The Vikram Vij Interview

 

Vikram Vij recently stopped by in Victoria to host some media at The London Chef and teach a fortunate few a cooking class later that evening. He was also here to begin the launch of 15 take home frozen curries, a new journey with the goal of seeing his line of food in stores across Canada and the U.S..

For those unfamiliar, Vikram Vij is the owner of Vij’s, a popular Vancouver Indian restaurant renowned for their award-winning Indian cuisine, one that elevates it beyond its all-you-can-eat-buffet stereotypes. Using local ingredients and creating new dishes alongside the time- honored curries, using signature handground and blended spice mixes, Vij’s has long garnered a cult following for dishes such as chickpeas in star anise and date masala, BC spot prawns in coconut and fenugreek masala, or the famed lamb popsicles in fenugreek cream curry.
Charming, personable – and funny – with exceedingly good taste, he laid the foundation of his business back in 1994 with his wife Meeru and a coterie of devoted employees, some who have been with him since the restaurant’s humble beginnings.

The restaurant, a favourite of people from all walks of life, from around the world, in every income bracket, come as equals to stand in line and wait – sometimes up to two hours – for a seat at Vij’s, to enjoy the nuanced curries, the deep fried snacks that are passed around as appetizers in the bar while waiting, the famed ginger-lemon drink, and the warm hospitality.
I caught up with Vikram before his media presentation to ask him a few questions.
What common misconceptions are there about Indian food?

The biggest misconception is that Indian food is fast, it’s cheap and it’s take away, and butter chicken and chicken tikka masala are the only two Indian dishes in the world.
For those who want to attempt Indian dishes at home, what would be some basics, some building blocks, to cooking successfully at home?
The first thing I would say is, buy your onions, ginger and garlic, chop them up. Get basic spices like cumin, coriander, cinnamon, garam masala, cloves, buy those spices and experiment and play with them. Make dahls, which are lentils, chickpeas which are simple to cook. So start with simpler dishes, simple masalas and then move on to the bigger, and try to experiment with them. Because it’s almost like you can never know the music without actually knowing the notes. So, you can never write a song that’s brilliant without knowing the basics of it. So you need to know some basics of this cooking.
Are there any essential tools one needs for cooking Indian cuisine?
Yeah, the biggest essential tool is patience, love and the desire to feed the family. Other than that, the ladles and the mortar and pestle and all that stuff, those come afterwards. The first desire is to say, I want to cook a delicious meal, has to be there. The passion to do a good job has to be there.
What ingredient(s) can’t you live without?
I would probably say salt. I love my salt.
 
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
I love everything that’s cooked with a lot of love and passion, but I love my deep fried stuff. I absolutely love it.
 
What was your first food memory?
Sitting on my grandfather’s lap and having a bone of chicken in my mouth, that was spicy with my lips totally burning but I’m still loving the flavour of that chicken drumstick. It was a spicy chicken curry that my grandmother had made.
 
What inspires you?
I think when I come to a city like this, in Victoria, and I see how many people are interested now. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago if I had come here as an Indian chef I probably would have had no more than four or five people show up but tonight’s class has 110 people on a waiting list, in an 18 seat class! So that to me is a testament that I’ve done my job, I’m pushing the limits, and letting people understand food and flavours.
 
What’s your definition of a perfect meal?
A nice bottle of wine, simple but not over-fussed food and a really good conversation.
What do you always have on hand for impromptu entertaining at home?
Meats and sausages for sure, from a local butcher. I’ll always have lots of spices, so I can add what I want, my pantry’s full of different kind of spices. And rice.
How do you unwind after a busy day, wine or tequila?
Wine. For sure. We produce delicious wines. The Cowichan Valley produces delicious wines. Why would I drink tequila when I can drink wine at the end of the day?
 
If you weren’t a restaurateur, what career would you have pursued?
Probably a Bollywood actor. That’s what I actually wanted to do. I wanted to be a Bollywood actor and my father refused it so I became a chef. At the end of the day, it is still acting. At 5:30 when the doors open, and we have a restaurant that’s busy, I am acting on stage, performing.
 
What would be your choice for your last meal on earth?
I would like to have a bowl of dahl (lentils), with two chapatis – which are homemade wheat breads – and I would like to have a bottle of local white wine.
Who would cook?
I would cook it myself. I would want to cook by myself, I’d love to cook it and take my time – because it would be my last meal. So I would love to smell the spices at the end, feel and enjoy the spices.
Would there be music?
Absolutely! There has to be Bollywood music.
With two successful restaurants, two cookbooks and a line of frozen foods and spices, what’s next for Vikram Vij?
A new concept for Vij’s which is, moving to a new location, a new idea for a restaurant so a third restaurant within two years, and to take our packaged foods across Canada and the States. To become a cuisine that – the journey that I started 16 years ago to bring the awareness of my cuisine and my culture to the rest of the world – to follow through on that journey and showcase that Indian food is not a cuisine that is just tucked under the carpet. That a few hippies went to India in the sixties and smoked dope on the beach of Goa and then they thought they knew Indian food. That Indian food is as versatile and as unique and as complex as any French, Italian or Californian cuisine.
 
Random Thoughts from Vikram
 
Who made you the most nervous at your restaurant? Martha Stewart
Who made you the most honored? Pierre Elliot Trudeau
The most fun? Anthony Bourdain - “he’s hardrock.”
On the balance of curry: “It should be subtle – your palate should never be hot.”
On allergies: ” If someone says they’re allergic to curry, they’re bullshitting.”
On not taking reservations at Vij’s: ” I want everybody to be equal.”
On enjoying his line of frozen curry meals: “It’s not a TV dinner! I want you to relax and enjoy it.”
Key to his enduring success: ” To remain humble and focussed.”
 
 
 
 


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