A Rewarding Creativity
As thinker Edward de Bono said, “There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.” The owner of Vancouver’s Vij’s restaurant, celebrated chef and certified sommelier Vikram Vij, has both known the spark of creativity, and caused measurable progress by unflaggingly applying himself to putting that creativity into practice.
This, of course, partly refers to how his original 14-seat restaurant of 1994 has grown and moved and added on a brother establishment (Rangoli), and, while winning many awards since its inception, has most recently clinched Vancouver Magazine’s Gold Award for Best Indian 2010 restaurant (Rangoli won Silver), and Honorable Mention for the competition’s Restaurant of the Year 2010 Award. And it partly refers to how Vikram’s first book with his wife Meeru became an award-winning bestseller. But, perhaps more than any awards or lauded praise, Vikram’s creative progress can be measured in how his cuisine has become a celebrated facet of West Coast culinary delight. Certainly, on a journey spanning three continents, from being born in India, growing up in Amritsar and Mumbai, to studying hotel management in Austria and to operating a gem of a Vancouver restaurant, Vikram has learned to put the creative passion of cooking love learned in childhood to work on a career of impressive magnitude, where he has created a cuisine distinctly unique in the world.
Vikram is adamant that his cuisine not be constrained by the “fusion” label. Sure, his establishments adapt traditional flavour so as to make modern taste buds salivate. But, as any potential guest of Vij’s or Rangoli reading this in the modern world can easily and instantly determine for themselves with something like Google, the term “fusion cooking” is defined by multiple dictionaries as “cooking that combines ingredients and techniques and seasonings from different cuisines.” Which Vikram’s cuisine certainly does not do. For one thing, at Vij’s, the Punjabi kitchen team under Vikram’s wife and fellow chef Meeru Dhalwala only uses traditional spices that adhere to knowledge of regional place-cuisine in India.
“…every person at Vij’s has a role that adds cohesion to that “strongest social glue” of which Michael Pollan speaks. Each server caters to all the tables: whether taking drink orders, or clearing plates, or bringing fresh water, each server completes the community by offering their undivided attention to their important task…”
10 Questions with Vikram Vij
1. What is your favourite food?
I have no favourite food…I enjoy every kind of cuisine—especially if passion and love are put into the work. That’s very important.
2. If you could dine with anyone, who would you dine with?
3. What is a must-have ingredient for you?
Tea. An essential ingredient to any meal.
4. In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of a good meal?
Food cooked with love, passion, and integrity, and served with wine.
5. What is your favourite feature of your restaurant?
My favourite aspect is still the seating—not taking reservations. This allows all concerned to be on an equal level, one to the other.
6. Are your wife and you planning any more books?
Yes, we have another coming out in September. Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking, published by Douglas & McIntyre.
7. What are you reading at the moment?
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. But I am always reading cookbooks, books about cuisine.
8. If you were to go back in time and had to choose a different career path, what would you choose?
I would be a Bollywood actor.
9. In a different publication, you quoted John Bishop as a mentor, does this still hold true? If so, why?
Yes, John Bishop…John was my mentor and taught me about finesse. When I was at Bishops, I saw how much of a gentleman he was, seeing how he interacted with guests, his mannerisms, and how comfortable and caring he was…he became a real inspiration.
10. Where does your love of food and cooking come from?
From my grandfathers and grandmothers who loved to cook and eat.
The traditional and the authentic are key components that beat at the heart of Vij’s much more strongly than in any predictably-Westernized, identical, run-of-the-mill Indian-style restaurant where the butter chicken could easily have been ordered in from another like location. Vikram’s restaurant is just simply not a part of the theme-restaurant franchise—nor is it just another one of those trendy but increasingly-predictable “fusion” places: the establishment is unique because the cuisine has a deep knowledge of the basics of tradition, and carries the Westernized and South Asian palates to places it has not yet imagined.
A Cuisine of Equality
As food theorist and author Michael Pollan comments in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Taste in [a] more cultivated sense brings people together, not only in small groups at the table but as communities. For a community’s food preferences—the strikingly short list of foods and preparations it regards as good to eat and think—represent one of the strongest social glues we have. Though speaking in response to generalized, over-arching, Americanized imperatives about and discourses on our preoccupation with the food we eat, the essential warmth and love of community in Pollan’s above thoughts just happen to echo a core philosophy that informs Vikram’s cuisine: that is, the understanding and practice of communal equality.
