“Don’t think you are going to a traditional Indian restaurant. Think of it as you’re coming to Vikram Vij’s house and are going to be respected, loved and well taken care of.” — Vikram Vij
It’s early evening in the middle of the week in South Surrey, and already the atmosphere is heating up in Vikram Vij’s newest restaurant, My Shanti (meaning “My Peace” in Hindi). Vij is every ounce a showman, dressed in well-tailored Indian attire, custom-made by Montreal-born designer Rashmi Varma. His untamed black curls are as iconic as his curry.
More than 40 years ago in India, the young Vij dreamed of becoming a Bollywood actor. Instead, he has become a master chef who, at age 49, has built a $10-million fortune around Indian food.
Vij’s face is familiar to Canadian foodies as one of the judges on Food Network’s Top Chef Canada, Chopped Canada and CBC’s Recipes to Riches. Vij’s branding and entrepreneurial skills were recognized in 2011 when he won the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. This fall, Vij joins the cast of investors on CBC’s hit show Dragons’ Den, a role he considers to be part of his legacy of giving. Vij provides meals for hospital fundraisers and recently donated $250,000 toward the extensive makeover of a University of British Columbia culinary lab. As a judge on Dragons’ Den, he sees a piece of himself in each new hopeful and relishes the opportunity to catapult entrepreneurs and their ambitious dreams to the next level.
Vij’s on 11th and Granville St. in Vancouver is still a destination for celebrities and adventurous diners after 20 years. Its most unique policy has never changed: “everyone is equal.” Vij’s restaurants never accept reservations and guests regularly wait almost an hour for a table. Even Martha Stewart, Robin Williams and Goldie Hawn waited with everyone else before enjoying his fabulous fare.
Miles away in South Surrey, like an homage to Bollywood glamour and Vij’s imagination, thousands of silver sequins cover My Shanti’s surface and shimmer in the setting sun. Inside, a hand-painted mural of an Indian village transports diners to a different place. Silk saris hang loosely from the ceiling and melodious tunes play in the background.
Vij works the room with brilliant attentiveness. Like a master juggler, he multitasks with ease — embracing guests, topping water glasses and describing the inspiration of his lively and creative cuisine. From Bombay’s chapatti squid accompanied with tamarind to the exotically spiced Chaatra Sagar’s grilled baby eggplants, dishes here are more traditional than those plated at his legendary Vij’s restaurant in Vancouver.
“These are dishes I’ve always wanted to share with people,” he says. “They are from different villages in India, from places I’ve visited many times over the years. They use cooking techniques I learned from the many great women chefs who prepare food with love for their families. My Shanti pays homage to all of them.”
Intense and blue, Vij’s eyes sparkle with a passion for life. He loves serving people — it’s the secret ingredient to his food.
In traditional Indian homes, daughters customarily stay in the kitchen preparing food, but as a child growing up in Delhi and Mumbai, Vij challenged tradition. He loved to make tea and prepare sandwiches for family and friends.
“It just came naturally. God gave me this gift. I live to take care of people; give them good food, champagne and create an atmosphere where they can enjoy themselves,” he says. His earliest memories are sitting on his grandfather’s knee in India and being reminded of the importance of his unabbreviated name — Vikramaditya, which means “fierce warrior, brave son of the sun.”
Following his passion for hospitality, Vij left India at the age of 19 to start a new culinary journey in Austria where he immersed himself in European culture, learned French cooking techniques and dated beautiful German women, “as a ploy to learn new languages more quickly,” he adds. Upon finishing school, he began to travel, working as a chef for six months in one European country before moving on to the next. One day, a guest, who happened to be the general manager of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, tasted his food and offered him a position in Canada.
“Three weeks later I received an envelope with a one-way ticket and a six-month visa,” recalls Vij. “I arrived in Banff and fell in love with Canadian life.”
This was just the aperitif Vij needed to begin a successful career as a chef. He went on to work at Bishops in Vancouver, refining his European cooking techniques. Then, at age 30, he experienced a cultural awakening. Together with his wife Meeru Dhalwala, they opened Vij’s restaurant. Their vision: Use local ingredients and original ideas to create exciting takes on Indian cuisine.
“I want people to come to my restaurants with an open mind,” he says. “Don’t think you are going to a traditional Indian restaurant; think of it as though you’re coming to Vikram Vij’s house where you’re going to be respected, loved and well taken care of.” Vij sometimes attends to patrons waiting outside his restaurant and serves them tea or snacks until a table is ready.
Between launching new restaurants in Vancouver and raising two teenage daughters, Vij and his wife have published cookbooks and are nationally distributing their delicious frozen curries and packaged meals.
“But enough about me,” says Vij with a flirtatious grin, “now it’s time for you to have a taste of life.” He sets before me a spread of wild boar kebabs, samosas, grilled eggplants with chillies, and a side dish of yoghurt . . . just in case I can’t take the heat.