The Story Behind Vij’s

October 14, 2014

By Guy Saddy

It’s a little after 9 when I arrive. vikram vij is dressed in a casual blue shirt; it makes his eyes almost shockingly blue. An elaborate bangle circles his wrist, and he also sports an earring and a small diamond nostril chip. Meeru Dhalwala, his family and business partner, and the woman who designs the dishes at Vij’s eponymous restaurant, is knocking around in the kitchen making breakfast. She wears black tights and a black shirt, and her curly, dark hair dances around her shoulders. On her feet are white slippers, the kind you nick from a hotel. Their teenage daughters, Nanaki and Shanik, are upstairs getting ready for the day.

We take our coffee at the long table in the dining room of their City Hall-area home. The chairs are simple yet stunning, the leather chamois-soft.

“These?” asks Dhalwala. “Oh, my God. I love these chairs. I polish the leather. Seriously. We’ve actually — ”

She stops mid-sentence.

“C’mon, Vikram! It’s okay!”

“I didn’t say anything!”

“I saw you looking at my hotel slippers.” He smiles and shakes his head. She laughs. They’ve been married 20 years.

The house is far from showy. In the living room two midcentury Hans Wegner chairs rest on a Persian rug. The dining room features dark walnut built-ins by Marc Bricault, who is responsible for the design of three of their restaurants: Vij’s, casual Rangoli next door, and My Shanti, which opened in June. That shimmering jewel of a restaurant, so out of place in its South Surrey strip mall, is the latest addition to a hospitality empire Vij and Dhalwala have been building for two decades. It also includes Vij’s Railway Express, their opening salvo in the food cart wars; the Seattle-based Shanik; and Vij’s at Home, their line of frozen appetizers and entrees. There are two brisk-selling recipe books; appearances on Chopped Canada and Top Chef Canada; and, on October 15, Vij debuts on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, a move that will propel him fully into the national spotlight.

There’s more to come. Like Wolfgang Puck, who parlayed the success of his legendary Spago into everything from a line of canned soups to airport pizza joints, Vij has aimed his gaze at broader horizons. “I want the elephant and three stars,” he says, referring to his brand logo, “to be the next Nike swoosh.”

It’s 5:45 on a blazingly hot summer evening, and Vij’s, open 15 minutes, is already packed. Vij himself is front and centre, moving from table to table, suggesting wines, cracking wise, comping the odd appetizer special (halibut cheeks in a spicy curry atop a crispy bed of sumac-sprinkled kale).

Lately, Vij at Vij’s has been a relatively rare sight. My Shanti has been demanding a serious amount of care and feeding. Tonight, however, he’s back in home territory, and the room crackles with his energy. He is a natural host, comfortable hugging a regular or letting his hand fall lightly on a customer’s shoulder before moving on. In the lounge, he spies a couple standing waiting for a table; they all go back a long way. “Look at his hair!” he says to the woman. “It’s always perfect.” Turning to the man: “If I were gay, I’d be all over you.” He knows exactly what he can and cannot get away with. Despite his familiar approach, though, when it comes to service, he’s old school. My knife slips into my plate; before I can start fishing it out of the curry, he’s offering a replacement.

Even in the early evening, there’s a 90-minute wait for a table. Vij’s famously does not take reservations — a no-exceptions policy that, while meant to be egalitarian, is also pragmatic: turnover is continual, the seats never idle between reservations. The practice has proved to be far from off-putting, and even A-list restaurant reviewers have sucked it up on their way to being almost universally kind. In 2003, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman wrote that Vij’s was “easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world,” a quote that has been repeated so often it might as well serve as the restaurant’s mantra. Alan Richman, GQ’s long-time, well-respected food columnist, wrote, “There’s no more-beloved Indian restaurant in North America.”

Although it seems that Vij has been at the forefront of Vancouver’s food scene since, well, forever, it has been a long journey. The elder of two children, he was born in Amritsar in the province of Punjab in December 1964 but spent most of his formative years in the more cosmopolitan centres of Mumbai and Delhi. A marginal student who nevertheless did well in math and science, he was far more interested in standing out than playing by the rules. “I always wanted to make people laugh,” he says, smiling. “I was always the naughty one, the crazy one. I was never good at school, so I got attention this way.”