In terms of the latter, as one enters Vij’s, one is greeted and immediately absorbed into the collective enjoying an anticipation for a unique dining experience that is stoked by occasionally tasters being circulated, and by the atmospheric conditions initiated by the senses: one smells the preparation and unveiling of foodstuffs, hears both the mutual anticipation and the enjoyment that follows, visually witnesses these aspects as well as visually interacts with others witnessing the same, and experiences the tactile sensation of physically being in that anticipatory moment, in the room, touching the experience with one’s senses.
The experience is of everyone being on the same level. No guest enters and is seated before those waiting, because no reservations are available. Even as Vikram circulates and chats with individuals and with groups, he does so not just as the proprietor, but one sharing in their anticipation. For this is why he loves what he does. This is why he is passionate about his cuisine. Creating anticipation in his guests inspires them to be passionate about their experience.
In this community formed each evening approaching 5:30 pm, and on into the unfolding taste of each night, every person at Vij’s has a role that adds cohesion to that “strongest social glue” of which Michael Pollan speaks. Each server caters to all the tables: whether taking drink orders, or clearing plates, or bringing fresh water, each server completes the community by offering their undivided attention to their important task. Meeru has the kitchen with her team of chefs. Vikram holds court on the floor. Food and wine flow together. And the guest is left to enjoy the experience of the cuisine that Vikram has developed in Vancouver for nearly two decades.
Authoring More Than Just Cuisine
As mentioned above, Vikram and Meeru are also bestselling, award-winning authors on cuisine. Vij’s: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine won both the Cordon d’Or Gold Ribbon International Cookbook Award and the Canadian Culinary Book Award, as well as others. In fact, they have another book coming out this September through Douglas & McIntyre: Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking. But their authorial contribution has been made in more ways than just lit erature, in more ways than in the kitchen or at the table. It has been made as a component of making Indian culture more accessible to this Western world. And this has been done with their own distinct style.
As Vikram notes, the advent of a restaurant like Vij’s has single-handedly altered the way attentive West Coast diners think about Indian cuisine. Since opening in 1994, the establishment has set the bar for Vancouver’s Indian palate, brought it towards a more modern style that is mainstream and thus more accessible. And now that Vancouver is both a city increasingly visited by international travellers, as well as a city blessed by innovative chefs and appreciative palates, Vij’s has come into its own with its unique style of engaging with the world of diners searching out a new experience.
But Vikram broke down the barriers and met his clientele halfway by both demystifying Indian cuisine through name changes and yet retaining an essential integrity through use of traditional spices. Vikram’s metaphor for this process is that cuisine is comparable to water. Thus, he says, the changing future of consumer knowledge about Indian cuisine is with the chefs and owners now catering to this young international city of Vancouver. For, like the changes Vikram has wrought from its inception until now in Vancouver, the future of Indian cuisine on the West Coast will not flourish by becoming stagnant.
Embracing a Sustainable Future
Change in cuisine, as in lifestyle and culture, is only possible if the environment in which one lives is able to viably support a future that is itself capable of enabling change. In this way, throughout the seventeen-year process of change that Vikram has initiated in the appreciation of traditional Indian cuisine on the West Coast, he has maintained support for sustainable practices in selecting produce, fish, meats, and wines. Hence, his restaurants use mostly local products. In the same way, technically his restaurant’s adherence to a use of traditional spices in an altered style accomplishes a parallel sustainability of technique from which to draw inspiration for new cuisine. Vij’s interaction with British Columbia and area products, and Vikram’s sustainable re-invention of traditional cuisine, speak for themselves in terms of a sustainable aesthetic—even if Vikram had not already admitted to a predilection for embracing sustainability.
As Vikram points out, British Columbia as a community has come a long way in the last while in terms of embracing sustainable practices for ensuring the continuation of local food and wine sources. We, as a communal area, seem to enjoy this sense of engaging with our future by addressing it through the present. But, while we have come a long way, Vikram believes we have a ways to go. As a provincial and area community, restauranteurs and customer base alike, we need to recognize our good foods and wines. To both protect our land and support our farmers—to sustain the future in that sense so that our children are able to enjoy a bounty when we are gone.
