Ashok Bajaj turns around to point to a plush banquette behind him. President Bill Clinton was dining there once, many years ago. Bajaj walked up to the president and gently told him his parents, who were visiting from India, were in the lounge. And that they wanted to meet the president. "He didn't say a word," Bajaj recalls over a meal of dal makhani, tandoori roti and subzies at his flagship restaurant Bombay Club, a short walk across the Lafayette Square from the White House.
The president got up, strode across to Bajaj's parents followed by every pair of eyes in the room and greeted them warmly. That was Bill Clinton, man with the unmatchable ability to connect with people. That gesture, however, was also a tribute to a man who came to this town 25 years ago with nothing, and who now runs a group of eight restaurants that define power dining in Washington DC, the world's capital.
He has hosted them all, he says with ill-concealed pride: the Clintons, of course -- "10 or 12 times", George H W Bush -- three or four times" , Nelson Mandela, secretaries of state, senators and lobbyists. Hollywood A-listers such as Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore have been there too, as have Rolling Stones's Mick Jagger and Keith (Richards). Mrs (Michelle) Obama, but not the president yet. "I could go on," he ends the roll call, smiling. He smiles a lot, and laughs easily. He is clearly having a great time. His ninth restaurant, called Nopa, is opening in April. Nopa is short for North Of Pennsylvania Avenue, home to all of DC's power addresses, including 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, also known as the White House. But he is loathe to talk more about his celeb guests. When they dine at his restaurants, they expect privacy about what they order and talk about. Bajaj won't change that for anything. "I feel blessed," he says, touching his heart and sending up a prayer. But he won't reveal what he is worth. He smiles, shrugs and leaves it there. The boy from Delhi Gate is indeed having a time of his life.
Bajaj grew up in a joint family in Delhi Gate. But the family moved around the city a bit, before winding up in Shivalik, where they stayed for the next 25 years.
India was different back then, in the 1980s. Economic reforms that would eventually clear the way for McDonalds and welcome back Coca Cola were still a decade away. "Life was tough then," Bajaj recalls. He went to a government school -"nothing significant," he said when asked, acutely aware of what most Indians think of overcrowded, poorly-staffed government schools. He didn't have much to say about his school except that it finished after the 11th year. Was it so dull and uneventful it left him with no memories worth retelling?
Actually, Bajaj was eager to fast-forward in his mind to the next phase of his formative years: when Ashok Bajaj the future restaurateur began taking root.
After school he started training at the Ashoka hotel. "Everybody in India wants to be a doctor or an engineer - but I wasn't that smart," Bajaj says. He doesn't believe that, of course. He attended training classes during the day and worked at Ashoka and Akbar (which is now a government building) in n the night, and enrolled himself into Delhi University's correspondence course in commerce. "There was never a free moment," he recalls. Bajaj went on to finish post-graduation in hotel and tourism from Rajasthan University. "A degree was a must then," he says. And he then joined the Taj group of hotels.
After two years of management training at Taj, Bajaj was taken on as a manager. It was a great organisation, and he was good at what he was doing.
But back then, he says, if you really wanted to get ahead in life, you had to serve out a tenure abroad -- "France, UK, or Germany" - get exposed to the outside world. The opportunity came when Taj was planning a restaurant in London - the now iconic Bombay Brasserie and wanted to know if Bajaj would like to work there. "Who was going to say no - working in London was a great opportunity." Bajaj jumped at it and now recalls proudly how he and others set about opening the brasserie. That was 1982. After a while in London, Bajaj decided to strike out on his own, and with the backing of a few investors opened a restaurant in Sydney, Australia, which, "unfortunately didn't work out."He returned to London, to familiar ground but his eye were set upon opportunities across the Atlantic.
After scouting around the country, Bajaj came across a property -"with high ceilings" - just about hundred yards from one of world's best known addresses: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "I wanted to set up something like the Delhi Gymkhana." But he didn't have a club in mind like the one which is just a few houses down the road from 7, Race Course Road. He wanted to start a restaurant.
"Proximity to the White House played an important role in my decision to locate my first restaurant in DC," he says, adding, "but it wasn't easy business there on."
For one, most well-known and not-so-well-known restaurants were on K Street. There were a few on Connecticut Avenue, but not so far down the road. The president as a neighbour was fine. But Bajaj needed clients to be able to stay in business. And the presence of "well-travelled" people in the area was crucial.
That was year 1988. And Indian food was nowhere as popular as now. In fact, it suffered from a negative perception of being too spicy, curry house kind of food."Remember, there was no internet then to help people explore and discover the finer points of Indian food," he says. And he was clear his first restaurant had to serve Indian food.
The Clinton Effect
The restaurant took off, doing moderately good business, feeding off a growing interest in Indian cuisine, which, he concedes had to be tweaked a bit to suit the local palate. "My first instruction to our chefs then and now is still this: Americans don't like too much salt in their food," Bajaj says., adding, "they don't need it." There are other instructions but none of them could work the kind of magic a new restaurant such as the Bombay Club needed to make an impact.Bajaj couldn't even dream of the kind of help he got.
The White House called one day to make a reservation. Not for the usual staff wanting to grab a bite before heading home. President Clinton would be dining himself. "That was the first time a US president had eaten at an Indian restaurant," says Bajaj, overwhelmed even by the memory of it, from two decades ago. Actually, he was relishing it. People kept calling him from all over the world. "Actually from all over the world," Bajaj insisted. "They all wanted to know about it - especially what he ate." The phones haven't stopped ringing since.