Vikram Vij says success came at a cost
Famed chef admits ego led to the end of his marriage
Vikram Vij never dreamed he would become an acclaimed chef in his adopted homeland, or that he would own a culinary empire by the age of 50.
Nor did the Vancouverbased chef foresee he would be called upon by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to cook for Canadian Forces overseas, or that he would serve celebrities like Tom Cruise and Martha Stewart.
In his new memoir, Vij: A Chef’s One-Way Ticket to Canada with Indian Spices in His Suitcase (Penguin Random House), the chef reflects on his journey from India to Austria, where he went to school, and finally to Canada.
“I’m like this little kitchen knife,” he says during a recent interview in Toronto, while holding up a chef’s knife.
“I went to Austria and I was beaten and shaped. And I was sharpened in Canada. This is who I am. I’m an alloy of these three countries. Knives are never made of one element. They’re made of two, three different elements.”
Vij says his goal throughout his career has been to expose Canadians to the cooking culture he left behind in India and show that the cuisine is more than butter chicken and tikka masala.
He uses local food and drink and adds his own twist.
“I’m not saying I’m authentic Indian. I am Vikram Vij and that’s the food you’re eating...We’re all products of where we live,” he says.
The Amritsar, India-born chef says he’s delighted that Canadians have embraced his style of cooking, and pointed to a fundraiser in Chatham, Ont., last week that attracted 175 people.
“Imagine 25 years ago if somebody had said, ‘Let’s go and watch an Indian chef cook and eat his food,’ probably five people would have showed up, and out of those five, four of them would have been family members because they would have been there just to support you,” Vij says.
“So my point is we’ve come a long way as a nation.”
He too has come a long way and credits his ex-wife Meeru Dhalwala for helping him build his brand.
Along with his flagship restaurant Vij’s, opened in 1994, he and Dhalwala also co-own Rangoli and have collaborated on three books: Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey; Vij’s: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine; and Vij’s Indian.
Vij also became a household name in Canada with TV show appearances on Top Chef Canada, Chopped Canada, Recipe to Riches and Dragons’ Den, which helped his empire grow to include other restaurants and a food truck, plus partnerships with brands including Air Canada, Chefs Plate and Neal Brothers.
But he admits his success has come at the expense of his marriage.
The couple still do work together and have weekly family dinners with their daughters when they’re all in Vancouver.
“I still love Meeru. We hang out all the time. We joke all the time. She is the love of my life. I have hurt her tremendously because of my ego, doing 50 things by the age of 50. And I’m OK to admit it because admitting to your crime is the first step towards recovery. You can always point fingers and say, ‘She did it. He did it.’
“I put it in the book: ‘If you’re going to fail, fail loudly. Say it: I screwed up.’”