Miami-Dade County

Heroic act turns tragic: Argentine restaurant founder feared drowned in the Ganges River

The founder of a chain of Argentine restaurants in New York and South Florida jumped into the Ganges River during a trip to India this week to try and save a man struggling to stay afloat against a strong current.

That act of heroism might have turned to tragedy.

Hector Rolotti, founder and chief executive of the popular Argentine restaurant Novecento, has been missing since Monday.

Rolotti, 47, was visiting India on a Yoga retreat he attends each year with his wife, Mora Barber, and a group of friends. On Monday, they noticed a member of the group flailing in the river and crying out for help.

Standing on the banks of the Ganges about 20 miles east of the Indian city of Rishikesh, Rolotti and five others jumped into the waters of one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

The drowning man was saved. Rolotti was the only one who didn’t make it back to shore.

“They are hoping they can find him, still,” said Maria Jacques, marketing manager for Novecento USA, which operates restaurants in New York City and three in the Miami area.

According to Jacques, Rolotti and his wife had been away from Miami for about a week and planned to return this weekend.

News of Rolotti’s likely death in a country so far away trickled in through Wednesday. Early reports said he was missing. By mid-afternoon, the narrative had changed to an apparent drowning.

Late in the day the company released a statement saying Rolotti’s physical condition gave family and friends hope that he is still alive somewhere downstream.

“With the support of local authorities, the embassy of Argentina in India, members of the YPO [Young Presidents Organization] and the surrounding community where the event took place, the relentless search for Hector continues both in the Ganges River and along its banks,” the company said in a statement.

The Ganges, running 1,569 miles and separating India from Bangladesh, rises in the Central Himalayas to Nepal. It is worshiped by Hindus and is considered their most sacred river.

Miami-Dade records show Rolotti owns a home in Coconut Grove. He has two sons and a daughter. He left his native Argentina for New York in the late 1980s, and by 1991 had opened the first Novecento in Manhattan’s SoHo District as a sandwich shop named after the original name of a Robert De Niro film.

In 2007, he told La Voz del Interior, an Argentine newspaper, that he moved to New York in 1988 to work in a travel agency. After a year, he and some friends opened an ice cream shop.

“We were a group of young people with one older person who was sort of the leader of the project,” Rolotti said. “Later, I lived in Soho and I found the place where we opened the first Novecento.”

He was 24 when the first restaurant opened.

He told the paper that the coffee and sandwich shop was originally popular with gallery owners and artists.

“At that time, there wasn’t any place in Soho to get an espresso or a cappuccino,” he said.

“We want meeting places where you can come to eat, to have a cup of coffee, have a drink, meet friends or do business,” he said. “I think that just providing food doesn’t make it. You have to offer more, you have to set up places people want to meet.”

By 1996, he brought authentic American cuisine to the Americas, opening a restaurant in Buenos Aires. Openings followed in Argentina and Uruguay.

In 2005, he came to Miami and opened on Brickell. Soon the restaurant would pop up in Key Biscayne and Aventura. Another is set to open soon in Miami’s Midtown.

Novecento is the most successful and popular Argentine restaurant in South Florida and a favorite meeting place of many Sony Open tennis professionals playing this week on Key Biscayne.

Jacques, the marketing director, said Rolotti is a big sports fan with a passion for soccer, and active athletically.

“It is Hector’s entrepreneurial spirit, inner strength and great physical condition that give hope to his family, friends and employees during this difficult time,” the company wrote.

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

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