How a former Indian Navy pilot came to become one of Manhattan’s most famous hoteliers, and earned fame and infamy for his friendship with the Clintons.
Sant Singh Chatwal has always been a high-flying Sikh. An initial career as a naval pilot on the aircraft carrier Vikrant, has now, many years later, led to the heady heights of American high society via his restaurants and hotels. The New York-based businessman recently gained fame and infamy for his role in the election of Hillary Clinton to the American senate. He claims he was among the first people to have rallied around the First Lady when she announced her decision to run for the seat being vacated by veteran Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “I helped Hillary when most people didn’t want to bother with her,” Chatwal states. He intends to continue to help Senator Clinton on her way to the White House, which, he is confident, she will occupy in her own right as America’s first woman President. “Even as a Senator, Ms Clinton is not going to be just an ordinary Senator. She will be very powerful. I envision her as the President in the future,” he says confidently.
The Faridkot, Punjab born Chatwal started life as a pilot on the Vikrant before emigrating first to Kenya and then to Ethiopia where he made his first million setting up two restaurants and a private school. The Revolution in the Horn of Africa forced him to pack his bags and leave Addis Ababa. “That was probably the best thing that happened in my life,” he says. Montreal was to be his new home, but not for long. By 1979, Chatwal was in New York to launch his first restaurant — Bombay Palace. “A few years of flying was enough… I wanted to do something more aggressive. I wanted to take on the biggest challenge and realised that to do this I needed to move to New York,” he explains. Bombay Palace, with its menu of North Indian cuisine, caught the imagination of not just Indians living in New York but the Americans as well. For many it was their first introduction to cuisine from the sub-continent.
Three decades later Chatwal claims his is the largest chain of Indian restaurants in the world. Bombay Palace has branches in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, continental Europe, Hong Kong, Budapest and Kuala Lumpur. With his eateries hugely successful, Chatwal has shifted gears and is now focused on building a world wide budget hotels empire. As the President of Hampshire Hotels and Resorts LLC, Chatwal owns 2,500 rooms on Manhattan’s famous and almost unaffordably exorbitant skyline. His properties, reportedly worth more than $ 1 billion, include the fashionable Time Hotel, a boutique hotel on West 49th Street, Days Inn and Howard Johnson near Times Square, two Best Western hotels in midtown, the Hampshire Hotel Suites on West 47th Street and the Quality Hotel on West 94th Street.
Nearly ten years ago Sant Chatwal pulled off what can be aptly described as a curry coup. The popularity of his cuisine brought him into proximity with the Clintons, a friendship that Chatwal is eager to talk about. He says it dates back to the time before the family moved into the White House. Chatwal was first introduced to the Clintons at a fund raiser held at the Bombay Palace. “He (Bill Clinton) was initially reluctant but since that experience he’s been hooked on Indian food,” he recalls. The Clintons are regular patrons at Bombay Palace. In fact Chelsea celebrated her 16th birthday there. Impressed with President Clinton’s new found taste, Chatwal presented the First Lady with an Indian cookbook — Bombay Palace Cookbook. “Now the White House chefs prepare Indian dishes for the First Family and their guests, but Hillary admits that it’s not as good as what she is served at our restaurant,” Chatwal says.
The President is a sucker for butter chicken, lentils, seekh kabab, Malabar fish curry and naan. “He’s very fond of kulfi too,” Chatwal claims, adding with a chuckle: “He is a good eater. He’s very fond of spicy food, but it’s nowhere near as spicy as we Indians like our food!”
Chelsea Clinton, on the other hand, is a recent convert to vegetarianism. But that choice doesn’t rule out Indian cuisine as an option on her dinner plate. “She loves spinach and chickpeas. She’s very fond of lentils and cauliflower as well,” says Chatwal. During President Clinton’s visit to India in March last year, Chatwal advised Vikram Oberoi, the son of hotelier P.R.S. Oberoi and general manager at the Oberoi’s Raj Vilas hotel in Jaipur, on what to serve Mr. Clinton during his stay at the luxury hotel.
The Chatwals are a close-knit family. And more than the father his two sons are now a big part of Manhattan’s social circuit. His elder son, Vikram, 29, studied at Wharton School of Business and after a stint with Morgan Stanley investment bank is now part of the family business. “It was Vikram’s idea to start the boutique Time Hotel in Manhattan,” Chatwal says proudly.
