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What Made Me: Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj

Twenty-five years after opening the Bombay Club, DC’s king of Indian food tells how his first venture led to an empire.

Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The turning point: I was sitting with my father at my restaurant 701, planning to open something like the Bombay Club in London. The restaurant became busy, and I jumped from the table to help. My father told me, “You’re a hands-on man. You must do what feels right, but going back to London will be difficult for you. You visit your restaurants daily. You work in them.” I realized I don’t want to go anywhere—I want to stay in DC. I still visit all my restaurants almost every night.

The early job: I started working at age 16 in the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi. I worked in hotels and restaurants from a very early age, even when I was studying for my undergraduate degree.

The challenge: When I opened my first restaurant, the Bombay Club, Indian food was not very popular. People couldn’t pronounce the names; people didn’t know what the food was. I gave out hundreds of small cards telling them what to order—tandoori salmon, crab masala, malai chicken tikka, a bread basket—often with instructions not to charge the guests: “compliments of Ashok.”

Lesson for a young restaurateur: Hire the best you can. Surround yourself with the best sommelier, maître d’, and chef, and they will make you look good.

This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.

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