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the lunch

Vikram VijRachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Vikram Vij opens the locked wooden door of his world-famous Indian restaurant, ushers me inside, and then says quite literally the last thing I would have expected.

"I'm sick of Indian food."

After grabbing his coat and ushering me over to Granville Street, he explains that he would also be distracted lunching in his own restaurant – which makes sense, even if it is a little odd to have lunch with Mr. Vij at a place other than Vij's, Canada's most renowned Indian restaurant.

And so we proceed to West, for the Pacific Northwest cuisine of his adopted home, where he disappears into the kitchen. He emerges a minute or so later to say he has asked the chef, whom he clearly knows, to bring us something tasty.

He orders a half-bottle of Okanagan chardonnay – before I tell him The Globe will foot the bill, prompting him to joke that he should have ordered a whole bottle. It arrives and he sips like the trained sommelier he is before we settle in for a chat about his Indian childhood, his passage to Canada, Indian politics (he's an Indian National Congress man, if you're wondering) and his expanding Indian food empire, which has grown steadily to 160 employees and nearly $9-million in annual gross revenue.

Mr. Vij has recently become known more widely for his role on CBC's Dragons' Den – as a "culinary kingpin" – but he has long been beloved in Vancouver. It is on the West Coast that he and his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, operate the award-winning Vij's, its bistro neighbour Rangoli, a new restaurant in Surrey called My Shanti and an acclaimed food truck. The Austrian-trained chef has also written award-winning cookbooks; built an enormous 28,000-square-foot facility to expand his Vij's at Home line of high-end, prepared Indian curries; and plans to open a new restaurant this year on Vancouver's Cambie Street.

But culinary accolades and food aside, anyone who has dined at Vij's will tell you that half the experience is being swished into the restaurant by the man himself – who floats and charms his way around the room effortlessly, touching people's shoulders, folding his hands as he says namaste to diners coming through the door or those waiting for a table. There's a definite theatricality to his gracious check-ins, and it's clear he loves doing it – perhaps as much, or more, than cooking.

"What I really wanted to be was a Bollywood stage actor," Mr. Vij, who turned 50 in December, explains.

I'm not surprised.

He later mentions that his father was a clothing merchant, first in Amritsar – in the state of Punjab, where the chef was born in 1964 – and later in New Delhi and Mumbai, where Mr. Vij grew up. I ask whether his father bequeathed Mr. Vij his distinctive manner of dress. With a pink scarf tossed around his neck and a pair of striking wood-grained glasses, he replies that he did not. But he seems delighted that I have asked.

"[I] was always ostentatious, wearing rings and jewellery," he says.

"As a kid, I would put on my mom's lipstick, for example – wear her sari, wear her sandals. Even though [I'm] totally heterosexual, I loved that feminine side. There's a side of me that's totally feminine."

Mr. Vij says it was his grandfather, rather than his father, who had the greatest influence on his early life in India – a charming, pleasure-loving man of leisure who was born into money, spent his days playing cricket and schmoozing down at the club, and loved Scotch whisky so much he was "basically an alcoholic." At that point, Mr. Vij was already shadowing his mother, his grandmother and his aunties in the kitchen – learning to cook Indian food "by sheer osmosis" – while his grandfather used to joke about starting up a restaurant, so that he could be the bartender.

"He totally indulged," Mr. Vij says fondly, just before his sturgeon and my sablefish are delivered to the table.

In part because his father convinced him that Bollywood lacked job security, Mr. Vij eventually decided to pursue cooking as a career. He left the subcontinent for Austria when he was 20, trained as a classical French chef, and then joined the kitchen staff of a hotel in Salzberg. It was there that Mr. Vij was asked to prepare the meal that would change his life.

The maître d' informed him that a regular guest, the famed general manager of the Banff Springs Hotel, Ivor Petrak, was peckish and craved something a bit spicy – which is the reason they picked Mr. Vij. Knowing that Mr. Petrak was Czechoslovakian, Mr. Vij decided to a prepare a sort of goulash. But first, he ran upstairs to his room – where he had stashed away Indian spices smuggled in from the subcontinent. He says he would occasionally sprinkle garam masala on sandwiches, but didn't eat much Indian food.

"I was cooking French food," Mr. Vij says. "I never ever [formally] learned to cook Indian food."

His spicy beef stew, which spoke to the subtle fusion and playful experimentation that would later win Vij's and his other restaurants acclaim, led to a plane ticket, a recommendation for a work visa and a six-month contract at the Banff Springs Hotel. In Alberta, Mr. Vij quickly became Mr. Petrak's "golden boy," he says, spending three glorious years honing his chops and rising through the ranks at one of Canada's most iconic hotels.

"And then, Ivor dies on me," Mr. Vij says, hitting the table for emphasis.

Without the influential hotelier's signature, Mr. Vij says he was utterly lost. He was denied a visa when it came time to renew. He had just bought a car. "I was beyond devastated," he says. With no other option, he married his casual girlfriend at the time, "a woman named Jane, from Cobourg, Ont.," and moved with her to Vancouver in his late 20s. The marriage did not last.

In 1994, Mr. Vij then went about trying to persuade wealthy Indo-Canadian investors to help him start a high-end, modern Indian restaurant – one that would take chances. They weren't buying it.

"They said most Indians want buffets and $9.99 butter chicken," Mr. Vij recalls. Eventually, his father sold a property, flew to the rescue and a culinary empire was born of $23,000 packed into a brown paper bag.

