The Universal Language of Food: In Conversation with Vikram Vij

In 1994, Vikram Vij opened a restaurant in Vancouver that would forever change the Indian foodie scene — in the beautiful coastal city, certainly, but in the rest of Canada as well. The restaurant, affectionately named Vij’s, introduced traditional Indian recipes and methods to the abundance of sustainable local produce that British Columbia had to offer. Ten years later, a sister restaurant opened next door; ten years after that, another opened in South Surrey.

These decades have also launched Vij down a unique career path; the restauranteur now distributes his foods nationwide with a line of frozen meals, has authored several books, and has become a media personality thanks to a stint on CBC’s venture capitalism reality show Dragon’s Den.

We recently spoke with Vij about his remarkable career trajectory and the changing landscape of dining out.

How long have you been living on the west coast of Canada and how did you come to reside there? 

I arrived in Canada in September of 1989 from Austria to work at the Banff Springs hotel in Alberta. Five years later I moved to Vancouver and opened my restaurant in 1994. After spending my first few years since leaving India living in the mountains and surrounded by snow and skiing, I wanted to live somewhere a bit warmer!

Does the geography of Vancouver influence your mindset when it comes to designing menus for your clientele?

It’s not just the geography of Vancouver that influences me, although the location provides our restaurants with the most amazing produce and ingredients. The mix of cultural backgrounds in this city has a big influence on the menus we put together and the dishes we create. We think about people’s backgrounds, their different palates, as well as ingredients they might like to see on a menu they wouldn’t see anywhere else but at home.

You rely heavily on sustainable and local produce from British Columbia. Have you always applied this mandate? And do you also reflect that in your wine and beverage menus?

We are extremely proud of this, and we’re happy and honoured you’ve recognized that! It’s something that has always been so important to us. I have always believed in the village aspect of Indian life, that everybody respects our farmers, our producers, and that we use and cook with their produce as much as we possibly can. We also want to respect and show gratitude to the animals, even the plants that have given themselves to our dishes. We never take ingredients or where they come from for granted.

All three of your restaurants are situated in varying parts of Vancouver with very distinct neighbourhoods. How does your clientele differ from each location?

Vij’s and Rangoli used to be beside each other, but the clientele still used to differ. Rangoli is a little more casual, and when it first opened, we based the food — and even what we sold on the shelves — on a traditional Indian-style market. Now Rangoli has moved into the old Vij’s space, and we’ve found our South Granville customers often want to walk from their homes to have dinner, or even late-night food and drinks, which we’ve really focused on since the move. With Vij’s, it’s always been a bit more of a destination restaurant. We don’t want people to be in a hurry. If you invite me round for dinner, I don’t want to sit down and start eating right away – I want to have a glass of wine, some snacks, catch up…dinner can wait a bit. Something good is worth waiting for. That’s the same with Vij’s. We have a new location on Cambie Street, and we have a much larger lounge than before. This means if people are waiting for a table, they can really relax, chat, enjoy our expanded drinks menu, before taking a seat in the dining room. So our Vij’s diners are there for an evening experience, and it’s an honour to be a part of their whole evening. With My Shanti, its location alone is interesting as it’s in South Surrey, and the population is a wonderful mix. There is a large Indo-Canadian population there, of course, but it’s a growing community involving ALL cultures. I wanted to open the restaurant there as an homage not only to my homeland and my travels around India, but also to the staff at my restaurants, many of whom live in Surrey, and to the whole concept of families eating together, experiencing flavours and culture together and to TALKING to each other around a dinner table.

You’ve described watching your mother prepare beautiful, thoughtfully-prepared meals while you were growing up. What did she teach you about cooking, and how do you incorporate those lessons in your craft today?

I would say ALL the women in my life have had such a profound impact on my style of cooking and the dishes we create, that I would not be where I am today without them. My mother in particular of course has been there for me, supporting me and even cooking for me right from the start. She actually used to cook a curry in a giant pot at home and bring it to the restaurant on the bus to sell to our first Vij’s customers! Meeru Dhalwala, Vij’s and Rangoli co-owner, is the strength and imagination behind our kitchens, and her influence is in every bite of food. And then there are the women who work in our kitchens, bringing with them the knowledge, the passion, and the experiences of their own lives into the Vij’s family every day. I have to mention my two daughters here as well of course, or I would be in a lot of trouble if I didn’t! They keep me grounded, and they have certainly had a lot of input into our experiments and our menu items over the years!

You said in one of your TED Talks that social media is destroying the beautiful relationship between food, friends, and family. How do you personally strike a balance between using social media as a necessary marketing tool and knowing when to unplug?

When I am dining out, I do not bring the phone to the restaurant unless I can absolutely help it. Remember there was a time when we used to tell the babysitter to call the restaurant if there was a problem?! If I do need to take my phone or make a call, then I excuse myself from the table and take as little time away as possible. BUT, I definitely do NOT take photos of my food! In my TED Talk, I wanted to encourage people to live in the moment and enjoy their meal and the company of their loved ones. I have seen, FAR too many times, people taking photos of the food for so long, the food goes cold! Or their relationship with the other person at the table goes cold, too!

