Vikram vij is not only comfortable in the spotlight, he thrives in it. Many will recognize the flamboyant chef and restaurateur, who once dreamed of becoming a Bollywood actor, as an investor on the television show Dragons’ Den and a celebrity chef on several Food Network programs. And those who’ve had the chance to visit his namesake restaurant in Vancouver will know him as the gregarious host of a lively, nightly party.
“At 5:30, the stage is open, the curtain’s drawn and I’m here performing,” says Vij. “I wasn’t good at music or singing but I knew I could be on stage and perform as a chef.”
The aspiring actor’s current role is more of a director, with diners at Vij’s becoming favoured players in his performances. They’re welcomed with snacks and drinks as they wait for a table and will likely be greeted like an old friend by Vij himself. “Once the door is open, you come, you hang out – it’s like a big huge house party,” he says. “That’s what I love.”
While the meal is an integral part of the experience, Vij sees himself not just as the creator of beautiful food but as the author and promoter of the story that surrounds it. He brought that vision to students in March as NAIT’s Hokanson Chef in Residence. “You can be creative in your kitchen but you still need to sell the food. You cannot sell the food without being out in the front to explain your vision and your passion,” he says.
For Vij, that means giving diners a new experience of the traditional flavours of India. “How do you make Indian food look pretty? It’s brown and browner,” he asks students at one of his engaging demonstrations during his week on Main Campus. “How do you do it? You bring it in a bowl and you serve it with love. When you put that on a plate, it will shine through. People will feel the love from you.”
Being a good salesman doesn’t diminish or undermine that creativity, he insists. “Every human being at heart is an entrepreneur because every human being wants to dance to their own music, and do things their own way.”
A thread of a different colour
Born and raised in India, Vij studied hotel management in Austria before moving to Canada, learning the skills of both chef and front-of-house manager (he’s also a certified sommelier).
His diverse background is well-suited to a changing restaurant landscape in which increasingly sophisticated customers are looking to get more out of their dining experience.
“Producing good food is not quite as rare as it used to be,” explains Leroy Russell, chair of Hospitality Management. “I often say you can get people to come out once to try the food. But to get them to keep coming back, you have to give them excellent service,” he adds.
“Restaurants really have to engage the customer and make them feel that they’re actively involved in the experience.”
Vij puts this into practice at his flagship restaurant, Vij’s, even before people sit down to their meal. The wait for a coveted table is eased by the house-party atmosphere and servers who offer chai and hors d’oeuvres.
“Restaurants really have to engage the customer."
The performance is enhanced by the host’s colourful, embellished clothing, scarves and jewelry that reflect his bold personality, including a ring he wears made from a one-rupee coin his grandmother gave him for good luck.
“Even 10 years ago, wearing long Indian garb, with a scarf, people would look at me like, what’s wrong with you?” Vij says with a laugh. “I’m a thread of a different colour in this beautiful tapestry and I’m my own self. I don’t have to blend into anything.”
For his first day at NAIT, he briefly does so out of politeness, putting on a white chef’s jacket. But he soon reverts to his own embroidered one. Vij encourages students to follow their own personal passions. “Stay true to yourself,” he tells them. “Do what you want to do.”
That applies even when it might seem to run counter to conventional business practices. Vij’s restaurants (Vij’s and Rangoli, which he owns with his partner, Meeru Dhalwala, and My Shanti, his solo venture) consider all customers equal and don’t hold tables – no matter who’s asking. Once, he famously made former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wait his turn at Vij’s.
A system that works
This approach to entrepreneurship has worked for Vij over his 20-plus years in Vancouver. The tiny, 14-seat restaurant he opened in 1994 on West Broadway struggled at first, in part because Canadians weren’t used to his new-world take on the traditional flavours of India.
“I knew I had to hold peoples’ hands,” he says. “I wasn’t going to do butter chicken and chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken. I needed to be out in the front, explaining to people: eat this chutney with this, eat this raita with that.”
The importance of family
Vikram Vij speaks frequently and fondly about his parents, key characters in the story of his success. His father helped finance that first restaurant in Vancouver, arriving on a plane from India with $24,000 in a brown paper bag.
