In Vancouver, chef Vikram Vij is as close as it gets to a culinary demi-god. His three restaurants, Vij, Rangoli and My Shanti, attract an A-list clientele that has included Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Sandra Oh – all of whom had to wait in line with everyone else because, for more than 24 years, Vij didn’t take reservations. He wanted everyone "to be equal.”
In Toronto this month with a pop-up restaurant that coincides with the North American premiere of Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical, Vij tells The Globe and Mail why it’s worth trying anything, even when it tastes horrible, and that the best thing about food is its ability to transcend cultures and level the playing field between peoples.
What enticed you to leave Vancouver and launch a pop-up over the holidays?
I love live theatre and I’ve especially always loved this little indie film about a young Indian girl who refuses to conform to the traditional ways and forces her parents to accept her as she is. When I was about 16 I told my father that I wanted to be a theatre artist and he told me, “No son of mine is every going to be an actor.” So I guess this is my chance to get close to the stage.
After you give the Toronto market a test drive with your pop-up, is there a chance you might open a new Vij here?
Sadly, no. Neither Meera [Dhalwala, his ex-wife and co-proprietor] or I want to move and, without the two of us at the helm, our kitchens would never work. We opened Vij more than 20 years ago and we have always run our kitchen like a family, with aunties, and friends, and friends of friends. From Day 1, we vowed there would never be a hierarchy in our kitchens – no executive chef, sous chef, chef de partie, commis chef and so on. And to this day, there isn’t. The concept just wouldn’t work anywhere else, even though, in a multicultural market like Toronto, I know people would love our food.
Tell me about some of the pushback you encountered when you first opened Vij in 1994.
People had this perception of what Indian food was like and they couldn’t see beyond the stereotypical butter chicken and chicken tikka masala. We had to take them by the hand and help them think beyond that. We wanted to help people appreciate the nuances, textures and richness that is part of Indian cuisine. In fact, [Vij’s now iconic] lamb Popsicles were a way to get people to forget about butter chicken and see Indian food in a whole new light.
Is that why do you call food the great equalizer?
Food, like art or music, is a bridge between people. It unites us. When you break bread with people that you don’t know, in a culture you might not be familiar with, you build tolerance of how others live. Every year I travel to a place I have never been before with a group of friends, and, of course, the first thing we do is seek out local foods. Share a meal with someone and you will immediately learn about their traditions, their likes, their dislikes and their quirks. I also always pick up ideas to use in our kitchens.
Give me an example.
The menu at My Shanti is based only on my travels. When I was in southern Indian, I saw a group of office workers buying dosas from a street vendor. I reinterpreted that dish at My Shanti into a little pizza made on bread with mushrooms called Vikram’s Favourite Snack. It’s one of our top sellers.
This summer you were in Thailand. What was your takeaway from that trip?
I was bowled over by how they use only a small number of ingredients – things like kaffir and betel leaves, limes and chilies – to create dishes that seem to explode in your mouth. It’s like a great musician who can create beautiful music with just five notes. In my mind, food is like great music. It strikes a chord deep inside you and can leave a lasting impression. It can even change the way you feel.
Was there anything you didn’t like?
Oh my god. I thought I was going to die. They have something called snake and scorpion Scotch and I was told that everyone tries it when they come to the country. The only way I can describe it is try to imagine opening a fridge filled with rotten food and a dead rat. That is what it tasted like in my mouth. It was disgusting.
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