Ajit Mathew George on Gastronauts, Meals on Wheels and Sir Richard Branson
Photograph by Jared Castaldi
Ajit Mathew George is a self-described “serial entrepreneur, creative marketer, philanthropist, gastronaut, wine aficionado and lifelong adventurer who lives in Wilmington.” Among other popular fundraising events, George created Meals from the Masters to benefit Meals on Wheels Delaware, which he also founded.
DT: I just read your bio and it has to be one of the most interesting I’ve ever seen.
AG: Oh, don’t say that. It’s just that I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. (laughs) That’s what that bio reflects.
DT: I’d compare you to the world’s most interesting man from the Dos Equis commercials.
AG: Well, I have been fortunate that I’ve been able to do a lot of different things and, in almost all instances, it’s stuff I’ve been passionate about. So I feel blessed with my life. I have not done many boring things.
DT: People would love to hear about the food portion of your life.
AG: I’ll just simply tell you how food entered my life in two different worlds. One was when I was the founding chairman of Meals on Wheels, I needed to create a fundraiser for Meals on Wheels. I was on the national board of Meals on Wheels and that took me to Chicago and San Francisco, where they were doing really interesting food events involving chefs. I said, What a great idea for an event for Meals on Wheels—to involve chefs. But I really didn’t know that many chefs. I thought this was a great idea, but had no idea of what it meant to do it. But being fearless that I was, I decided to get involved and asked my friends in Chicago and San Francisco to help me. And what really started as a fundraiser for Meals on Wheels—and really a fundraiser that was relatively unique in those days because it was food-centric and chef-centric—became a passion. Because once you make friends with chefs, and you visit various cities, they become friendly with you. It became a big thing, frankly, because whenever I go to a restaurant where I know the chef, I never order from the menu. I just tell them to surprise me and they always surprise me. That’s how the food started.
I’ve been collecting wine for 25 or 30 years. And during the process I’ve ended up at winemakers’ that I’ve known. What I did was combine these two passions, which is food and wine, and it’s almost always for a charity. It really fulfills all of my passions, which is food, wine and raising money. I feel that I am very lucky that I can enjoy these passions and at the same time raise money.
DT: What’s a gastronaut?
AG: It’s a term that the New York Times quoted about seven or eight years ago. It is for people who travel specifically with food in mind. In other words, they look up restaurants, they look up chefs and then they make a decision on whether to travel to Topeka, Kansas, based on the fact there is a great chef there. So, that sort of describes me and it fulfills the need to meet chefs or meet chefs who are recommended by other chefs when invariably it results in inviting them to come to the British Virgin Islands for the winemakers dinners or now to Delaware or wherever there’s a food and wine event.
DT: Pizza is my favorite food. Is there something wrong with me?
AG: No. Absolutely not. The truth is, there is no bad food or good food. It’s what people like. I think you can be really passionate about pizza. For me, I’m trying to lose weight, so pizza would be a very destructive thing if I were to get passionate about it. (laughs) I think food is really an individual choice. I think it’s something you either like or you don’t like. There are people who live to eat and there people who eat to live. I am one who lives to eat.
DT: That’s got to be a problem—being a gastronaut and having to watch your weight.
AG: Well, what I do when I’m not eating out, I started Nutrisystem in October, partly because I was diagnosed with having bacteria in my heart and I ended up having open-heart surgery. So I’ve actually lost 40 pounds and I’ve maintained it plus or minus three pounds, even when I eat interesting foods. Because when I am not eating out, I literally follow Nutrisystem. If you go to my Facebook page, you’ll see pictures of food that I eat—people think that’s all I do. But in reality, when I do not have to eat socially, then I am on Nutrisystem. So I end up having this interesting two-way life that I lead now. But it will probably keep me alive longer so I can eat more interesting foods. I’ve also learned portion control. You can taste great food, but you don’t have to finish the dish. That’s really the greatest thing I’ve learned in the last six months.
DT: Aren’t you afraid you’re going to offend a chef when you leave food on your plate?