At one point, his attention seeking at school led him onto the stage. His father did not approve, going so far as to sabotage Vij’s adolescent dream. “I was in Grade 10, and I was up for a major role,” he recalls. “My father took me away on a vacation so I could not audition. It was his way of saying, ‘I don’t want you to go that route.’ I still hold a little grudge against him for that.”

His life did go in a different direction. In 1984, at the age of 19, he travelled to Austria to attend the Hotel Management School of Salzburg, training as a chef before being feted in 1989 by the Banff Springs Hotel. In 1992, he landed at Bishop’s, then Vancouver’s best-regarded room. There he was a food runner, responsible for trucking out the savoury dishes, setting up the bread and butter station, and ensuring that what came out of the kitchen was coordinated with the front of the house.

Plans for his own restaurant quickly took shape. Launched in September 1994, the original Vij’s began inauspiciously enough. A $10,000 stake painstakingly saved. A concerned father arriving in Canada with a six-month visitor’s visa, a paper bag containing $23,000 in cash, and hopes of securing a future for his first-born. A boxcar-slim location at 1453 W. Broadway, so tiny only 16 seats could be squeezed in. At first, half the food was prepared at home in Richmond, then carted by bus to the restaurant, where it was served to clients who, the young chef hoped, would buy enough naan to meet the critical $100-a-day break-even.

Balancing the upstart challenges was an unrelated opportunity. On the spectrum of arranged marriages, Vij and Dhalwala’s skews to the contemporary (“It was arranged, but not really arranged,” says Vij) — hardly surprising since Dhalwala, though born in India, was a thoroughly western product, raised in Washington, D.C., with a master’s in international development from the University of Bath. Their mothers had known each other as children. Now, each with single kids pushing 30, they gently nudged the two to make contact: the first phone call lasted an hour. The marriage was a few months later, Christmas 1994, and the partnership, both business and personal, was set.

Vij found his calling out front, becoming the very identifiable face of a restaurant that, when it finally moved to its current location on W. 11th near Granville in 1996, had acquired a solid reputation for pushing the limits of a cuisine that was often mired in tired clichés. Dhalwala gravitated to the kitchen. “I realized very early on,” she says, “that there was a need for a matching magic in the back if Vikram was going to accomplish what he told me the first day I ever met him: that he was going to change every preconceived notion about Indian food in Canada.” Each plate she created had a story behind it, colours and spices that reflected the larger world. She translated her development work into cooking by pretending that the people she was learning about “from, say, Rwanda or Syria or Israel” — she reserves an hour a day for nonfiction reading as research for the restaurant — “are coming to Vij’s for dinner. What dish would I want to serve them?”

The food that resulted was increasingly innovative, with densely layered spice profiles — “Modern Indian made with French techniques, local ingredients, and a dash of whimsy,” as Globe and Mail reviewer Alexandra Gill describes it. But Vij was also breaking through at an opportune time, at the confluence of two very influential trends. Although now a dated term, “fusion” was then a net encompassing everything from Alice Waters’s pioneering California cuisine at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse in the early 1970s to Puck’s mashing of Asian and French styles at Chinois on Main in 1980s Santa Monica. Featuring bold, occasionally shocking combinations of regional styles and ingredients with an emphasis on fresh, local produce, it was, at the time, barrier-busting fare. But fusion was more than a cooking approach. It was a culinary reaction to ramped-up social change: as immigrants from regions other than the usual European suspects were increasingly absorbed into the North American matrix, so was their food. Tastes were shifting; minds, opening.

For Vij, the second trend has been as important. In this age of shrieking Ramsays and smirking Bourdains, it’s easy to forget that the modern celebrity chef is a relatively new phenomenon, likely traceable to the Food Network’s birth in 1993. Suddenly, there was Emeril Lagasse bellowing “Bam!” and Nigella Lawson sensuously licking crème fraîche off the tips of her manicured fingers. The TV chef had arrived.

In the parking lot of an industrial park on the fringes of Surrey, Vij stares skyward. The day is cloudy, but the weather doesn’t temper his enthusiasm. “I actually wanted to have goats and animals up there,” he says, pointing to the living roof that tops the processing plant where Vij’s at Home, their line of frozen foods and the linchpin of their expansion plans, is made. The facility is a riot of colour — ochre, lime green, mustard — and stands out from its neighbours like an Indian carpet on a concrete floor. Finished in 2010, the purpose-built production facility, pegged at $4.6 million, came in at $7.3 million. The plant is operating at 10 percent capacity. “It’s almost like if you bought a huge house thinking your first child will sleep here, the second child here, and the third child there — and you haven’t even met the woman you’ll marry,” he says.

