When I met up with New York restaurateur Miki Agrawal at Le Thai last month for a long-overdue dinner (it’s been, oh, about 13 years since we last saw each other at Cornell University), it was like nothing had changed since she was a soccer-obsessed whirlwind of a communications student: The petite powerhouse was juggling a pot of hot tea, a cellphone that went off on the minute and a remarkably deep and earnest conversation with the guy one stool over.
He had recognized Agrawal as the woman about to open Downtown’s newest restaurant, Wild, in the Ogden where he lives, and was regaling her about his current obsession (aguas frescas) and drooling over Agrawal’s budding idea about a meal plan for the building’s residents. This is what she does. She networks, connects people and pulls them into her exciting web of whole-self acceptance and zesty energy. And when she fixes her gaze on you—two wide and searching coffee-bean eyes that hint at her Japanese-Indian parentage—you’re the center of her universe, if very briefly. Her phone complained again; a cook is in the clink back in New York. She sighed through a smile and returned fully to the intricacies of this moment in her life.
“There are a million moving parts. Everyone at some point in their life should open a restaurant,” she said. “It really makes you understand 360 degrees every aspect of a business. It’s a transferable skill, and when you exit that and go into a different business, you realize this [new venture] is actually quite chill. It’ll prepare you for life, for partnership, for everything you can think of.”
Putting that philosophy into practice, Agrawal, 34, is opening her third restaurant, launching a book (Do Cool Sh*t: Quit Your Day Job, Start Your Own Business, And Live Happily Ever After, with a forward by Tony Hsieh) and is rolling out a successfully Kickstarted intelligent underwear line (SheThinx.com). When that gets going later this month, every pair of Thinx sold will finance the production of seven washable pads for women and girls in the developing world in partnership with AfriPads.
“I feel a responsibility to share more through action. ‘You achieve being through doing,’” she says, quoting the Burning Man participation principle. She sipped her tea and pulled her legs up onto the stool, momentarily looking more like a little girl than the multiplatform, serial social impresario Forbes named one of 2013’s Top 20 Millennials on a Mission. “I believe I’m going to help solve gender inequality. I believe that.” And I am inclined to believe her.
After graduation, Agrawal had settled into an investment-banking gig in Manhattan. She overslept one morning early in that career, and had she not, she would have been in the World Trade Center’s subway stop before walking across the street to Deutsche Bank on 9/11. She also moonlighted all-too-briefly as a soccer player with the New York Magic before repeated injuries sidelined her permanently. Movie and TV production and entrepreneurial pursuits followed, always interwoven with her identical sister, Radha, who runs multimedia nutrition and wellness education company Super Sprowtz.
But in all that excitement, Miki got sick. Her discovery that processed foods, gluten and dairy were simply not compatible with her body led her to open New York’s Slice: the Perfect Food in 2005, which later became Wild, a gluten-free, mostly vegan, organic, dairy-optional alternative pizzeria. Hsieh is a partner in the Las Vegas location, which is set to open September 12. Following up with Hsieh after a brief meeting in 2011, she pitched him her Thinx concept. But, she said, “He was like ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll put it on Zappos. Now let’s talk about the restaurant!’”
After dinner we slipped into the Wild construction site, where reclaimed barn wood is softly lit by dangling Edison lights, and where communal dining actually looks inviting: Happy hour will feature a “buy-one-give-one” element; staff will be trained to make sensible, serendipitous introductions; and conversation coasters break the ice. Here, Agrawal will bring together the Wild Tribe, 10 people selected each month to taste-test the restaurant’s seasonal items. “It’s fun playing restaurateur,” she says, “without all the responsibility.” Agrawal limits her dairy intake and has given up red meat and chicken. Two months ago, gluten finally bit the dust. But fish is still on her menu: “That’s the Japanese gene asserting itself,” she says with a wink.