Creative

What it Means to Cook in Canada: An Interview with Chef Vikram Vij[Record]

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 ...