Bajaj recruits talented chefs. For Rasika, he snagged Vikram Sunderam - a fish chutneywala- and cauliflower bezule-conjuring magician - from London's celebrated Bombay Brasserie. But chefs come and go, too; the longest tenure at one of his restaurants was 10 years, and most stay for much less. Even though his chefs can achieve a measure of stardom, it is the owner who is the empire's face. He is "Spider-Man," in the words of some staff and patrons. They marvel at his time- and space-defying ability to appear seemingly out of nowhere on his nightly circuits of the empire. He visits all six restaurants every night, plotting his night wandering to match the ebbs and flows, and A-list juice, at each of his possessions.
He can also be the realm's equivalent of Don King, a nonstop promoter and spectacularly prolific - though curiously unannoying - name-dropper. In a town with more than its share of insufferable prestige accumulators, Bajaj manages to hype his restaurants and his guest lists in an endearing way. Rather than coming off as bragging, his enthusing has the effect of drawing his guests deeper into his circle - they are members of his club, and feel privileged to share in his wonder.
"This is such a small town," he confides on the phone one afternoon, offering that he'd been talking the day before with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. A few nights later, at Ardeo + Bardeo, he's whispering that Cokie Roberts, ensconced at a nearby booth with Gloria Borger, has been to three of his restaurants in three days. Another time, over lunch at 701, he shares that Diane Sawyer dined at the Bombay Club the night before, while a winter storm outside brought traffic to a halt.
At the Bombay Club's bar one evening, he declares, "Society dines here."
"I can give you," he says, clipping a sentence before finishing it, leaving you to fill in the blanks. In this case, the rest of the thought could be something like: "a list of names that will blow your mind!"
"Madeleine Albright. Hillary Clinton," he says, his voice inflected with the musical notes of his boyhood days in India. "President Bush senior. President Clinton. John Kerry. Nelson Mandela."
He's rolling now.
"Prime ministers. Presidents. The Salahis. I mean, it's a Who's Who."
And there's more.
"Hollywood? Harrison Ford. Stevie Wonder. God, I can give you - Condoleezza Rice. Okay, Bruce Willis. Demi Moore. What is the Australian actor who got in trouble?"