Ask Rohini Dey, this year’s MenuMasters Innovator of the Year, about the menu at her Chicago restaurant Vermilion and you’ll likely get a history lesson or two.
That’s because the Indian/Latin restaurant she opened in December 2003 was designed to capture the cuisines of India through the prism of the many cultural influences in her history, including Persians, Moors, Spaniards and the Portuguese.
There’s a reason someone raised in India can walk into a Latin market and find fundamentally familiar ingredients – from tamarind and mango to coriander, mint and cumin – and why paella is so similar to pullao. Sure, it’s a story of colonization and migration, but at Vermilion, it’s a celebration of the “boldness and warmth” of Indian and Latin cultures.
In April, for example, the restaurant was spinning versions of stuffed naan, including an Iberian version with chorizo and olives, as well as a chicken kebab option with achari. The cocktail list includes a Pani Puri Margarita bucket list; a mango and mint Mojito; and a Brazilian Lychee Caipirinha accompanied by a “sensually spicy” Bollywood Item Number cocktail with vodka, pear, green chili and lime.
One of the dishes on the menu since day one has been a tandoori skirt steak, above, in the restaurant’s classic marinade with yoghurt and cooked in a tandoor – controversial to some as the consumption of beef is banned in many parts of India due to the large Hindu population. . Dey said the dish was his way of protesting the history of “beef lynchings” of Muslims. “This is my big fuck booth,” she said.
And, frankly, Vermilion’s menu is also designed to be provocative, she said.
“I really didn’t want to do anything French,” Dey said. “It makes me angry that the world [at the time] considered French and European cuisine as the bastion of gastronomy. The rest of the world has thousands of years of culinary gastronomy.
A former economist and management consultant, Dey will be the first to point out that she is not a chef, although she takes a hands-on approach to every aspect of the menu, she said.
“I would like my corpse to be chief,” she said. “But I am very involved. I love good food and flavors. I travel a lot and do reverse engineering. I have launched many chefs.
The pandemic has been tough on Vermilion. Delivery and takeout have kept the restaurant alive during dining room closures, and Dey said, “We’re still doing delivery, but it’s not a panacea at all.”
Restaurant patrons returned, but the neighborhood around the restaurant languished, Dey said. Office traffic has not returned and several businesses in the neighborhood have closed permanently.
But Dey now knows she’s not alone.
During the pandemic, Dey started a group called Let’s Talk Womxn, which brings together independent restaurateurs to share concerns and best practices, provide emotional support and collaborate.
The network of Let’s Talk Groups has spread across the country. In Chicago, it allowed attendees to host dinner parties and other events together to showcase women-owned businesses and “get scrappy” by driving traffic to their restaurants.
“Every little bit counts,” Dey said.
Right now, for Let’s Talk members, the conversation is about rising costs and shrinking margins. “Operating costs have gone up so much and a lot of us are in the red,” she said.
But Dey said she remains philosophical. “I am a fighter,” she says. “I’m going to fight.”
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