food quality control to my executive chef.” Dey held tense meetings with her staff. The person in charge of cooking the ill-fated skirt steak was fired; his replacement, making similar repeated mistakes, was fired as well. “At first, I thought it was not my job to quality control the food,” says Dey. “But, inevitably, it is my job."

Dey returned week after week, tasting every item on the menu and tweaking the cooking so that each dish turned out the way she wanted it. Six months later, Dey had succeeded in turning around At Vermilion’s reputation. Glowing write-ups came from Gourmet, Time and Esquire.

Dey wanted to share what she’d learned about running a restaurant with other women in the field, so she approached her friend Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, about starting a scholarship. In 2012 the two launched the Women in Culinary Leadership Program, offering women chefs the chance not only to intern in the two Vermilion kitchens and at the James Beard House in New York but also to learn how to run a business and tackle discrimination. In the restaurant world, says Dey, “you interact with male landlords, vendors, bankers, and you can see it immediately in their eyes: ‘Why am I talking to a woman?’ I believe that women should invest in themselves and be able to talk in actual numbers. It can’t be all creativity.”

Amy Zavatto is the author of Architecture of the Cocktail.

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First published in the October 2013 issue

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