Vikram hired international designer Adam Tihany to design the hotel which now boasts rooms painted red, blue and yellow, a popular French restaurant and an effervescent, young clientele.
Chatwal was first introduced to the Clintons at a fund raiser held at the Bombay Palace. “He (Bill Clinton) was initially reluctant but since that experience he’s been hooked on Indian food,” he recalls.
Tihany walked away with a no mean pay package. The Chatwals paid the designer a professional fee of $1 million. But the pay off has been worth all that money spent. “By using the primary colours only in the guest rooms, we are able to create a private experience unique to each guest,” says Tihany. The hotel is now a popular watering hole for Hollywood stars, designers and fashion models visiting the Big Apple.
Vikram, who describes himself as a “model slash hotelier slash actor slash screenwriter”, has bigger plans. “He wants to take the concept of the boutique hotel to India,” says Sant Chatwal. Pointing out that Mumbai is very similar to New York City, he adds, “Vikram is working on opening an exact replica of the Time Hotel in Mumbai.” Chatwal’s younger son Vivek, 26, a finance graduate from New York University, handles the company’s finances.
With his sons now playing an active role in his business, Chatwal says this has given him time to dabble in politics. A loyal Democrat, Chatwal has been to the While House “six or seven times” as a guest of the Clintons. Part of his involvement in US politics comes in the form of help he has offered several Senators and Congressmen. Chatwal counts New York Senator Charles Schumer among his friends of long standing. “The Americans have already seen our money power, we need to show them what we can bring to politics,” he says, “Indians must have their say. If they can be Cabinet ministers in Canada, why not in the US?” he asks. With the community now accounting for 1.8 million of America’s population, Chatwal feels, “We must have our own people in US politics.” Though for now, Chatwal is content playing an active role on the sidelines of US politics. “At this stage I do not have any plans to be part of politics. The idea is to bring Indians forward,” he says.
Chatwal was a member of Hillary Clinton’s strategy planning and finance committee in her race for the Senate. He says Ms Clinton was very enthused by the overwhelming support the Indian-American community offered her and hoped to put more members of the community in prominent positions through her offices.
However, proximity to Hillary Clinton also has its downside. During the recent elections, Sant Chatwal was targeted by Ms Clinton’s Republican opponent, Long Island Congressman Rick Lazio, who accused him of funnelling “at least $210,000 in soft money through at least 14 different businesses to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s New York Senate campaign on a single day”. Lazio’s allegations were based on a series of reports in a New York daily that said Sant Singh Chatwal was the subject of “a massive bankruptcy case with debts estimated at more than $100 million — including more than $30 million in taxes owed to the IRS, New York City and several states, including New York”.
The report said that in 1996, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation went to bankruptcy court and accused Chatwal of “obtaining improper loans from the failed First New York Bank for Business — a small bank formerly known as First Women’s Bank — causing the bank to lose more than $25 million”. In a subsequent volte face however, FDIC spokesman Philip Batey announced, “We found no evidence of hidden assets after due diligence.” The federal government agreed to settle the “estimated $14 million debt owed by Chatwal on the condition that he repay $125,000.” The proposed settlement, filed in federal bankruptcy court in Manhattan last December, would close the books on the FDIC case against Chatwal.
Admitting his business has weathered some rough patches in the past, Chatwal says, “Who doesn’t have problems? In business things go up and things go down.” A Lazio campaign spokesperson had said, “It would be appropriate for Ms Clinton to turn her campaign’s ill-gotten financial gain over to the federal treasury.” Chatwal however retorts saying, “Rick Lazio spent too much time slinging mud. First he accused Ms Clinton of associating with a controversial Arab-American group, then he points to my contributions.” Accusing Lazio of witch hunting he says, “This was one of the reasons he went down. I have nothing to hide and certainly have no reason to be ashamed.”
Chatwal, who is also a part owner of the News India-Times newspaper and television companies based in New York believes he would not have achieved all that he has if he had stayed back in India. “In India, you could be intelligent and hardworking, but you don’t get a chance. It’s full of red tape and nepotism. Even if you are very smart, you can spend only 25 per cent of your energy on your business; 75 per cent is spent dealing with bureaucratic hurdles,” he says, “New York is a different market altogether. If you are willing to put in a little effort here the sky is the limit.”
This article was first published in the January 2001 issue