AG: No. I tell them I want to eat it the next day, but I also tell them I am trying to lose weight. But chefs want you to tell them what you tasted and what you enjoyed most. Finishing a plate is not critical to them. They want to hear feedback and if there’s interesting spice or herbs or preparations of food. So it’s the dialogue of food, not the quantity, that makes a difference.
DT: I hear you throw some pretty mean dinner parties at your home.
AG: My wife and I organize a seven-course wine dinner at our house once a month. We invite seven couples, 16 people total, and everybody is asked to bring one course and two wines. We have two dining rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs in the wine cellar. We treat each course as a separate meal. We have met some really neat people and it’s a great way to have stimulating conversation and good food and great wine. We do carry this passion for food and wine, not just in restaurants. But we also bring people together and introduce them. We find that food and wine is a great way to meet interesting people.
DT: Who are some of the more famous folks who’ve attended one of your dinners?
AG: We’ve had Sen. Chris Coons, who qualifies as a famous person. We’ve had Liane Hansen, who is the former host of “Weekend Edition” on NPR, who retired last year and is living in Bethany. We have a lot of interesting people between New York and Washington who really aren’t famous and if I mention names, it will not mean anything. We invite lots of out-of-town chefs. What we try to do is bring interesting people. And interesting people are people who have a story to tell. They are not necessarily in any way, shape or form famous. They cannot be boring. We don’t invite boring people to our house. We never let the person coming with them sit with each other, so it’s always split. Our rules are, whoever you come with, married or not, you don’t sit with them. It changes the dynamics of conversation.
DT: I read that you did one of your winemakers dinners at Sir Richard Branson’s place in the BVI.
AG: Yes, on Necker Island. That was a great dinner. That was a seven-course dinner for 72 people that Sir Richard and I hosted. We had lunch earlier in the day down on the beach, where we had close to 50 people. The dinner was pretty extraordinary. It’s an incredible house with an incredible view. It was a very special evening. We had seven winemakers and seven chefs there, each doing a different course.
DT: So you and Sir Richard are neighbors?
AG: Not neighbors. He is on the next island over, which is very close by. It’s the first time they’ve opened it up for essentially what was—it was an expensive evening—you could buy to come in without having to stay overnight. It was pretty special.
DT: I know you’re watching what you eat, but is there a fast-food restaurant you like to go to, or is that just blasphemy?
AG: Fast food restaurant? You’re talking something like McDonald’s or Burger King? To me, the idea of fast food is Pizza by Elizabeths. I would do DelRose Café for antipasta. But the actual concept of going to a Burger King or McDonald’s, I think there are so many other choices—no insult to them—but I would rather go to somebody who has a little more tasty food than a fast-food restaurant.
DT: Do you have a favorite chef in Delaware, or someone you think is the best?
AG: I will list my four favorite restaurants that I go to regularly: Domaine Hudson, Orillas, which has incredible Spanish tapas, Harry’s Seafood, and Toscana. My favorite pizza place is Pizza by Elizabeths because they add stuff to pizza—it just blows my mind. They have so many things you can choose from, I think you could eat there every day for 30 days and probably not eat the same pizza.
DT: Do you have a single favorite food or dish?
AG: I love paella and gumbo because they are mixtures of food and there’s a lot of textures in them, so it gives me dimension, whether it’s seafood or andouille sausage, or okra. When I came out of the hospital and friends asked me what they could cook, I said, I’m yearning for a seafood gumbo and I was yearning for paella. Two very good friends made them for me. When you have a craving for multiple tastes, they sort of satisfy that need.
DT: How did you come to Delaware?
AG: I came to Delaware in July 1970, and then went to UD in fall. I was all of 16 years old. I was young. I had graduated earlier because I had two double promotions and skipped a couple of grades. So I came to Delaware at 16 years old, and boy, I’ll tell you, that was an interesting experience. I came as a sophomore because I had a year in college already in India. Delaware was perfect. It was a small school, a small state and Newark was a small city, relatively speaking. It was easy to get to know people. Frankly, that’s why I call Delaware home.
DT: So you just fell in love with the state.
