Man of Taste: Interview with Vikram Vij

Published in the August 2009 issue of Unlimited

Vancouver chef Vikram Vij

When you opened Vij’s you knew how to cook, of course. How much did you know about business?
Nothing, basically. But my father was a businessman, and through osmosis you learn to become a businessman as well.

My father brought $22,000 cash in a bag from India and I had saved $10,000. If it had gone under, we’d have felt like, “Oh shit, that was a lot of money.”

It was very lean. My break-even point every day was $100. If I did $100 a day, I’d know I would survive. Some days I did $96 or $92. Sometimes I would ring in naan bread or something so that I could feel that I’d done $100 in sales. I cheated myself knowing I was cheating. It was a psychological game that I’d play with myself.

About four months after the restaurant started, a food writer called the Urban Peasant, James Barber, gave me such a raving review that people started coming. Then I was making $130 and $140 a day in sales. And I never looked back.

Was that a turning point?
I was running out of money. I had put the restaurant up for sale. We were all dejected. My father was upset; I was feeling a little bit down. This review came out and people started coming in. Actually, if credit has to be given it’d be to Angela Mills and Robin Mines and all the Vancouver food writers who reviewed the restaurant.

What did you find most challenging about those early days?
People had no idea. The challenge was to show people a more modern style of Indian food – not butter chicken and tikka masala. I made a delicious lamb curry with cinnamon. They still ask for butter chicken, and they’re mad I don’t do it. It’s not their fault; they’re just not educated.

What have you learned about leadership over the years?
I had this old-world way of dealing with the staff by screaming and yelling. I’ve calmed down extremely. But I will still say stuff like, “Don’t you get it? Why don’t you get it?”

The other thing I’ve learned is that we live in North America, and these people are not your servants. They are here to work and help you achieve your goal, so you’d better be nice to them.

If you had to compare your leadership style to one of your dishes, what would it be?
There’s a dish that I’ve just put on the menu called Rajasthan-style goat curry, which is based on my travels to India in April. The meat is slow-cooked for six hours. It’s tender inside, but has very strong flavours. And lots of spices – there’s a conundrum happening with the spices – and a blend of different layers and angles and heat at the back of your palate. I always respect the tradition of a dish, but modernize it by adding blueberries or some acidity. That dish to me is who I am as a human being: Strong, sometimes tender, sometimes spicy, robust and to be enjoyed piping hot.

Today your wife, Meeru Dhalwala, runs the kitchen, while you manage the restaurant. Why did you decide to divide these roles?
Meeru was in Third World development in Washington, D.C., when we met. She didn’t have a working visa. She had no cooking experience. She would just hang out in the kitchen in Vancouver and see what I was doing.

The bigger the restaurant got, the more I was running around. There was payroll to be done, produce to be bought, connections to be made with farmers. And both of us are strong personalities, so we would butt heads on what dishes should taste like. I said, “Look, I can’t work with you and fight with you all day and come home and act like nothing happened.”

She’s the creative force behind the dishes. She will work with me on the menu. She’s also responsible for the emotional well-being of all the women in the kitchen. All these Indian women have some issues at home, family issues and stuff, and they go to Meeru for advice. She’ll say, “This is what you should do: put your foot down; tell your mother-in-law to fuck off.” She’s a force to reckon with.

That’s a very traditional way to develop staff.
Normally when you get accolades and become a big restaurant, you hire executive chefs from outside. But I do it differently: If you stay longer with the company, I will pay you well and you’ll learn how to cook — which builds loyalty, brings consistency to the food and creates harmony within the community. The food shows passion.

You’ve complained that many restaurants are motivated by business concerns instead of passion.
I’m always concerned about restaurants that are driven by concepts. If you don’t love what you do, eventually it will show and you will fail – it doesn’t matter how good a business person you are. I have the passion for food and for wine and for people. I love all these three things.

You make a flatbread from cricket flour. What do crickets taste like?
Exactly like pumpkin seeds. It was my wife who created this dish. She read somewhere that we can eat crickets and bugs, so we made flour and put cricket bread on the menu to see the reaction. The most important thing was the environmental aspect. Crickets are high in protein and low on the food chain.

Do you eat cricket bread at home?