In 2003, The New York Times described Vij's as being "easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world." After having first shrugged off his Indian roots, he found his calling by embracing them; and after casting off India's rigid social strictures, he ended up marrying a woman whose parents introduced them. He could not escape. Married for 21 years, he and Ms. Dhalwala now have two daughters, aged 15 and 18.

"I wanted to run away from India," says Mr. Vij, who repeatedly calls himself the unofficial ambassador for Indian culture in Canada. "It wasn't until I was older that I discovered that spices were like notes in music."

And so Mr. Vij expanded his empire with carefully curated compositions, like adding spices to a base of onions. He opened Rangoli and launched his at-home meal line. His wife, Ms. Dhalwala, who essentially runs Vij's and Rangoli, opened a restaurant in Seattle called Shanik.

"Why do I not, today, go and buy myself a building and invest into that?" he asks. "I don't because I know my strengths. My strengths are my food, my spices, the conversations that I do. That's my passion. That's what I love doing. And I'm going to continue doing that."

As the glowing reviews and local awards piled up, Mr. Vij decided to head back to India, leading a culinary tour for 20 paying guests in 2009. But when they all left, he had a sort of metaphysical moment: What did it all mean? He put his passport and money in a safe place, he says, and "became homeless. I slept in trains. I ate on the side streets."

For an Indian-born chef who grew up with servants – as many well-to-do Indians do – and trained abroad, before earning a fortune as a restaurateur, this was a rather remarkable journey to take in middle age. He was deeply moved.

"Literally, I was like a born-again Indian," he says. "I came back and my kids were like, 'Baba, how come you are listening to so much Indian music?'"

Those journeys have resulted in Mr. Vij's sparkling new venture My Shanti, which is covered in 50,000 mirror discs and showcases food inspired by his travels.

Though he has appeared on TV cooking shows, the only slightly incongruous part of the puzzle is his participation in Dragons' Den. A lair for fierce personalities and cutthroat deal-making, it seems an unlikely place to find Mr. Vij, who nevertheless gamely attempts to play along. "Are you trying to kill us?" he asked two aspiring energy drink-makers in one episode.

I ask how a man who relishes welcoming people into his restaurant as if it were his home can play a heartless dragon. He says he "absolutely loved doing it," and that his deals – with Casalinga canned cabbage rolls and Baby Parka, which makes winter clothing for babies – have gone well. But he admits that, despite his business acumen, he's not exactly a hard-driving finance type.

"I'm not Kevin O'Leary," he concedes.

In a follow-up phone call Friday, he declines to comment on recent news that fellow dragons David Chilton and Arlene Dickinson will be leaving the show, adding, "Arlene was a great mentor and an extremely knowledgeable and smart woman."

"To take your own money and put it in somebody else's vision is an extremely nerve-wracking experience," he tells me at lunch, noting that CBC had KPMG audit his finances to make sure he could afford to invest in contestants' enterprises.

As he talks about nerve-wracking experiences, I decide to venture one of my own: I reach into my bag for a jar of my homemade apricot-and-date chutney. Saying I fear it's too vinegary, I hesitantly ask Canada's most famous Indian chef whether he would mind giving an amateur some chutney advice. He looks thrilled.

I place the jar on the table. He unscrews the cap and dips his finger in. "What are you talking about it? It's delicious!" he says charitably, before recommending I leave it on a windowsill to ferment. He points out that tasting food for a chef is like a musician strumming a few chords, though he adds that, were I trying to get it into his restaurant, he would be a bit more discriminating.

I thank him, and add that he can keep the jar. As he walks out, he inadvertently knocks it against a chair. The jar slips from his hand and shatters silently into a blob of chopped apricots, dates and glass shards.

We both stare at it for a second. He begins apologizing profusely. I suggest it was probably for the best.

Before we leave, I ask what's next and he says his goal now is to fine-tune and expand his projects, make sure he doesn't overextend his brand, and to continue hiring the right people to push it all forward.

"I'm not going to stop," he says. "The day I retire I'll be under the ground."


A typical day

Breakfast: Two cups of coffee, a handful of almonds, a boiled egg.

Morning: At the Vij's at Home factory in Surrey, B.C., working on distribution deals and new products.

Lunch: Taste-testing dishes at Vij's.

Evening: Running My Shanti from about 5:30 p.m. until about 7:30 p.m., when he leaves for Vij's. He usually gets home by 9:30, but only really gave himself that luxury starting in the past couple of years. Before that, he would generally stay and examine the dishes as they went out, and wouldn't leave until all the meals had left the kitchen around 10:30.


Married to Meeru Dhalwala with two daughters, 15 and 18.

Leadership style

He admires Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "He's got a little bit of a dictatorial style, where it's like, 'This is the way it's supposed to be done.' He has that hard stick, the way I would be at my businesses," he says, later adding, "For all my love and everything else, if you ask my staff, they would say, 'He's a little bit of a dictator.'"

In quotes

Valentine's Day: "Asking me what I'm doing for Valentine's Day is like putting salt on a wound. It's like the busiest time. [My wife will be working] in Seattle. I'll be working at Vij's and My Shanti all day. That's not a night that you say you're going to stay at home, unless you're independently wealthy."

World politics: "Music and cuisines will solve the problems of the world – not the guns, and definitely not politics; they never have, and never will."

Ethnic food: "I want every Canadian, once in their lifetime, to want to go to India and eat Indian food once a week. That's it. Eat ethnic foods. Eat foods from different parts of the world."

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