If you visit Vikram Vij’s eponymous restaurant in Vancouver’s Cambie Village, be prepared for a wait. Vij’s has upheld a strict policy against taking reservations ever since its opening in 1994, and the lines that form every night around dinnertime have become legendary.
“Gandhi once said that we are all equal,” says Vij, “and that is exactly how I chose to live my life.” To Vij, everyone visiting the restaurant is a VIP, and no one – no matter how famous – should be able to skip the queue. But anyone familiar with the world-renowned restaurant’s unique take on Indian cuisine knows that it’s well worth the wait.
For over 20 years, Vij has worked to bring Indian cuisine to the world. He was born in Kanpur, India, grew up in Amritsar and New Delhi. After studying hotel management and training as a chef in Austria, Vij moved to Canada in 1989 and worked at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta before making Vancouver his home in 1992.
In 1994, he and business partner Meeru Dhalwala opened Vij’s and have since grown what began as a humble 16-seat operation into an empire that includes several restaurants, a line of packaged gourmet curries, and a collection of best-selling cookbooks.
Despite becoming a well-known national figure through his participation as a judge on TV shows such as Top Chef Canada and Recipe to Riches, along with a season as an investor on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Vij maintains a close connection to the Vancouver community. He is a long-time advocate of using locally sourced ingredients, and has frequently worked with the UBC Farm to supply his restaurants.
A few years ago, Vij and Dhalwala donated $250,000 to UBC for the extensive renovation of a 1980s UBC culinary lab. Reopened in 2012 as “Vij’s Kitchen,” (see slideshow below) the old lab now serves as a teaching and learning space where students study food, nutrition and health, healthy eating and healthy communities, and multicultural cuisine.
“I’m absolutely passionate about the education of young people, particularly when it comes to cooking and culinary training,” said Vij at the time. “This educational kitchen facility will be something the chefs of the future can learn in.” He also supports UBC’s mandate to educate global citizens and to provide leadership for sustainable urban farming.
In recognition of their many contributions to the Vancouver community, Vij and Dhalwala were awarded an honorary doctorate from UBC in May 2016.
Who was your childhood hero?
My grandfather. He drank, smoked and enjoyed his life to the fullest.
Describe the place you most like to spend time.
In the kitchen, with a glass of vino in my hand.
What was the last thing you read?
My autobiography. It’s a good read! (Vij: A Chef’s One-Way Ticket to Canada with Indian Spices in his Suitcase)
What or who makes you laugh out loud?
My two daughters. They crack me up. I especially love listening to them complain about me!
What’s the most important lesson you ever learned?
Dristi – it means keeping your focus and remaining humble.
What’s your idea of the perfect day?
Go for a walk, have a nap, cook and relax.
What was your nickname at school?
If a genie granted you one wish, what would it be?
For Indian food to be a staple of everyone’s culinary repertoire.
What item have you owned for the longest time?
I’m not a fan of material items, so I would say the THING I’ve had the longest would be my attitude towards life!
What is your latest purchase?
An old fountain pen. I love to write with it. It’s one of the few material items I really love.
Whom do you most admire (living or dead) and why?
Gandhi, because he single-handedly changed the course of a nation and, I believe, the attitudes of millions of people.
What would you like your epitaph to say?
He encouraged us to try Indian food – and we loved it!
If you could invent something, what would it be?
A way to be in two, three, or four places at the same time.
In which era would you most like to have lived, and why?
It’s hard to imagine living in another era. I’m truly blessed to be here now, and I don’t think I’d want it any other way.
What are you afraid of?
Nothing. I’m pretty fearless.
Name the skill or talent you would most like to have.
I originally wanted to be a Bollywood actor, but my father said “No,” and that I’d never make it, so maybe if I’d had better acting skills…
Which three pieces of music would you take to that desert island?
I love to crank Indian music up loud. So as long as it’s loud and it’s got a great beat, I’ll be happy.
What is your pet peeve?
Cellphone use in restaurants – particularly taking photos of your food. It’s a problem for our society. We are taking the social aspect out of going for dinner, and there will be consequences if it continues. I’m actually speaking at TEDx Stanley Park on exactly this topic in March, because it’s such a threat to traditional dining and socializing.
What are some of your UBC highlights?
Getting an honorary degree from UBC was my highlight of 2016. I was so touched and humbled. Another highlight was when Vij’s Kitchen opened – a training kitchen at UBC that Meeru and I helped to fund. It is already turning out some great graduates.
Follow Vij’s @eatdrinkvijs
Vij’s Kitchen opened in 2012 at UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems. Explore a gallery of photos from the opening ceremony in the slideshow below: