Chef Vikram Vij’s modern Indian food boasts of Canadian ingredients and French techniques – The Hindu

By on February 26, 2020

In Vancouver, Vikram Vij is a culinary rockstar. Diners line up outside his restaurants, even in biting cold, fortified by masala chai, for his signature cooking. His food has won multiple awards, drawing press and TV personalities from across the world, including the late Antony Bourdain and Giada De Laurentiis. He runs four restaurants, and a food truck, Vij’s Railway Express. He’s also released cookbooks, and has a line of frozen, ready-to-eat food.

In Chennai, Vikram is anonymous. India after all, is more familiar with British, European, and American celebrity chefs, thanks to TV and Netflix. Nevertheless, Vikram is impossible to overlook, with his big personality, flamboyant energy and gender-fluid nose ring, accentuated by jingling bracelets.

Beyond labels

In life and cooking, Vikram resists labels. “I am not an Indian chef,” he says, settling down for a chat over dinner. “I am a classically trained French chef. I put myself on a plate: I am India born, using Canadian ingredients and French techniques.”

He pauses to spear a coconut prawn with his fork: dinner is at Zhouyu, the Chinese restaurant newly launched by Chindi Varadarajulu. Chindi grew up in Singapore and then moved to Vancouver to open a South Indian restaurant, called Chutney Villa, after which she began travelling to India with food tour groups. She ended up settling down in Chennai in 2012, opening Pumpkin Tales, and now Zhouyu.

Vikram also hosts culinary tours, and is now travelling through South India with a group of Canadians. At Zhouyu, his group chats animatedly about their day at a local market and the joys of eating freshly made porottas. Since it is a private dinner, Chindi has got her chefs to made crisp vadais. After all, with people who truly love food, cuisines do not need to be categorised. And rules are meant to be broken.

Which is why, as a 19-year-old who wanted to cook for a living, Vikram realised that he needed to leave the country to develop an independent culinary style. “I could not do this being in India. I needed validation from outside to be taken seriously here,” he says matter of factly, adding, “I needed to learn European techniques. I needed to learn French. I had to become a certified sommelier.”

In 1983, Vikram left home in Amritsar, to study Hotel Management in Salzburg, Austria. After working in Salzburg and Vienna, he moved to Canada in 1989 and opened his first restaurant, Vij’s, in Vancouver, plating up a style of Indian food influenced by his roots but not dictated by them. “I never followed family recipes, though they were embedded in my mind. I took those flavours and modernised them,” he says. “When I opened, I thought: I won’t be like all the other Indian restaurants. I won’t call this Taj Mahal. I won’t even say authentic Indian. After all, who defines authenticity?”

Vij’s opened with 18 seats and a staff of one person: Vikram. “When my parents came to visit from India, papa sold some property and brought me money in a brown paper bag! My mother wanted me to serve the best chicken curry possible, so she made it at home, and brought it to my restaurant on the bus balancing it on her knees all the way.”

His menu, however, was modern Indian. “I serve a rack of lamb marinated in mustard and white wine. That’s French. But the sauce is a fenugreek kurma sauce,” he says, adding with a laugh, “Of course, there was a push back from the Indian diners. They said it was not authentic. But I would be there, wearing a kurta-pyjama, and I would speak to them in fluent Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu, and they would agree to give it a chance.”

Finding fame

When Mark Bittman from The New York Times visited anonymously, and wrote a review on Vij’s calling it ‘easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world,’ diners began to queue up outside.

Today, Vikram and his ex-wife Meeru Dhalwala run Vij’s, and the more casual Rangoli, which features a chic glocal-Indian plates like broccoli, bacon and black chickpea curry, or savoury crepes with grilled kale. He and Meeru still have a strong partnership: “My ex-wife is the mother of my daughters. She is involved in the cooking, and runs the kitchens. I never want to take the credit away: she is an integral part of the restaurants,” he says.

Vikram also has a solo restaurant, My Shanti, with a menu based on his travels across India, featuring Hyderabad-inspired duck biryani, as well as gunpowder prawns and wild boar kebabs.

His most charming legacy, however, is his Punjabi, all-woman workforce. “It started when I needed a dishwasher, and my Punjabi head cook suggested someone from her village,” he says, explaining how it has inadvertently grown into a support-group of sorts for first and second generation immigrants.

“None of them are chefs. All of them have worked so hard to educate their children, sending them to great schools and now the kids have good jobs… The day-time ladies don’t know the menu, they grind dal, prep vegetables and leave. Then the next batch comes and starts putting it together,” says Vikram.

For them, work is not just about creating edgy modern Indian food. It’s cooking the way their grandmothers did back in India: as a community.

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Chef Vikram Vij’s modern Indian food boasts of Canadian ingredients and French techniques – The Hindu
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