AG: I really do. I have traveled all around the world. My wife and I have lived in London from 2007 to 2010 when she was assigned there. We kept our home here. I spent 27 years commuting between the British Virgin Islands, where we have a beautiful home, and here where I did a lot of real estate work. And the reality, I’ll always think of Wilmington and Delaware as my home because you come back here and people know who you are. We were away three years and when we came back, people simply said, “We haven’t seen you lately.” It’s a place where you get to know the governor, U.S senators, the congressman. You get to see people at church. It’s a very, very livable state. And very close to New York and Washington, if you like food and culture.
DT: But we’re doing better with our food here, correct?
AG: Absolutely. The last 10 years, the explosion of food and taste and even grocery stores. And now, with Whole Foods opening up nearby. Even the Asian stores that are here … I mean we really are, compared to a lot of states, a pretty neat place to live.
DT: You have many accomplishments to be proud of. Is there any one thing that stands out as your favorite or one that makes you most proud?
AG: Let’s say if I had died yesterday, for retrospect. The local newspaper would define me as the founding chairman of Meals on Wheels Delaware and essentially making sure no elderly person ever went hungry or had to be on a waiting list (for services). The reason I got involved with Meals on Wheels was my sister worked for the division of aging and there was a waiting list in 1989 for people to get fed. If there was one thing that I felt that I have made a difference, that I committed from 1989 to 2007—a long time, 18 years—as a volunteer. I feel I made a difference in life by doing that. I think that my single, largest accomplishment is helping create Meals on Wheels Delaware and help create a funding source that helped private funds to match the public funds to meet the growing needs and to prevent a waiting list. That probably is my legacy.
DT: It amazes me to see what people can accomplish. Some really impressive people make up for the rest of us.
AG: I think partly it comes from being an immigrant. I came here in 1970. And when you’re an immigrant to this country, one of things is you don’t take this country for granted. I always tell immigrants, I could never repay all of the people who helped me over the years. For example, Gov. Russell W. Peterson, who was one of my mentors, inspired me to think more than myself. I could never repay him in any meaningful way. But the reality is, the way we can repay a country like the United States when you immigrate, is to try to make it a better place than when you found it. Each one of us can do that. We can’t change the whole world, but we can change it one person at a time. I am really proud and privileged to be in this country and I feel I have an obligation to give back, which won’t end until I can’t do it anymore.
DT: How much time do you get to spend in the British Virgin Islands these days?
AG: Until about two years ago, I spent 26 weeks a year. Essentially every other week I was there. I now am spending more time in Wilmington and probably go down there once every six weeks. So, compared to most people, I still spend a lot of time in the BVI, but far less than I did until 2009. Because until then I was managing director of a resort that took me down there two weeks a month. Now I can go there and be a gardener.
DT: Your bio says you’ve planted more than 1,000 plants there.
AG: My parents were phenomenal gardeners. They grew this garden in Kuwait, which is a desert country. They got all kinds of awards. I grew up in Kuwait and my mother was just a very inspirational gardener. She grew things that were not meant to grow in the desert. So when I had a chance to do something with an interesting piece of land in Virgin Gorda (BVI)—it’s a beachfront piece of land—I planted every plant I could get my hands on and really experiment with plants and grow stuff that people said couldn’t be grown. It’s become a passion to see things grow and see how they evolve over time. In some cases, they have grown larger than I would have wanted and some places are more crowded. In the early days I couldn’t say no to any plant I had seen somewhere else. So I would bring cuttings or seeds or I would bring them in to plant. And it’s what I call a relatively uncultured look. It’s not like a garden where everything is sculpted. It is meant to look like it was always there. It sort of looks like a jungle garden, but it’s not a jungle. It was planted deliberately to be fun and colorful and interesting. I have lot of cacti growing next to very colorful tropical plants. It creates an interesting juxtaposition of having cactus next to what you would consider to be purely tropical flowers. I have cactus that is probably 10 or 12 feet tall. People are always stunned to see a banana plant, a pomegranate plant, a bougainvillea and cactus. It’s interesting.
DT: You do so many things. What else would you like to talk about?
