My Five Favorite Meals: Ravi DeRossi

·9 min read
An Rong Xu/Eric Medsker.
An Rong Xu/Eric Medsker.

To say that Ravi DeRossi took a circuitous route to running a large empire of bars and restaurants, would be understating his journey.

Born in America to Indian immigrants, he worked long shifts, seven days a week in the family’s deli in Denver, Colorado. This is where he says he learned self-discipline, and, perhaps most usefully later, how to retain an objectivity about a business created from passion.

DeRossi really wanted to be an artist, and for a while he was under the expansive and nurturing wing of the Greek abstract painter Igor Gorsky, who he met when Gorsky threw a punch at him. He credits Gorsky, with whom he became close friends, for teaching him how to think abstractly, which has greatly served him as he built his company, Overthrow Hospitality, and co-founded the chain of award-winning Death & Co bars.

Early in life he eschewed Indian food—ironic for someone who went on to start one of the best and most inventive Indian restaurants in America.

I asked him where in the world he has eaten the best Indian food. “The best Indian food I have ever had in India, or anywhere for that matter, has been at temples,” he said. “In Mumbai, I had a meal at Sai Baba Temple, and in this country, I have eaten at several Hare Krishna temples. I am not a religious person by any stretch, but the food at these places is always made with the utmost care and you can taste the love that went into it.”

All of his restaurants are plant based—he discusses how he went from being a meat lover to a vegan below. And he recently opened three new restaurants in New York, Cadence, Etérea and Soda Club.

Veganism is totally accepted in India, and other parts of the world, I say sagely, but here it is still looked at somewhat askance, like an oddity. Why did he think that is? “Veganism is only more widely accepted in India and other countries because of the price of meat—countries that have a large and growing population of poor people. Unfortunately, I think if these people had more money they would eat more meat.”

Who, I wondered, would be his five guests for the perfect dinner party?

“My dog Honeybee, who passed away last year, my two cats Gypsy and Cloud, Leonardo DaVinci, and Igor Gorsky,” he declares, without hesitation.

These are his five favorite meals.

Dinner at Home

Growing up to proud immigrant parents from India, Indian food was the cuisine most often found at our dinner table and I hated every bite. I was an American after all, so why should I be eating overly spiced rice with over puréed lentils that I thought looked like vomit, and fried potatoes that I would have much more pleasure purchasing at McDonald’s for, I think, around 50 cents at the time, and that was super-sized.

Once I left home to go to college, the thought of eating Indian food never crossed my mind. I would not return to my parent’s house for 12 years, but when I did, I had grown into what one might call a man and lost my insecurities about my race and, in fact, became proud of where my roots lie.

That same meal cooked with the utmost love and loyalty by my mother—the perfectly spiced fluffy basmati rice paired with a creamy mix of green and yellow lentils topped with sautéed tomatoes and a hint of saffron and fried potatoes, crispy and spicy on the outside, but moist and sweet on the inside—must have been the greatest meal I have ever had and the only meal that has ever been a recurring theme in my unconscious life.

Free Fried Chicken at Coyote Kate’s

I stopped eating meat at a young age. I did not know why. My entire family ate meat. People like to say that it is because I am of Indian heritage, but eating meat was a sign of wealth in India and my parents were proud, so they ate and served meat at every meal.

I have gone back and forth many times between eating and not eating meat. In college, I started eating meat because I spent every penny I had on beer and my favorite bar, Coyote Kate’s in Midtown, next to the theater school I was attending, served free food during their happy hour. Since it was free, it was the cheapest food the owner of the bar could find, probably purchased from Costco.

I can say with complete honesty and true admiration that those Costco meals that I ate every night for the two years I attended school nearby saved my life. They were my only meals of the day and when I bit down into what was once a frozen piece of ground up leftover chicken parts—the parts restaurants and grocery stores did not want to buy—breaded and deep fried, well, I was in heaven.

Dinner with Igor Gorsky

At some point in my life, I chose to leave the theater behind and pursue a career in fine art. I was not so much interested in realism as I was in the abstract. I believed that my mind had zero logic to it, that it could only function in an abstract way.

I was bartending in the West Village at the time at a bar that was open 24 hours a day. My shift was from midnight to 8 AM, four days a week. The most memorable of all my encounters at this bar was with a man named Igor Gorsky, who became one of the most influential people in my life.

Igor was an old man at the time and would come into the bar every night around 2 to 3 in the morning with a harem of young, beautiful girls following behind. They would sit in the corner and laugh. He had a thick Greek accent and would scream across the room to the server for more vodka every 10 minutes or so.

On one night in particular, one of the girls in his company came to sit at the bar. We spoke for hours. She told me all about Igor and how he was a famous painter in Europe, like Picasso, she said. She told me about his mind and how it did not think logically, but only in the abstract. I have to admit I was intrigued and asked her to introduce me. Unfortunately, it was too late.

He came to the bar and threw a glass at me. He tried to throw a punch but was too inebriated. He was soon thrown out of the bar. The next day, he came back and apologized. He told me he was heading back to Greece the next day and invited me to his going away party that night. I went, and with hundreds of people there to see him, he sat with me in the corner all night talking—about what I have absolutely no idea.

A week later, I quit that job and moved to Greece, where I met up with Igor. We walked to a restaurant where we sat, staring at each other for what felt like years, but was most likely only a couple of hours. The seafood served to us was caught that day by the restaurant staff. Neither of us uttered a word during the course of this meal and when we were done, it was as if we had known each other for years.

A Mushroom Feast

I have always despised mushrooms. This changed dramatically when I decided to open Bergen Hill, a seafood restaurant in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. We spent six months working on the menu, tasting hundreds of dishes, and eventually chose 11 to go on the opening menu. One week before opening, I realized that we only had seafood on the menu, no vegetables at all, other than as garnish. I asked the chef to work on a couple of vegetable dishes. The first day of tasting, the chef made five mushroom dishes for me and I knew from the beginning that I would not appreciate anything I was about to eat.

However, one dish after the next, my heart weakened and my breath became more pure— roasted hen of the woods, pickled hon shimeji, pureed and spiced maitakes. I poured myself a glass of Sancerre to accompany this strange umami and my mind became completely cleared of all extraneous thoughts, as if I were in a meditative state.

It was in that moment of clarity, while chewing on a scalloped and roasted king trumpet, that I saw the next restaurant that I would open, Avant Garden.

A Vegan Valentine’s Day Dinner

I never had pets growing up that I cared about, but after a long and difficult breakup, my now ex-girlfriend left our apartment and her two cats, Simon and Claribel—all of us abandoned. Simon, in all his trauma, would only sleep on my chest at night. In 2015, Simon was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Having never taken a day off work in 10 years, I found myself wanting to spend all my time at home with Simon. In the wake of our abandonment, the two of us had grown very close and now one of us was leaving. I was struggling. I was there to take care of Simon until he passed, but it felt more like he was taking care of me.

On Christmas Eve, we stayed up all night. He was on my chest staring into my eyes, reminding me that I was going to be okay. In the morning, he died. At that moment, I decided that I was going to turn my entire company vegan, that I never wanted to be the cause of suffering to any animal ever again.

I immediately went to work and on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, the first of my restaurants reopened without any meat or dairy on the menu. I sat down by myself at the end of the night to eat what was left over in the kitchen. A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was the first time in my life that I felt purpose. It was the greatest meal of my life and I have zero recollection of what I ate.

My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs and celebrities.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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