Vikram Vij Cooking Demo: More than Food
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“Restaurants are always an extension of the chef; who they are, what they believe in.”
So says Vikram Vij, celebrity chef and owner of three restaurants in Vancouver, B.C.: the award-winning Vij’s, Rangoli and My Shanti, along Vij’s Railway Express gourmet food truck.
So what does this restauranteur believe in?
“Cooking is a democracy,” he says, explaining his goals of promoting equality and breaking down barriers between cuisines.
“Rather than being an Indian, a French, a Canadian and a German cuisine, we should be a cuisine of the world,” says Vij.
His aptly-named “Cooking without Borders: The Ring of Fire” events in mid-April marked Vij’s first visit to Maui, a place he likened to “paradise on earth.”
The events included a cooking demo in collaboration with Japengo chef de cuisine Gevin Utrillo, a “talk story” session at Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa and an upscale dinner at Pūlehu, an Italian Grill with executive chef Francois Milliet from The Westin Kā’anapali Ocean Resort Villas.
Vij says the culinary experience should be about more than food.
“We break bread with each other, it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your ethnicity is, what your culture is; you learn to accept people,” he explains.
Born and raised in India, Vij moved to Austria at age 20, earning his chef certificate from the Salzburg Hotel Management School. He later moved to Canada to work at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta, and established his first Vancouver restaurant in 1994.
As far as his culture and cuisine, Vij says Indian food shouldn’t be as complicated — or overly spicy — as many people believe.
“That is a myth,” he says. “Indian food is meant to be flavorfully spicy. By the time you finish you should have a little glow, a little sweat about your food; your palate should not be too spicy.”
Vij explains that in India and other countries near the equator, spices like ginger, cloves and cinnamon create heat from the inside out, providing a natural way for the body to cool down. Many of those spices are also known for their health benefits.
“It is a proven fact that when you eat turmeric, when you eat coriander, when you eat cloves, they all have medicinal value to them,” he says.
For instance, spice blend Garam Masala is touted as an immunity-builder, pain killer, digestive aid and much more, according to curejoy.com. The site also calls turmeric a “wonder herb” and “super drug,” since it’s packed with vital minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
Vij compares Indian spices to musical notes that sing to him. The chef wants to demystify those spices, inspire quality and reinvigorate an awareness of the cuisine, rooted in an age-old culture.
“Indian food is not just Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala; there’s more to it,” he explains. “’Masala’ is a blend of onions, ginger, garlic and a starting point of every Indian cooking is a masala.”
At Vij’s flagship restaurant in Canada, he says the food is made with patience, passion and love; women dominate the kitchen, a fact that impressed Japengo chef Gevin Utrillo when he visited Vancouver.
“In my kitchen, I’ve got one female chef, and she rocks,” says Utrillo, “and just seeing his kitchen like that, it felt great. It inspired me; I started cross-training more women chefs in my kitchen.”
At the Hyatt cooking demo, Vij chatted with guests as he made a chicken curry recipe come to life, and was inspired to serve the dish in coconut husks after noticing them at Japengo. He urged people to taste all the spices on the table, from cumin to coriander to cayenne, and to eat with their hands.
He shared tricks of his trade with guests, telling them to roast whole spices first (since they take longer to cook), then add ground spices. He also advised them to to wait until the spices have cooked down before adding any salt.
“Every Indian spice; cumin, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and mace, because they grow in the ground, they have natural saltiness,” he says.
Vij also encouraged people to not follow the recipe exactly or measure ingredients (unless they’re baking) and to always go with what inspires them.
“Impromptu cooking is very much like music,” he explains. “You don’t go in with the attitude of knowing exactly how you’re going to play; you just improvise. This is my stage and I’m here to perform.”
Vij did indeed entertain and educate during the two-hour cooking demo. Along with the curry, he added a spontaneous creation, crafting a raita out of fresh papaya, mango and cilantro.
He says appreciating the local bounty of places like Maui is crucial to the craft, along with recognizing that “spicy” means different things to different people.
“The beautiful part about life is all our palates are different,” says Vij.
With his lively personality, Vij has become a popular TV presence. He served as guest judge on Top Chef: Canada multiple times, and appeared as an investor on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. In March 2013, Vij hosted the world’s first ever live-streamed cook-along, Cook Live with Vikram Vij, which drew in 10,000 viewers. He’s also funded the opening of Vij’s Kitchen, a state-of-the-art culinary education facility at the University of British Columbia. Vij has been a certified sommelier since 2001, and he’s co-authored two cookbooks so far.
With all his acclaim, Vij’s restaurant sees lines out the door, often with celebrities waiting alongside the rest. Once people make it inside, there’s a lounge in the back with drinks and little tastes from the kitchen, served while people wait for their tables. He says “everybody is a VIP.”
“I wanted everyone to be equal,” Vij explains. “I wanted everybody to come and hang out in the back, have some food, eat and enjoy.”