Q&A with Vikram Vij: the celebrated Vancouver chef on his successes and why he won’t open a restaurant in Toronto
Vikram Vij, chef and owner of Vancoucer haute Indian restaurants Vij’s and Rangoli, was in town this week for the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association show and a series of meet and greets around the city. His namesake restaurant is well known for its no-reservation policy, long lineups and devoted fans, including New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, who once hailed it as “among the finest Indian restaurants in the world.” Recently, we sat down with the chef, restaurateur and cookbook author to talk about the reasons behind his success and why he won’t expand to Toronto.
Why do you think Vij’s has seen such great success?
I’ll be honest—I haven’t actually stepped back and said, “Oh, I’m successful.” I’m going to do what I can to bring awareness to my cuisine, the culture and the country I came from to the world. I want to show people that Indian food isn’t just chicken tikka masala or butter chicken.
What makes Vij’s different from other Indian places?
When I opened the restaurant, rather than cutting corners, we added corners. Instead of using pre-made sauces, we chopped our own onions and garlic and roasted our own spices. Instead of doing things faster, we did it slower, the way it was done in old world India and the way the French make their own stocks. It’s done in small batches. That’s the reason why the Indian food at Vij’s is slightly different and a little bit more flavourful.
You have an unusual approach to running your restaurant—your kitchen crew is all female, for example. What’s behind that?
Growing up in India, my mother and grandmother played a huge role in my life, so all the food I did at the restaurant was a kind of homage to them. I am who I am because of their delicious foods. All the stuff I’ve done in the restaurant was never to help me make money; they were elements of my upbringing. I’m more worried about, is it flavourful? Is the love there? I will say yes. That’s how my grandparents work; that’s how my mother and father are.
Would you consider yourself more of a restaurateur or a chef?
I’d always call myself a chef because chefs can always feed themselves. I won’t even say I’m a chef; I’m a cook first. I’m a home cook, a food lover, and I happen to be successful with what I’m doing. I became a businessman because my father said, “Do your own thing now. I’ll give you $25,000. Go out and open a restaurant.” I took that money and kind of ran with it. Vancouver was a young city, and I knew that if I worked hard in that city, then probably I’ll be happy. Toronto was a bigger fish and I probably would not have had the same success as I had in Vancouver.
Do you have plans to expand your empire to Toronto?
Well, I’ve always loved Toronto. If there were any other city that I could open up a restaurant in, it probably would be Toronto. I love the hustle and bustle; it reminds me a little of growing up in India, where it’s crowded and packed, you know, with people from all walks of life. So it’s a great feeling.
The reason why I haven’t tried to open a Toronto-based restaurant is because I have to be able to keep control. If I were in Vancouver and somebody was cooking my food here, I would have a really hard time. People can have five restaurants and do a really good job with it, but personally, I’m not interested in that right now. I believe and hope that there will be an Indian chef—a young woman or man or anyone else—who will come and do a great job.
What’s your impression of the Indian food in Toronto? Why there isn’t something like Vij’s here?
Well, Amaya has been doing a good job. Dinesh Butola’s been working really hard at trying to create his own niche.
You have two cookbooks, two restaurants and a ready-made food line. What’s next?
The second cookbook (Vij’s at Home) is written by my wife [Meeru Dhalwala]. It’s all her. I don’t want to take the credit where it’s not due. The first cookbook we wrote together. The next six months will be concentrated on the ready-made bags. It is Vij’s food, Vij’s flavours, Vij’s passion behind it—in a bag. Vij’s itself is moving location to Cambie Street [also in Vancouver]. Rangoli will stay where it is, and the old Vij’s space will be a brand-new concept. So that’s the next four to five years. I have a vision and a plan. I’m not going to go crazy over there.
So you can remain focused and in control?
That’s exactly what I want.