Chef Vikram Vij is charming the birds from the air and the fish from the sea. Dressed in a burgundy kurti tunic, tight black slacks, sockless in leather slippers, bejeweled fingers moving constantly to emphasize a point; his blue eyes behind stylish black horn-rims are as beguiling and distinctive as his success story.
Perhaps the unusual colour is only a superstitious North Indian omen that predicted a ‘strong and healthy soul’ but “No one in my whole family has blue eyes- and they aren’t from the milkman,” he chuckles.
A born storyteller, showman and entrepreneur with an underlying compassion for the underdog, Vij was a colorful Dragon on CBC-TV’s 8th season of Dragon’s Den and just added another jewel to his crown of eponymous restaurants with the opening of his recent incarnation, My Shanti (“my peace”) in South Surrey. After 6 months on the popular Dragon’s Den, Chef Vij decided to leave the show to devote his time to the expansion of a larger location of Vij Restaurant in Vancouver, that has yet to open.
“I was that fatty kid, the only son surrounded by women, who wanted to be a chef against his father’s wishes, exactly like that wonderful film by Mira Nair, Monsoon Wedding!” exclaims Vij now 51, nearly jumping out of his chair in excitement at the shared storylines, as he reminisces on the patio of My Shanti. “Watching and helping my mother, grandmother, aunties cooking growing up in Delhi and Bombay, I couldn’t wait to leave at 17 to apprentice in Hotel Management and later as a chef in Austria. Just like in the film, my father was very angry – he wanted me to be an academic – because being a chef was no way to make a living- just a hobby in his mind.”
In 1992 Vij immigrated to Canada first working at The Banff Springs Hotel, Alberta then to Vancouver, in the kitchen of Chef John Bishop at Bishop’s “he was my mentor, I learned so much from him,” enthuses Vij, and at the Raincity Grill.
Then he was introduced to Meeru Dhalwala (his future wife and business partner) in a set-up by their two mothers. “My mother called Meeru who was a proud Indian-American living in Washington, D.C., and said ‘I have this loser son who wants to focus on his career,’ and then handed me the phone,” relates Vij. “So Meeru came to visit me and we hung out and I proposed in 5 days!”
“My dream was always to do modern but home-style Indian food with decent wines (Vij is also a certified sommelier,) something that Vancouver at that time had never experienced before. No Indian buffets for me. By 1994 I was 30 and had saved $10,000 to get a place of my own. When my parents immigrated to Canada, my baba, who had since warmed up to the idea that he had a chef for a son, surprised me with another $23,000 and signed the lease on a place I found on West Broadway called Café Arabia. It was a disaster inside but all I could afford. I couldn’t even buy a new sign. But every time a customer would come in looking for falafel I’d say ‘you must try my Indian samosas instead – they are fantastic!’ Slowly, slowly I changed the menu to my idea of home-style Indian cuisine until people started lining up outside!”
“Everyday my mother would prepare the lamb curry at their home in Richmond, get on the bus with a huge pot between her legs. What a fantastic aroma filled the air. She was my best publicity,” laughs Vij.
One of Vij’s original customers who intrepidly lined up in the rain to eat at Café Arabia, was Marc Bricault of Bricault Design, Vancouver. Having travelled to India himself and fallen under her exotic spell, it was not surprising that Bricault would become the designer of choice for Vikram’s evolving restaurant empire. Like a biblical tale, Café Arabia soon begat the iconic upscale Vij’s restaurant that opened on 11th Ave near Granville, 20 years ago (it will move shortly to a larger location on Cambie;) her more casual sister and mecca of frozen gourmet curries, Rangoli, next door; the popular food truck, Vij’s Railway Express and their residence in Vancouver. Chef Meeru Dhalwala’s restaurant, Shanik (named after one of their daughters) opened in 2012 in Seattle, Washington and was designed by architect, Joe Herrin.
Bricault’s shimmering My Shanty marquee composed of thousands of silver paillettes that took four months to install on individual hooks, is part Vegas part Bollywood- certainly a reflection of Vij’s exuberant personality. Inside, vibrant turquoise, purple and burgundy embroidered sari skirts cleverly encircle ceiling pendant lighting, seductively sway in the air.
