Rohini Dey is a charmer. She speaks her mind and talks with her hands, and anyone around her can’t help being drawn in by her warmth. She’s a frequent presence at her River North restaurant, Vermilion, and an avid collector: of experiences, treasures, and, most notably, people. Still, entertaining doesn’t come naturally to this PhD in economics. “The only ones subjected to my cooking are my daughters and my husband,” she jokes. But while the former World Bank employee and McKinsey consultant may not be the next Martha Stewart, she loves throwing a party in her contemporary Lincoln Park house, a converted bowling alley with a family room that transitions into an idyllic outdoor space built for entertaining. “I like small gatherings, but every now and then we’ll have a big one,” Dey says.
The 50th birthday party for her husband, Sajal Kohli, provided just such an opportunity. It gave global citizen Dey, who has hopscotched from Delhi to D.C. to Chicago, and her spouse, whom Dey met at school in Delhi and who has also lived in Europe, an excuse to host a massive gathering of their favorite people. “We have friends on almost every continent, from primary school to business school to our careers,” says Kohli, McKinsey’s leader of retail practice in the Americas. Adds his superchic wife: “The idea was to bring everyone together for one night in celebration of five decades, in lush Indian style.”
On an unusually warm and starry November evening, some 60 guests were welcomed into the couple’s home, which owes its reimagined layout to its bowling roots. (Two lanes hang from the ceiling.) As visitors walked past the waterfall pond illuminated by votives, a path of rose petals guided them through the front door into the living room. There, Steve Ziemba of the Chicago Flower Company had suspended dozens of strands of marigolds from the steel staircase. Touches of India were everywhere, from Dey’s gold sari to the chaat food station and the lush fabrics used as decor. “It was a way to blend our contemporary, minimalist aesthetic with our traditional roots,” explains Dey, who tapped Vermilion’s creative and culinary team to execute the evening. “The party was a microcosm of Sajal’s life, all unfolding in our living room.”
The party began with Vermilion’s Pani Puri margaritas and signature dishes, like blackened chili-tamarind ribs and classic Indian street snacks, then moved outside, where food stations, strewn with colorful saris, served up grilled kebabs. Five friends from across half a century were carefully selected to roast the guest of honor; Kohli returned the favor by serenading the crowd with the same song he crooned on the eve of his wedding day. At 9 p.m., staff moved the furniture out, and DJ Sohbash dug deep into his archive of Bollywood greats and pop hits from the likes of Rihanna to create modern mash-ups. The last guests left the dance floor at 2 a.m.
A dainty, nostalgic party this was not; it’s hard to cram five decades into one night—and one home. “We have incredible photos of Sajal’s friends from primary school with friends from his career at McKinsey,” says Dey. Thankfully, none of the treasures—giant leather Moroccan vases, jeweled Rajasthani windows, sexy photographs by Farrokh Chothia—the couple amassed during years of relentless travel were harmed by the raucous affair, though it took the family a few days to recover. It will be a long time before Dey and Kohli unleash e-vites around the globe for another major fete. “Maybe when the girls leave for college,” jokes Dey.