After donning hairnets and lab coats, we descend into the guts. One room is dominated by large stainless-steel vats, where vast quantities of aromatic food bubble away. (The vacuum-packed curries are carried in 300 stores nationwide.) A large machine, oddly pristine, is lodged in one corner. Custom-designed, it cost $180,000. It does nothing. Intended to automate the packaging process, it couldn’t manage chickpeas in its feeder tube. Useless. “The reason I’m telling you this is because I don’t want you to think it’s a success from day one. It wasn’t. It still isn’t,” he says, while a film crew from Dragons’ Den hovers, shooting B-roll for his debut on the show.

In light of his many frank disclosures on the tour — “I’m more in debt today than I was 20 years ago,” he admits — Vij seems an odd choice to join some of the heavy-hitting venture capitalists on CBC’s successful franchise. For those who assumed a cash flow crunch was behind the serially delayed opening of his long-awaited Cambie-at-15th location, first announced in 2009, now scheduled to open in January (see pg. 50), the reactions ran from bewilderment to outright disbelief.

“He’s certainly not the richest Dragon,” acknowledges the show’s executive producer, Tracie Tighe. “But he’s probably the ‘freshest’ entrepreneur of the bunch. So he understands what the struggle is.” Why choose Vij? The avaricious (but highly watchable) Kevin O’Leary and Lavalife cofounder Bruce Croxon opted not to come back, says Tighe, which left some holes to fill. “We were looking for some big personalities.”

In that department, Vij is more than qualified. “It was intimidating, initially, for the first few days,” he says, adding that long-standing players Arlene Dickinson and Jim Treliving have logged nine seasons each. “To get in there, to try and get some ice time, was a little bit tough. But I wanted to do it.”

But can he be credible? “I happen to be in the restaurant business, but I’m a businessman first. I’m looking for that deal. I’m a haggler, an Indian haggler.”

On the cusp of true celebrity, squeezed between the birth of new opportunities, Vij would seem, to most, to be in danger of stretching himself too thin. Not so, he says. “I still have time to hang out with the girls,” he insists. “I have the capacity to take on more.”

Afternoon naps help him maintain his pace. But he cannot quiet his mind. He may not even want to. “Internal turmoil is always there,” he says. “I’ve always loved chaos. I come from a country which is totally chaotic. If I actually don’t have chaos, I create chaos.

Much is in play, but the future is far from assured. The frozen-food line, while growing in sales, is nowhere near breaking even. The new South Cambie location is untested, while the iconic South Granville space — Vij says they’re keeping it — will be the site of another new enterprise yet undivulged.

And then there’s Shanik. Reviews have been mostly good, if not spectacular. But the Seattle spot, while bustling during the day — it’s on the Amazon campus of South Lake Union — is both out of the way and can be deserted at night. For the restaurant to succeed, it will require time. Dhalwala’s time, not Vij’s.

Shanik is her venture, the first to fall outside the umbrella of the corporation the two have built. It demands that she be in Seattle regularly — an odd situation for a couple whose work lives are so intertwined. Although there is no sign out front, a quick internet search of their address reveals the house is for sale. Cautiously, I suggest the time apart must be difficult.

 

Dhalwala pauses. “We have a very modern relationship,” she says. “Let’s put it that way.” She laughs. He fidgets with his coffee cup.

Do you want to explain? “Well — no. We don’t want to explain,” she says. She will, however, elaborate. “We need space, right? It’s not a question of love,” she says. “He and I both love each other totally. We’ve made adjustments so that we can still lovingly run our businesses, lovingly take care of the kids, and get along and work together. Because we’ve got 120 employees under us.”

“One hundred and forty-five,” says Vij.

“One hundred and seventy, including Shanik,” Dhalwala counters. After thinking about it, she amends the total down to 120. “Too much depends on us,” she continues. “So we’ve made adjustments to keep that part intact.”

On her way out, she ducks into the kitchen and returns carrying a wooden bowl, which she places directly in front of Vij. It is full of blueberries. “Antioxidants.”

“Sometimes, I tend to eat a little too much meat,” he says.

It is meant as an explanation, but none is required.

 

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