Relax, Honey: The Cuisine—and Attitude—of Chef Vikram Vij
"There's no such thing as a typical curry." Or so says Vikram Vij, the Vancouver chef who's namesake restaurant has operated—and flourished—for almost 20 years. Sure, he serves top-notch cuisine that's ridiculously affordable, but that's not the only reason Vij's, or casual sister restaurant Rangoli, thrive. Chef Vij is part of a generation of Indian chefs who are redefining this historically misunderstood, compartmentalized cuisine—waking up palates in North America to the exotic pleasures that lie just beyond the tandoor oven.
You won't find tandoori anything at Vij's. "It's already so commonplace elsewhere." What you will find is a joyful but deadly serious advocate of his national culinary heritage. "Indian food should be popularized," says Vij. "It's not the kind of cuisine that's just tucked under the carpet." And Vij is well aware of all the misconceptions, from the steam-tray stuff of $8 lunch buffets and the Anglo-fied "curry" catch-all (anything with spicy, creamy sauce available at a takeaway) to its historic flirtation with the George Harrison set. "Oh, you know" says Vij, "when it was the 60s and you went to India and you were a hippie and you enjoyed that kind of food." And then the beads were ditched, and the flirtation, presumably, ended.
Not if Vij has anything to say about it. "Our cuisine is as complex as any French cooking," he says. So why the great gap in appreciation? Why do most people think of tandoori and samosa as the culinary bookends of Indian cuisine? "We didn't take the time to elevate [it]," says Vij. Not that he's pitting himself against classic Indian chefs, whether they're behind the line at buffet joints or plating pakora at white-gloved fine dining restaurants. He just understands how, when pandering to the narrow definitions of public perception, most Indian restaurants can be about as exploratory as your typical Chinese food takeout.
What's different at Vij's? For one thing, like many game-changing Indian chefs, Vij hasn't always worked in Indian restaurants. Before opening Vij's in September 1994 with his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, Vij worked in restaurants with other cuisine types and disciplines. And he thinks this is one of the major reasons that he and chefs like him (like Vikas Khanna at New York City's Junoon and Hemant Mathur of Devi and Tulsi) are able to challenge the Indian status quo—"because we worked in non-Indian restaurants before we became ‘Indian' chefs." That exposure, even to another cuisine type, adds a new dimension of possibility to the mosaic traditions of Indian regional cooking.
And that's what makes Vancouver the perfect audience for Vij's. "If you're from the West Coast, chances are you've traveled a little bit," says Vij. "Traveling broadens your horizons. It makes you aware of other cultures out there, other than just living in your own cocoon." Of course when he first opened in 1994, Vancouver was decidedly more cocooned (or in the very least a little cob-webby). "When I first got here, you couldn't find cilantro." But over the last 17 years, Vij has personally witnessed—and assisted—as the urban palate evolved to the point where you can get decent Indian ingredients (cilantro included) at the local Whole Foods.
The result is all Vij: a cuisine that balances classic technique with authentic Indian flavors—not to mention an emphasis on local product years before "locavore" entered the culinary lexicon. "I'm using local trout; I'm using local chicken," says Vij. "I'm saying ‘let's use local produce that's available and spices from India, [and] let's marry these things and have a really fantastic dish.'" Chef Vij combines key Indian spices and preparations (playing freely with mixing regional traditions, which is unheard of in your typical curry joint) with his passion for fresh and local.
An appetizer of pulled pork belly sautéed in tamarind comes on small discs of house-made paneer, which is a spicy, firm counterpoint to the sweet tang of tamarind pork belly. Savory Jackfruit poached in black cardamom, cumin, and curry leaves is a bold, South-Indian-inflected introduction to a new kind of vegetarian "meat." Vij sears marinated lamb popsicles à la minute, then givens them a North Indian treatment with creamy fenugreek curry sauce. And Sooke Rainbow Mountain Trout with Lobster in Coconut, Curry Leaf, and Kokum Curry is an East-meets-East-meets West finale: the pink rainbow trout is encrusted with ground mustard seeds and pan-fried, South Indian-style, and served with almost raw, sushi-grade lobster meat—all mingling in the brazen flavors of mustard oil and curry.
For Chef Vij, part of the secret of his success is keeping things to scale. His 60-seat restaurant might mean he can never take off into city-hopping culinary empire-dom (though a line of ready-made meals, "made by the same Indian hands," is taking off, and his cookbooks, including Vij's at Home: Relax, Honey, have won several awards). But that's OK, because Vij is more interested in making it work small-scale. "When you cook food in such small quantities, it tastes really good," he says. "If you look at most restaurants in the world, top restaurants always have [fewer] seats, because the attention to detail is very important." Vij does maybe 140 covers a night, and he's happy about it. Oh, and he's not taking reservations (a holdover from the days when he and his wife wanted to eat out well, but found reservation-only places "prohibitively expensive"). Don't worry, while you wait (and you might) you'll get free Chai and hors d'oeuvres.
It's not just his turnover that's moderated; his menu is specifically pared down to around nine appetizers, a few vegetarian and vegan options, and one entrée per protein. It's a focus he learned from a dinner at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, years before the chef became the demi-god of molecular cuisine. Vij saw the menu, with four or five appetizers and entrees, "but he made everything from scratch!" Vij was an instant convert. "I'd rather do eight things, and do them extremely well."
And he does, not only because he emphasizes local product, or because he informs his ever expanding knowledge of Indian cuisine with yearly month-long trips. (Not a restaurant hopping trip, mind you: "I learn from the ground up," he says, referring to the myriad street carts and home cookery of India, "because it's tried and tested and true.") Chef Vij does things well because he's decided to limit himself in output, and never (ever) limit himself otherwise.
"I'm proud to be Indian," he says. We're just lucky he's firmly planted in our hemisphere.