Honour is a big part of your approach to the experience of sharing a meal with someone — honouring the food, honouring the person with whom you’re sharing it. Aside from overuse of social media, is there another shift you’d like to see in our culture when it comes to dining?

I like to think of myself as a very unofficial ambassador of Indian food. I don’t say that from any other perspective than [that] I would like to use the platform that I have to encourage people to try Indian food if they haven’t before. And after that, I want them to COOK Indian food. I’d like to encourage all Canadians to add a few Indian dishes into their cooking repertoire. But I don’t just want this for Indian food — Syrian, French, Afghan food, dishes from Peru, Morocco… Food brings us all together. It is food and music that speaks a universal language, one that unites us. Music and cuisine can bring people together — we know it’s not guns and it’s not politics!

Aside from being a successful restaurateur, you’re also an investor and a television star thanks to a season with CBC’s Dragon’s Den. Did the entrepreneurial side of owning a restaurant come naturally to you? How did you balance your love of cooking with the realities and pressures of running a business?

Every human being wants to dance to his or her own tune in life, so being an entrepreneur is a natural part of that. I got my inspirations from Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr; they sacrificed so much in their lives in order to be free and to change the course of nations. What I took from their teachings is that being successful is not just money in the bank, a big house, or material things; it involves making sacrifices and giving up comforts for the greater good. That has been my outlook, and I wanted to try and give some of my insight to these entrepreneurs who came on the show. Being an entrepreneur comes easily, but staying the course and learning from your experiences — good and bad — can be hard.

What has been your favourite investment over the years — a product or business that is particularly close to your heart and values?

I invested in a young team who had created a delicious cabbage roll company. We started making the rolls with them at the facility where we were making our frozen food line, Vij’s At Home. Now the business has developed from cabbage rolls into a venture called Vij’s Crazy Meatballs, and they are becoming more widely available across Canada as we get them into more and more stores. It’s a success story I’m so proud to be a part of.

You’ve spoken in the past about respecting the animals we eat, saying, “they die so that we can live — it doesn’t get any more wholistic than that.” Are you noticing a change in your clientele these days in terms of seeking out more plant-based dishes?

People are changing not just for the sake of the animals, but for themselves and the environment. The shift is good for all of us. Indian cooking has always had a very strong vegetarian and vegan component, and it’s a normal way of life for many Indian families. As people become more educated about the effects of meat on themselves and on the planet, we are definitely seeing interest in our vegan and vegetarian dishes increase — but it’s something we’ve always been ready for.

What, in your opinion, is a sustainable and ethical way to approach cooking with meat, from an industry perspective?

We should only kill if we are going to consume every part of the animal that can be turned into food. That counts for meat, poultry, fish…even the insects we’ve used in our cricket pizza at Rangoli in the past! Anything you cannot eat should be put it in the organics bin, so it can go back to the earth.

You’ve described Indian food as being “difficult to make pretty.” How do you navigate the modern obsession with photogenic food, and how do you approach presentation in your own restaurants?

This has definitely been a challenge, and every time we need our food photographed for promotional purposes, we need to think carefully about this! We are creative with our side dishes, and I try to garnish the food as well with things like herbs or edible flowers. We use spices that add vibrant colour to our sauces, and we make good use of grill marks on our meats and vegetables. I rely on my French training to be creative with the plating. Our lamb popsicles are a good example of a dish we have turned into a bit of a photo classic by using the grill and a beautiful rich sauce, coloured with turmeric.

You now have a line of frozen foods, available across the country. What were the challenges of preparing traditional foods for untraditional methods — i.e., freezing and microwaving? How did you work to ensure that the foods retained their integrity?

This has been a huge issue for me on a quality level. Our name was on the packaging, and we needed to ensure people received the same quality of food they had come to associate with the restaurant. Our first challenge was the scale-up of cooking large batches, then ensuring the perfect taste profile over and over again. We also had to balance those things with the price point for a frozen product. We have always used the freshest ingredients; the meats in our frozen foods are antibiotic free, locally sourced — and those things push the price up, unfortunately — but we didn’t ever want to compromise on quality. As far as the method itself, we cook the foods and they are packaged and instantly flash frozen so we don’t have to include preservatives.

Your career is incredibly multi-faceted. Any new business ventures on the horizon?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not the type of person to sit still or to binge watch TV shows for nights on end — there is always something happening! At the end of last year, we created an Indian chutney with a local cranberry producer. We are working on a beer with a brewery in Fort Langley, and also a wine with Desert Hills in the Okanagan. We have a creative team at Vij’s and they always come to me with new ideas and ventures we can get involved in as well.

I’m also currently in Doha, Qatar, filming a series about the city and its multicultural aspects of cuisine. I’m hoping to do more of these kinds of projects in the future.


Photos courtesy of Vikram Vij.