Rohini Dey's From the Gut
Updated: August 17, 2012 6:28AM
Do you speak Hindu? I cringe as I hear the religion confused for the language. And aren’t you vegetarian? No, I’m not. Nor are over two-thirds of Indians. Yes, the cow is considered sacred among devout Hindus (holy cow, get it?), but me — I’m devout about something else — my red meats. Take me to a restaurant and my eyes linger on the steaks.
So it’s fitting that my Indian-Latin melding of cuisines was inspired from marrying a classic tandoori marinade with a Latin American churrasco (grilled steak). Juicy and unique, my beloved Tandoori Skirt Steak (aka the TSS) starred in my business plan and investor pitch way before I developed it with my original chef — along with the rest of our cuisine — over the course of a year. His successor had to learn to replicate it perfectly, weeks before we opened doors!
It’s a dish I showcase with gusto at Vermilion (even though the Chimichurri NY Strip, its upscale cousin, is far more profitable). It’s a dish I bring home when I want a red meat fix. A dish that has survived umpteen menu renewals and one to which I pledge undying loyalty.
My TSS garnered virtually universal raves from food writers in Chicago, nationally, and internationally — until the day of our public crucifixion two months after opening Vermilion in New York City, a day my blood ran cold.
A New York Times reporter — not the restaurant critic — wrote a piece attacking Vermilion and my Latin-Indian fusion in general, and my beloved TSS in particular, “ . . . how does a kitchen make skirt steak . . . emerge from the tandoori oven as stringy and tough as Clint Eastwood?”
The TSS media wars had begun. The New York Post fired back that TSS “lit my fire,” Crain’s New York called it a “standout,” but Bloomberg dismissed it as “doomed beef,” and too many outlets said nothing at all. The New York Times sets the agenda for dining coverage — being bashed or ignored was a devastating start.
I was reeling, questioning all my decisions and work. Our investors were perplexed, but amazingly supportive. Moments like this make you want to roll over and die — or you can hunker down and fight back. I chose the latter. On my next weekly trip to New York I tasted every dish on the menu, which I do to this day, including other draconian steps. Fortunately, soon after, leading national and international media, including Esquire, Gourmet, the Financial Times and Time came to our defense and restored our self-esteem.
As a restaurateur and in life, my TSS has retaught me valuable lessons: success is far from a sure shot, some things are worth fighting for, and ultimately, the fight is the journey.
The restaurant business is brutal and I will do everything to steer both my daughters away. The ultimate redemption, though, more than any media acclaim - is that my older daughter Sehar’s favorite dish is the TSS.
In closing, my apologies to you – Clint Eastwood – for sullying your name. But may I personally invite you to Vermilion, and may I endorse a dish: our Tandoori Skirt Steak?
Rohini Dey donated her fee for writing this coumn to MSEdG — Educate Girls Globally.