Chef Vikram Vij is the co-owner (along with his wife, Meeru Dhalwala) and founder of widely acclaimed Vij’s restaurant in Vancouver, BC.
Cuizine: How would you describe the kind of food you serve at Vij’s?
Vikram: Modern Indian. Our dishes are inspired by foods found across India. Unfortunately Indian cuisine has been perceived as a bowl of rice with some curry sauce on it. But with dishes such as Seared Venison Medallions with Fig and Roasted Pomegranate Khoa in a Pomegranate Curry or Grilled Asparagus and Corn in Fenugreek Seed Curry, I do believe that at Vij’s we have dramatically helped to change the way our cuisine is perceived in North America. Also, at Vij’s we have a substantial wine list and it is my mission to pair Indian cuisine with some of the best wines from around the world, and in particular some excellent vintages from our local BC wineries.
Cooking is my passion and creating food for my friends is the way I run the restaurant. Of course it is a business and it has to survive on its own, but I have never run it as just “a business.” Instead, I want to raise awareness for my cuisine and my culture, and I want people to see that our cuisine is as complex as any other cuisine.
C: When did you arrive in Canada, and what was it like to move here?
V: I am from northern India, Punjab specifically, but I grew up in New Delhi and Bombay (now Mumbai). In 1984, I left India for Salzburg, Austria, to study Hotel Management. Four years later I landed in Calgary, where I worked at the majestic Banff Springs Hotel. It was a big shock to the culinary system here. The vastness of the country, the different approach to food and wine, and the size of the portions were not only weird, but also totally unacceptable at first. I was struck by how fast people ate. And it seemed strange that people drank mostly beer and hard alcohol. Soon after getting to know the people a little bit, I decided that Canada was a young country and it was going to give me the opportunities that I dreamed of pursuing as a young man—if only I worked hard and with integrity. So my life in Canada started, and I learnt a lot working for such a big company at the hotel. It was a steep learning curve for me, and a great experience.
C: How did you get started in Vancouver?
V: I moved to Vancouver a few years later to add to my repertoire and learn more about the country. In September 1994, my parents came from India to help me open up a restaurant. They were not used to the weather, so they found it extremely cold even in September. But we managed. We bought a restaurant with a small café license. With just an electric grill at the restaurant, we prepared some food at home and then some at the restaurant. It was a Middle Eastern restaurant so I continued serving dishes like falafel and hummus, but I also added a few Indian touches. I did not have the money to close the restaurant and try to revamp the entire place, so I used to add a daily special drawn from my Indian culinary background. The food we served was very different from what was available at the time in Vancouver, and people enjoyed it. Ours was homestyle fare, simple but very flavourful, and the restaurant had only 16 seats so it was completely manageable. I used to do everything and my parents would come to the restaurant in the evening and help me clean up. We would go home and my mother would cook while my father and I had couple of whiskeys and discussed the day. Our break-even point was $100. Sometimes we would make only $98 and we would mull over what we could do to achieve our target the next day.
One day I got an idea to write a personal letter to our local food writers, asking them to come to the café and review me anonymously. To my surprise one rainy day a couple came in and wanted to taste the food. One asked me many questions, so I became a little nervous. A few weeks later she called to say that she wanted to do an article about the restaurant. I was thrilled but anxious. We got a positive review and have worked hard to maintain our level of quality since.
C: How does the Canadian, and specifically Vancouver, context affect your cooking and your business?
V: As a chef I am liberated from the traditional constraints of Indian regional cuisine in part because we are located in Canada. I do not need to cater to the cultural expectations of Indians. At the same time, our recipes are drawn from the diverse and multi-layered foods of our culture, whether it is the northern dal mukhani (lentil curry cooked in butter or cream) or the more southern dosa (rice or lentil and rice crepe). Our particular location in Vancouver is also part of our reason for success as there is a huge pool of Punjabi immigrants here, as well a general openness to ethnicity in this city. People from all backgrounds come to Vij’s and enjoy our food, even if they are not used to Indian ways of preparing and serving dishes. Canadian cuisine is changing a lot because many of the young chefs who are themselves immigrants, or train in different parts of the world. They bring their experiences back to Canada and adapt the different dishes to the local produce and surroundings.
C: How do you at Vij’s respond to the concerns over food consciousness and sustainability? What role can a restaurant play in food politics?
V: It is the job of a chef or a restaurant to educate the public about sustainability of foods and growing practices in the local food market. We only use Canadian beef in our restaurant. The seafood at Vij’s is as local as it gets and the produce in the summer comes from nearby. The garnishes and potatoes and other staples are local nearly year round. Running a successful restaurant is not only about good food but also about ethical practices, aesthetics, and service—it is a complete package.
C: What do you think of the concept of “Celebrity Chef,” and how does it feel to be called one?
V: What makes a “Celebrity Chef”? The notion of a “Celebrity Chef” is a very Old World phenomenon, but it has been taken to a different level today with all the reality shows and food shows on television. Yet being a chef is still all about a love and passion for cooking and eating, something I bring to my tables everyday. Where does that passion come from? For every cook, learning from grandparents and elders is a must. Children love spending time with them and learning about their lives, how they got here, what they used to do, and how things have changed in Canada. Through preparing simple foods at home, kids learn how to cook and also learn about their family history. They also learn to love cooking, which is the first step towards becoming young chefs themselves.