Vikram Vij is a chef, entrepreneur, author and television personality. He was born in India, moved to Austria to study the art of cooking, and came to Canada in 1989 to work at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta. Today, he owns three award-winning restaurants in Canada: Vij’s Restaurant, Vij’s Rangoli and My Shanti. He also produces his own line of gourmet take-home meals, Vij’s At Home and runs his food truck, Vij’s Railway Express. Vikram has appeared on Top Chef Canada, Chopped Canada, Recipe to Riches, and in 2014, debuted as the first Indo-Canadian Dragon on the CBC’s Dragons’ Den. He is also a certified sommelier and recipient of an honorary Doctorate of Law from Simon Fraser University.
What was the initial impetus for you to become a chef?
I always wanted to be a Bollywood actor, or a stage actor, because I loved acting and everything about it; the visuals, hands, talking with my eyes, and everything else. Unfortunately, however, my father made it clear that he didn't want anyone in his family becoming an actor. So I asked myself how I could use the creativity that I loved, in singing and dancing, in something else; what could I do? That’s when I decided that I should become a chef, so I went to Austria to study, got my chef’s papers, and became a chef. I really believe that, when the restaurant is open, chefs are like artists, creating great food and great ambiance.
After beginning your experience as a chef in Austria, what brought you to Canada?
There was a gentleman, having dinner in Austria, who was an immigrant himself, and he looked at me and said, “Chefs like you need to come to Canada, because Canada is a great country, with great Terroir, and a place where you could totally succeed and survive as a chef.” So I applied to him and, six months later, he sent me a visa and a one-way ticket to Canada. Then, I came to Banff and worked at the Banff Springs Hotel, for the first three years, until I moved to Vancouver to open up my own restaurants.
To what extent has Canada’s culinary scene evolved since you opened your first restaurant in Vancouver, in 1994?
It’s evolved tremendously, not only as far as the level of cuisine is concerned but also sideways, because people are returning here with new cultural influences. We’re not just doing French cuisine; we’re doing multi-cultural cuisines; Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and so much more. What we’re doing is building a beautiful base for great chefs and vibrant ethnicities to build on. Going into the future, I think we’re going to continue to see more chefs throughout Canada that will take their own cuisines and cultures and use their creativity to bring them up a notch.
I think Canada’s adoption of international cuisines is partially a result of the fact that we lack our own historically well-established cuisine. How would you define Canadian cuisine?
Canada doesn't have a cuisine but instead, a beautiful mosaic of different cuisines; We shouldn't try to define ourselves. The French have it, for example, because they’ve been doing it for such a long time, but we don’t have that history, so how could we have that same established cuisine?
Your restaurants are now recognized to serve some of the best Indian food in the world, but what inspired you to devote your career to Indian cuisine in the first place?
I felt strongly that my cuisine, despite having such a depth of flavour and a complex use of spices, did not get the attention and respect that it deserved; I wanted to bring this respect to Indian cuisine. I’d always dreamed of being a French chef, as that was how I was trained, but the reason why I ultimately decided to cook Indian food and become an Indian chef instead, was because that was my background. I spent the first 19 years of my life in India and I was addicted to the flavors of my own cuisine. I’d always done French, German and Austrian-style cooking in my professional training, but I had actually never approached Indian cooking in the same way. My motivation was to work with Indian cooking in such a way that people would see the French technique come through, and at the same time taste the spices and flavours of Indian culinary tradition. I really became who I was, on the plate.
Do you feel you have a certain responsibility to represent the cuisine of your home?
I definitely felt compelled to change the perception of Indian food in this country, because I felt that people were not showing Indian food the respect that it deserved. It was not the fault of the consumers, however, as many of my peers believed that that this was what people liked, and they did, because it became what they became used to. I wanted to rise above the standard that had been set for Indian food in Canada and, initially, I received a lot of resistance for it, but I knew that this would be what would differentiate myself from other Indian restaurants. Had I just reverted to butter chicken, samosas and chicken tikka masala, I would have been nobody. Instead, I went against the norm, got into trouble, and needed a lot of strength to fight against the stereotypes that existed. It’s taken twenty-four years, now, and I’m still not completely there. There are still people that claim that my food is not authentic, but how much more authentic could it get? It’s Indian food that’s cooked by Indians with so much love, but people still don’t understand it sometimes because, as Indians, we just haven't showcased these nuances of our cooking and cuisine -- in a similar way that many Italians have supported the belief that pasta and pizza alone are Italian cuisine.
In 2014, you made your debut as a Dragon on the popular television series Dragon’s Den. What was this experience like and would you want to do it again?
It’s funny, because the first thing I told you about was that my dream was actually always to be on stage. Looking back, I’ve now done; Top Chef; Recipes to Riches; Chopped Canada, and then Dragon’s Den; so the whole circles comes back, and I can now look back at my dad and say, “na-na-na-na-na-nah”, because, in spite of the fact that he never wanted me to become an actor, I kind of became one anyways.
At the time, when they were auditioning me for the show, they said,”We like you, but we need you to change a bit; can you become more Bangka looking?” and I told them,”No, I’m not a Bangka and I’m not going to be Bangka looking; I’m a Chef, and I’m going to look the way I do.” I wasn't going to change myself and, because I stayed true to who I was and what I was doing, I didn't feel that I needed to change myself, and I never have. This is the advice that I’d like to share with today’s young people; not to change themselves and become someone they aren't because, if you do, you will just end up becoming confused down the road. You have to adapt to certain things, of course, but you never need to change yourself. What I’m trying to get at is, it was a great experience and it was absolutely the funnest thing I’ve done in a really long time, but it was also an experience that, when I was done with it, I felt kind of finished.
I actually choose to get into Dragons’ Den, not because of the acting but, because I wanted to help young people, by showing them the ropes of what it takes to be successful, both financially and emotionally. Sure enough, as soon as I felt that the show was not what I was expecting it to be, I moved on, but it was all done with much respect. Experience wise, I felt lovely, but would I do it again? Probably not.
What role do you predict that television will play in the culinary world, in the near future?
I think that television can only arouse your senses. It can only make you want to cook that food; you can’t eat the television, or a photograph of a beautiful meal. The television is just a starting point -- it’s the foreplay -- but you still need real food in order to enjoy it. You can look at a plate full of food for as long as you like, but it will never satiate you that way. Food has to satiate you, fill you up, give you energy, provide you with nourishment, and be filled with soul. The role of television is to bring you to that point of anticipation and hunger, and to inspire you to be creative, but after that, you still need to eat and enjoy food.
So television will never act as a replacement for enjoyment that we receive from eating real food.
It never can, and it never should. It’s inspiration -- that’s all.
What are some current and future projects of yours that you’re most excited about?
Since I first started, my goal has always been to bring awareness to my cuisine and my culture. All of the products that I work on are created, in order to bring awareness to parts of the cuisine, culture and history of India. I’ve got so many things going on right now, with five restaurants, two food trucks and all of the food products, but they’re all to bring more awareness to the cuisine and to encourage more people to enjoy Indian food and appreciate how delicious and healthy it really is.