“How did you get all that cash past customs, papa?” a shocked Vij had asked his father. Vij shrugs and mimics the older man’s thick, Indian accent. “They didn’t ask, I didn’t tell!”
Another of Vij’s favourite tales involves his mother riding the bus from her home in Richmond, B.C. with a pot of chicken curry on her lap for his fledgling restaurant. His landlord didn’t like the smell of curry and forbade him from cooking it on site. That simple family recipe is still in his repertoire today. It was part of the showpiece lunch he hosted during his week at NAIT and is featured in his 2006 cookbook, Vij’s: Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine.
Over the years, Vij’s business grew, bolstered as much by the strength of his personality as by his incredible food. Vij’s became a Vancouver hotspot, vaunted by New York Times food critic Mark Bittman in 2003 as “easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world.”
Vij expanded his business to include Rangoli, for casual Indian food, My Shanti, a “home-cooking” style restaurant showcasing food from his travels through India, and Vij’s Railway Express, a food truck featuring street foods from various regions of India.
He has a supermarket retail line called Vij’s Inspired Indian Cuisine, his own brand of masala-spiced kettle chips (Vij’s Delhi-licious) and plans to sell basmati rice and olive oil. He also has a new restaurant in the works at the original site of Vij’s, which recently moved.
After a year-long stint on Dragons’ Den and roles as a judge on Chopped Canada, Recipe to Riches and Top Chef Canada, he has another television show in development, he says. This year, he’s taking time to give back to aspiring chefs through programs like the Hokanson Chef in Residence.
Ganesh Subramanya, a culinary instructor who worked with him at NAIT, says Vij was an enthusiastic and attentive teacher.
“He was greatly involved with the students in every possible way. I was particularly impressed with him because he always asked for feedback, from the staff and the students.”
The students say they found Vij kind and approachable. “He’s very open and you feel like you can speak your mind and ask him questions,” says Zach Rossall (Cooking ‘15), 25. “I’d love to work for a guy like him.”
Rossall was also impressed with the absence of hierarchy in Vij’s kitchen. The cooks at Vij’s and Rangoli’s – all of them women, many from the Punjab and none of them trained chefs – work as a team. Many are connected through family and friendship. Vij didn’t plan it this way – an aunt who worked in his first kitchen found many of the current cooks. But it’s a community and a system that works, so he sticks with it.
“That really spoke to me,” says Michelle McDonald (Cooking ‘15), a 43-year-old mother of four looking for a new culinary career. “That’s the kind of environment I want to work in, where we’re a team and it’s all about doing it together.”
The one-on-one time with Vij was among the highlights of her program at NAIT, McDonald adds. “To us, he’s like a Hollywood celebrity – you get a little tongue-tied around him. But he’s so approachable and open. He just really, really knows his stuff and he’s excited to share it with us.”
A host with the most
Jeff Gordon (Cooking ‘89), who oversees NAIT’s culinary programs, says Vij – in addition to his impressive skills as a chef – had an irresistible magnetism. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he once dreamed of being an actor,” he says with a laugh.
While Gordon usually hosts the popular chef-in-residence luncheon each year, Vij told him he’d prefer to be the host, introducing and explaining each dish himself.
“He was the first chef we’ve ever had to stand at the door and greet everybody as they came in. But he didn’t neglect the students – he flowed very easily between the front of the house and the back of the house.”
Vij was also the first chef-in-residence to send him a personal note after his week at NAIT, thanking him for his hospitality and help, a gesture that spoke volumes to Gordon.
“For sure he’s all about the show. But he’s also a very warm and down-to-earth guy.”
The Hokanson Chef in Residence program
This unique program provides students a rare opportunity to learn from the best chefs in the world. The program – the result of a generous donation from John and Susan Hokanson – began with Canadian celebrity chef Rob Feenie (2009), followed by David Adjey (2010), Susur Lee (2011), Massimo Capra (2012), Chris Cosentino (2013), Lynn Crawford (2014) and Michael Stadtländer (2015).