When renowned Vancouver chef Vikram Vij found himself in the maelstrom of celebrity four years ago, he took an extraordinary timeout to think about what it meant to him.
He returned to his native India and decided to become, in his words, "a little homeless."
He recalled: "Things were moving really fast for me; suddenly I was winning this award and that award and I wondered why it was happening to me. What had I done? What is so different about me?
"So I slept on the streets, I slept at train stations, I'd eat on the side streets. I mean, I had cash... I particularly wanted to be like one of the other people, that is how their lives are. I wanted to talk to them and they were talking to me. They were so nice and so friendly."
He'd meant to last 10 days the streets but found the going tough, he needed to shower and sleep — and he was forced to stop living rough after six days.
"What came out of it for me was that I understood we are all equal, we're all the same. For me, the coin fell on this side of the line. My father was able to send me to a really good school to study and I took that education," Vij said.
"It wasn't that I did anything special in my life in order to become this... the poor person working hard in India or any other developing nation is exactly as hard working as I am, I'm nothing special. That person didn't have the opportunity and I did. Vikram is just another human being who had a passion for something and went for it."
He called the experience "very humbling and very grounding."
Vij adds: "I think it was my form of doing penance in achieving what my goals were."
Growing up in New Delhi and Bombay until the age of 20, Vij received his chef certificate in Salzburg, Austria. He moved to Canada in 1989 to work at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta.
In September 1994, Vikram opened Vij's Restaurant in Vancouver. By early 1995, his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, joined him and they began collaborating on the menu.
The couple will have opened four restaurants by the end of 2015 to coincide with Vij turning 50. This includes New Vij's on Cambie Street in Vancouver, opening next spring, along with the original Vij's, Rangoli and My Shanti. Vij adds to this his original gourmet curries, which can be bought at grocery stores.
"With New Vij's, I'm going to start cooking the way they did 500 years ago, in clay pots and clay ovens. The styles of cooking would be more Tandoori style, literally like an Indian charcuterie place... I'm not going to make any stews or curries, I'm going to do marinated dishes with yoghurt and pomegranate and rosewater," he said.
His entrepreneurial flair keeps him busy, with store products and visits around B.C. and beyond to take part in cooking demonstrations and other appearances. As we talk, Vij stops and starts the interview several times, instructing his staff and preparing for departure to Kelowna, where he is doing a show at Hester Creek Winery. The night before he'd returned from Montreal and Niagara, where he'd been teaching as part of a fundraiser for Plan Canada.
He says he has always had tremendous energy and only needs four or five hours of sleep a night.
"I'm not the kind of guy who sits at home and flicks through channels. When I first opened the restaurant up, the goal was to bring awareness to the cuisine and the culture of India, and showcase that our cuisine was as complex and unique as any other out there, whether it was French or Italian," Vij said.
"I will not stop working just because of the wealth or the fame. There is always something on my plate. I'm always creating new projects... there is always something going on. I like to work the restaurant and the kitchen. I like to diversify myself."
And last month Vij became an investor on CBC's hit series Dragons' Den.
Vij is bringing his experience to a Whistler Chamber of Commerce event on Thursday, Nov. 20 at the Chateau Fairmont Whistler. For more information visit www.whistlerchamber.com.
Serving Up Unforgettable Customer Experiences will look at how Vij put his customers at the core of his business and became ever more successful. Vij's visit is the first talk as part of the chamber's Whistler Experience series.
"One thing I am going to mention is don't open up any business in life just purely to make money because you will become a slave to the dollar. What you need to do is work the room in a way that people feel they have come to your house and they feel comfortable. I get asked how I did it? It's because I love people," he said. "Make experiences very personal."
Vij Family's Chicken Curry
(From Vij's Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine by Vikram Vij & Meeru Dhalwala)
½ cup canola oil
2 cups finely chopped onions (2 large)
3 inch stick of cinnamon
3 Tbsp finely chopped garlic
2 Tbsp chopped ginger
2 cups chopped tomatoes (2 large)
1/2 Tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 Tsp turmeric
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp ground coriander
1 Tbsp garam masala
½ tsp ground cayenne pepper
3 lbs chicken thighs, bone in
1 cup sour cream, stirred
2 cups water
½ cup chopped cilantro (including stems)
In a large pan, heat oil on medium heat for one minute. Add onions and cinnamon, and sauté for another four minutes. Add ginger, garlic, tomatoes, salt, black pepper, turmeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala and cayenne. Cook this masala for five minutes, or until the oil separates from the masala.
Remove and discard skin from the chicken thighs. Wash thighs and add to the masala. Stir well. Cook chicken thighs for 10 minutes, until the chicken looks cooked on the outside. Add sour cream and water and stir well. Increase the heat to medium-high. When curry starts to boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring two or three times, until chicken is completely cooked. Poke the thighs with a knife. If the meat is still pink, cook for five more minutes. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Cool curry for at least half an hour.
Transfer cooled chicken to a mixing bowl. Wearing latex gloves, peel chicken meat off the bones. Discard bones and stir chicken back into the curry. Just before serving, heat curry on medium heat until it starts to boil lightly. Stir in cilantro.
To Serve: Divide curry evenly among six bowls. Serve with naan or rice.