AG: What I really enjoy is helping start-up ventures with people with interesting ideas who need products brought to marketplace. What I’m investing my primary time in my job as chairman of Strongpoint, which is a marketing company, is to help entrepreneurs who have interesting ideas. We have a client, for example, who is selling American caviar. Most people don’t even know that there is American caviar. And so we are going to roll it out nationally for them and help them sell American caviar and create American jobs. But one of the byproducts of caviar, which I didn’t realize because I wasn’t focused on it, is every time you harvest caviar, you kill something–a sturgeon. It turns out that nobody has marketed sturgeon to chefs. It is a great seafood, but it’s not commercially available because nobody thinks there’s a market for it. So I’m in the process of helping this client by creating a need by working with chefs. I’m having fun by creating a marketplace for something that doesn’t exist by adding a fish to the repertoire of chefs who normally don’t get access to it and also sustaining an American product that’s also creating American caviar. That’s one of the fun things I’m doing that’s a business venture.
I have a client that has created a membrane for traveling mugs. Most traveling mugs are plastic and you cannot smell the coffee because you have to close it so it doesn’t spill. So he has created a membrane that he has patented where you can put a membrane, so the coffee doesn’t spill, but you can still smell the aroma of the coffee. It’s called Smell the Coffee. My passion now is to help people who have interesting business ideas, but do not have the marketing wherewithal, or in some cases the financial wherewithal to raise the capital, but also bring to market and bring their ideas to satisfaction. And that’s what I do through Strongpoint with my team. I wake up every morning excited about helping businesses and individuals who have an interesting idea. I try to avoid anything that’s boring. I don’t think I would do very well with boring products. But if it’s something that is a challenge to market or finding a way to create a marketplace, that’s what I enjoy getting up every morning to do.
DT: I know this seems rude, but do you have the wealth of, say, a Sir Richard Branson? (laugh)
AG: Oh, no. I am not wealthy by anybody’s wealth standards. Sarah (Dr. Sarah E. Brown) and I live a comfortable life. We have no children. We live in a city townhouse in Wilmington. We have a nice home in the BVI. We have a nice wine cellar. We travel well. But the reality is that by most wealthy standards, we’re not wealthy. By no means are we poor. Are we in the top 1 percent? We are probably in the top 1 percent, but in the bottom half of the 1 percent of the 1 percent. That 1 percent has a large margin and we’re in the bottom half. And our goal in life, because we don’t have children, is I’m leaving everything—whatever I have left when I die and my wife dies—to charity. So it really isn’t to build anything that is left behind. We have a running joke with our nieces and nephews that we’ll take good care of you when we’re alive, but when we die, we’re not leaving anything behind. So when they graduate from high school and college, we take them on a trip anywhere in the world they want to go. We do fun things with them while we are alive. So long as they can send us thank you notes, we’ll continue to do that. And once we die, there’s no more thank you notes, so we’re going to leave it to charity.
DT: Thanks for your honest answer.
AG: I think wealth is a relative thing. I have been around a lot of billionaires. What I’ve learned is, most people find there is never enough. Most billionaires I know do not believe they have enough because they measure themselves relative to other billionaires. What I’ve learned is, wealth cannot be a measuring stick. You know what I’m very rich in? I’m very rich in friendships and I know that I have made an impact in life. So, what I know is I am very, very rich in friendships. And no billionaire friend of mine can touch me in my friendships.
DT: What’s next for you?
AG: My great interest for next year is to grow the MidAtlantic Food + Wine Feast we held in February to become a major regional festival similar to the Charleston Food and Wine Festival, which are huge festivals. This year we did 10 events in four days. Charleston, this year, their seventh year, they did 70 events. My vision is to grow it to be larger year by year to be similar to what Charleston and some of the other big food and wine feasts have done. But in the process, help numerous charities. We think there are numerous charities that can be beneficiaries of it. So collaborate with numerous charities and bring awareness to Wilmington and bring people from out of town to Wilmington to enjoy it. It serves as a tourism purpose, but at the same time raising money for local charities. That’s going to be my next three- to five-year vision of growing that event to become a major regional festival.