What kind of leader are you in the kitchen?
I’m still a very passionate cook. I love putting something together in the kitchen. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. My biggest issue is that when I find someone in the kitchen who’s not as passionate, who’s just doing it as a job, I get frustrated. Cooking is very personal and sometimes I get too carried away. Then I get in big trouble from my wife. I have to learn to calm down if something isn’t perfect.
How do you deal with stress?
I do yoga four or five times a week, I go for long walks and listen to music. I love Indian music.
What’s your advice to young chefs?
Hone your skills in great kitchens. Work with chefs who have good reputations, go and learn from them. Don’t run after money or fame. Do what you’re passionate about. Even if you want to make French fries, make the best French fries that are out there.
What do you look for when you hire?
Their biggest motivation. Why does that person want to be here? Is he here because he or she just wants to work at Vij’s? Or because they want to do a great job of it? How much skill do they have?
The women in the kitchen in my restaurants are all [Indian] villagers. They are the best cooks but they’re not chefs. They haven’t gone to school for that. That’s something Meeru and I have managed to capture – to work with these women and hone their skills, even though the way they hold the onion or chop the cilantro is not as schooled as you’d expect it to be. But they have such good heart and passion; they’re so hard working and do such a good job that I don’t need to worry about it. That’s why I can go to Toronto for six weeks to do Chopped Canada.
How do you build that trust with your team?
By nurturing them, making sure that they’re fine. We don’t have an hierarchy in the kitchen. There’s no sous-chef or saucier...they all work on the team system. We all work on the team system that way.
How do the teams work?
If five women come in, I’d ask, “What are your strengths?” They might say, “Oh, I’m a great chopper or I can grill...” I’ll spend time with everybody to show them – this is how you should grill, this is how you should chop, or do this or that.
If you ever took my restaurants to a school of business as a case study, everybody would say he is absolutely nuts. He is wrong. How can he do this? It’s the worst way to do it. But we are most successful because we’ve done it totally opposite.
This method comes from the heart. For example, we don’t do any staff meals. Every staff is allowed to eat whatever they want, even if it’s a $29 entree. And they get a glass of wine. At the base of it, we treat our staff as human beings. It instills a huge amount of loyalty and trust. People want to do a good job for you. For me, the appreciation a human being is more important and not the cost. But at the end of the day, it’s actually the customers who are paying for the staff to eat, because the food cost is measured in there.
Does this come out of your own experience?
It’s a response to the way I wanted to be treated when I went to Austria and was working for a chef. What I’ve learned over the years is that I’d rather not follow what everybody else was doing. I said, these are the things I’m going to change when and if I ever open up my restaurant.
What did you want to change most?
This hierarchy system. This attitude of, “I’m so and so, I’m more powerful than you, I’m above you. I’m the boss or the GM of this place and can tell you what to do.” That is wrong – that ego transcended way of doing things.