Interview with Vikram Sunderam

April 2011

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Vikram Sunderam: Well, actually when I started it was just an option I thought of taking. In India, the schooling system is different. When you finish high school you specialize in different fields. [I went] into engineering [and] medicine while applying to colleges. I applied to school in Bombay [and the] first one that accepted my admission, [I] joined the school. I had no idea I was going to be a chef.

AB: Did you go to culinary school? Do you hire persons with our without a culinary school background
VS: One should. It's a stepping stone for any budding chef who wants to start and do it. You get basic knowledge of the culinary world and learn important basics: different foods around the world, practical uses, ideas of what things are around. Culinary schools are changed now—[they] insist on on-site training and off-site training, send students to hotels, for a 4 or 6 month part of curriculum. In India they send us to training differently, [it’s] more hotel industry, I would relate it to my experience in India, but I think it's primarily [in] hotels where you learn a lot and can pursue a career instead of standalone restaurants—that is not like the rest of the world when you start your career.

AB: What advice would you offer a young chef just getting started?
VS: Don't try and take the fast track. Today's younger generation aspire to become what they want, which is good but it takes its own course of time. Once you know your basics you can't falter.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
VS: I'm not directly involved. Indirectly we try to enhance the restaurant industry by trying to do the best we can and maintaining what we have. And I take part in charity events and culinary gatherings. Just a few weeks ago, the Travel Channel wanted us to take part in one of their functions, so we made a dish for them.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
VS: Well, dining should be a good experience for anyone who comes to eat and dine. It’s not just about the food or service, but combination of both. From only the food point of view, it should taste good, look good, [and] it should be satisfying. I very much think value for money is one of the biggest points to consider.

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
VS: You have to keep in mind tastes, the flavors, the look of the dish. You should try to keep traditional values of Indian cuisine in mind when creating a dish.

AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
VS: We always face the challenge to better ourselves and maintain what we have.

AB: What is the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
VS: One of the toughest things I did was move from London to America. I was very excited when I came initially. There's a lot of cultural change from London to Washington, D.C., but glad to say I have no regrets.

AB: On that note, if you had one thing you could do again, or do over, what would it be?
VS: I would like to start learning, learn more in the culinary world, go back to school to learn more. There's never a shortage of ideas.

AB: What trends do you see emerging?
VS: I think today overall people want to eat healthy food which is light on the stomach, but which still has a lot of flavors. [Food that is] flavorful and wholesome and is very important. Small plates. With a lot of the small plates that we do at the restaurant, we try different small things so people can taste various dishes, they don’t want huge portions.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
VS: I'm proud of having come here and opened Rasika and for it to do as well as it's doing today has been a highlight of my career.

AB: What does success mean for you?
VS: It's about doing what you want to do honestly, and in the right manner, not about just trying to achieve a goal in the wrong manner, but doing it rightly and correctly and honestly. If you achieve success [that way], that's more heartening than if trying to achieve success in different ways.

AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in 5 years?
VS: Maybe we could have a chain of Indian rests around America or maybe we like to get into ready meals; that's where we'd like to go.

AB: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
VS: I think maybe any branch of engineering, because that was one of the options I always had in mind when I finished high school, more [of an] ultimate option I thought of if I hadn't got into catering school.

AB:Well we’re glad you got into catering school!