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Rohini Dey: Naughty by nature

Rohini Dey's From Gut

Rohini Dey's From the Gut

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Updated: July 10, 2012 12:25PM

It’s 4 a.m., and I’m nearly at the highest point in Africa. Any higher, and I’d be celestial. I haven’t been able to feel my feet or hands for more than five hours; they’re blocks of ice. Step by slogging, excruciating step into the pitch-black interminable night, fighting nausea, gravity, seemingly God. This is definitely harder than childbirth, even when they pulled the plug on my epidural. And to think I’ve chosen to do this for my 40th instead of fabulous cocktails, a lavish party, or that midlife Porsche. During these dark, introspective moments, I begin to see a pattern. Renewal is my preferred spin on it; sheer masochistic stupidity may be another.

My current reality, as the founder and owner of Vermilion, might just be your dream. Many have fantasized about being some part of a restaurant-bar-club, including Placido Domingo, Bono, Michael Jordan, Henry Kravis, and much to the intense dismay of my parents and in-laws, me. To them, trading in my Ph.D. in international economics and experience working at the World Bank and McKinsey to be a restaurateur plummeted my respectability faster than a baked potato thrown from the Willis Tower.

Growing up in India, the educated aspired to be doctors, engineers or in the civil services — gentile, erudite, professional. But opening a restaurant?! The colloquial for all small business in India is dhanda, which applies equally to restaurants and all professions of disrepute (think the mob underworld and the world’s oldest profession). So imagine the feigned dramatic horror to my new choice of career: “You’re going to do what?! Open a dhanda? Oh, my God!” My acquaintances seemed to enjoy this seamy turn. Who doesn’t revel in a good downfall?

So why did I do it? I was enraged at the cheap, all-you-can-eat, greasy Indian fare, the faded Taj images, the plucking-sitar ambience. Or that Indian restaurants in upscale settings involved washed-out flavors. I loved dining out, wanted to be entrepreneurial, was in a vibrant dining city with a void I wanted to spice up with my unique Indian-Latin twist.

But most of all, I thought to myself, I’m so damn smart, how hard can this be? After all, Chicago rebuilt itself from the ashes. Sure, I did my due diligence — I’m no fool — but nothing, and I do mean nothing could have prepared me for the leap from the frying pan to the fire, where I’m still seared on a daily basis.

So what is it driving my reckless masochism, I philosophically pondered, as I tried to light up a last smoke with Sajal, my husband, who’d fulfilled my 40th hurrah. It was the dreaded night before we summited Kilimanjaro — and years after I jettisoned three “respectable” careers to plunge into the unknown. Was I a glutton for punishment, unable to commit? Or was I merely seizing the day? More important, what’s the next course for this Ph.D.-turned-dhanda owner? And will this be something else nice girls just don’t do?

Rohini Dey donated her $1,000 fee for writing this coumn to MSEdG — Educate Girls Globally.

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