This understanding of sustainabilityis that which is central to Vikram’s philosophy of cuisine. His restaurant is not only interested in its engagement with retaining and invigorating aspects of the local, but in ensuring that the local invests in an uncompromising engagement with sustaining itself. That is, an essential component to promoting community is a direct interaction with one’s community, and, equally, the community’s direct interaction with the components that make it unique. So, just as Vij’s has been essential to building change within Indian cuisine within the West Coast, so has the West Coast enjoyer of Indian cuisine been essential to growing with Vij’s and appreciating their essential role in ensuring the cuisine’s future. And Vikram is passionately determined to provide others with entry points into sustainably embracing this cuisine—just look at the approachability of his and his wife’s literature on their food.
A Passionate Philosophy
When asked if he has any other strong convictions—like sustainability—that inform his cuisine, Vikram’s immediate response is “cooking with passion, love.” Passion and love of food—of every aspect from the theory of a dish to its plating in front of a guest, from fresh ingredients to fresh concepts—inform every aspect of how Vikram and Meeru approach their cuisine. Like his analogy of cuisine being comparable to water, Vikram refers to the complexity of cuisine being comparable to music, where musical style begins with a strong understanding of basics, then gains complexity and innovation after that understanding is unshakable. So is the knowledge of traditional flavour deep at the core of the food Vikram’s imagination has lovingly wrought.
But like any truly deep and passionately, complexly-loved thing, Vikram’s cuisine style should not be compared to other styles. It is a product of knowledge and experiences from the old world sensibilities loyal to traditional India, through world-class lessons of cuisine in venues such as Salzburg, Austria, and the Banff Springs Hotel, to nearly two decades exploring the boundaries and frontiers of South Asian culinary thought here on the West Coast with another chef equally passionate about exploring further permutations of complexity. And, just as their love for their cuisine is deep and complex, so is their love pure and simple. Simply put, tasty food can start simple, and can go a long way. Whether at Vij’s, or Rangoli, or from the pages of their literature on cuisine, Vikram and Meeru are passionate about sharing their love with others. It’s amazing how something so complex can render itself into such simple terms: love of cuisine, love of self, love of community, and love of place.
Progress in Place
By remaining as establishments that use only traditional spices and local products, and incorporate their knowledge of regional place-cuisine in India, Vij’s and Rangoli avoid the “fusion” cuisine designation, and maintain that authenticity inherent to the preparation of the traditional dish in India. Moreover, again by choosing fresh, local, and sustainable products, and by eschewing the run-of-the-mill, same-menu-everywhere North American approach to Indian dishes, Vikram’s cuisine also adheres to a very contemporary, local attitude about cuisine and lifestyle currently being embraced by the West Coast in many areas—that is, sustainability and creative re-invention of cuisine and lifestyle that trademarks the West Coast as unique. Thus, by adhering to the traditional, Vikram’s life work adopts a distinct sensibility of Indian place that paradoxically speaks to the contemporary aesthetic of West Coast Canadian place in an old, but kind of self-adopted adage—“buy local, eat fresh”—that spans the diasporic gap and truly heightens the aesthetic level of Indian cuisine to a place above where Vikram imagined it when he first arrived in Vancouver: that is, beyond prevalence and acceptance in a community to a cherished and celebrated integral facet of higher West Coast culture.
However, beyond these essential victories, beyond this progress, Vikram wishes that some other person as passionate about Indian cuisine would take up the unique baton he carved out of local and traditional values—he wishes another chef would show the people the passion involved in this, his life’s work, his ongoing love-affair with Indian cuisine. When he and Meeru are gone, Vancouver—or may we hope, Canada—needs another South Asian chef to do something different, to embrace the uniqueness that is essential to living in Canadian place while loving one’s traditional values, one’s heritage. For, a new country that we really are, to grow we must embrace the fluidity of change, we must learn to appreciate how our environment adapts those age-old tastes that flow with urgency through our veins: we must learn to appreciate our ability to change ourselves—a lesson of personal authenticity that we can learn from something as simple and enjoyable as embracing Vikram’s cuisine.