“Can you please explain to these White people how to eat Indian food?” bellows Vij to his smiling kitchen staff of all women cooks. As we anxiously await lunch, Vij describes the intricate 30’ by 10’ pen and ink Madhubani folk art tapestry Tree of Life created on one single piece of cotton canvas, that he commissioned from artist, Kamlesh that is the centerpiece of the main dining room.
“Like me, it depicts my travels to all the little homes and villages throughout India seeking magnificent home-style food,” he says of the image of passengers gossiping in a train, surrounded by foliage, fish and animals of all kinds.
“It is My Shanty – my peace – from all of India’s chaos-sweet words spoken, meals shared over stories. Because, you know, everyone has a story.”
THE PERSONAL SIDE:
Q & A CHEF VIKRAM VIJ
How did you get the job on CBC-TV’s reality show, Dragon’s Den and what expertise did you bring to the show as a new ‘Dragon’?
One of the producers saw me on Top Chef Canada and two years went by before I actually sat in the chair because they kept asking me if I’d be interested in investing in companies that weren’t necessarily food related. It’s perfect for me because I’ve always been an entrepreneur but now I get to really use my brain and not just my palette. Don’t forget that in addition to my restaurants, I’ve also created a 2,800 square foot frozen food company, Vij At Home, with all the business acumen that entails. When I first sat in the chair I was really quiet- I know that’s hard to believe – and Arlene (Dickenson) is a powerhouse. I realized I have to get in there! What makes me different from previous Dragons is that I really listen, not ridicule and the pitches that really resonate with me are the passionate ones that truly believe in their product. When I first started my business I was begging the bank for help and that really was so humiliating. I put myself in these contestants’ shoes and remember what I went through.
You and Meeru have written two cookbooks together, work at four restaurants, a food truck, raise two teenagers- how do you do it?
‘Relax honey and just enjoy right now’ (the name of our last cookbook too,) has been our phrase of survival. Yes, we have lots of stress and we are both very strong-minded people. We’re always bantering over food. Meeru keeps it simple while I fuss more with millions of pots and pans and dishes and wine but our meals are always loud and sociable. We always have tried to cook delicious food at home and many of those recipes usually end up on our restaurant menus. I also don’t sleep much!
You started out with a no reservation policy at Café Arabia and have kept that tradition going at all your restaurants. People seem to enjoy the line-ups.
Yes, it’s a very social thing with people talking to each other in line. We also know that waiting can be hard so we feed our customers chai and little appetizers. Even Harrison Ford, Martha Stewart, Chef Giada De Laurentiis and long ago Prime Minister Trudeau with his son Justin had to wait – but we let them sit at the bar!
TOP PHOTO: Chef Vikram Vij in front of the Madhubani folk art tapestry, Tree of Life created on one single piece of cotton canvas, that he commissioned from artist, Kamlesh that is the centerpiece of the main dining room in My Shanty.
Mango Kulfi Recipe
(Vij’s Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine Cookbook – page 185)
This recipe is eaten frozen like ice cream
Makes 8 Servings (½ cup each)
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 6 cups whole milk
- 1 Tbsp white rice flour
- 4 Tbsp sugar
- ¾ cup Alphonse mango pulp
- 1/3 cup chopped pistachios (optional)
In a heavy pot, combine cream, milk and rice flour with a whisk until smooth. Bring to a slow boil on medium-low heat, stirring regularly. Once the mixture starts to boil, reduce the heat to low. Cook for 45 minutes, stirring regularly and scraping the milk that sticks to the side of the pot back into the mixture. As it cooks, the mixture will begin to thicken.
When it is cream-coloured and has the consistency of whipping cream, turn off the heat and stir in sugar. Set aside to cook for 15 minutes. Stir in mango pulp (and pistachios, if desired).
Pour ½ cup of the kulfi into 8 ceramic bowls or ramekins, cover them tightly with plastic wrap, then place the bowls in the freezer for at least 6 hours, and up to 24 hours.
To serve: Remove the kulfi from the freezer about 5 minutes before serving, just to soften it.