Catching up with Vikram Vij prior to Chef’s Challenge: The Ultimate Battle for a Cure

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Originally posted to Ama’s weekly column on Toronto is Awesome.

The highly anticipated 4th annual Chef’s Challenge: The Ultimate Battle for a Cure is just around the corner, taking place on Saturday February 8th in support of Mount Sinai.

This year, Chef’s Challenge will be hosted by none other than Giada de Laurentiis alongside a fabulous array of Food Network chefs including the one and only Vikram Vij, star chef and restauranteur of Vij’s in Vancouver.

I had the chance to catch up with him prior to his appearance this weekend at Chef’s Challenge and got to chat with him about all things Indian food and Vancouver:

(1) How are you preparing for Chef’s Challenge?
I have studied all the other chefs and know what their strengths are and what style of food they prepare. Other than that, I am focused on what I do and what I want to cook. 

(2) Was there a pivotal moment in your life when you decided, “Yes, I want to be a chef!”
I remember sitting with my grandfather, who liked to drink. He said to me at a young age “I want you to become a restaurant owner, and I will be your bartender. You can cook and I can drink” from their I was inspired to open a restaurant with my grandfather’s name “Vij” in his honour. 

(3) How would you compare the BC food scene to Toronto?
I think both cities have great terrior for great produce and wines which the local chefs can take full advantage of.

In BC we have an amazing abundance of local produce, seafood and wines from the Okanagan, that it is hard not to appreciate what we have in our own backyard. I think chefs in BC are doing a great job of creating awareness of these products and their heritage, that rivals what is being done in Toronto.

That said, there is no question that Toronto is a bigger city, with more restaurants and a lot happening in the local food scene from charcuterie to cheese.

(4) What is one thing that completes a good meal?
Great wine and copious amounts of it while having great conversation with friends and family.

(5) What inspires you about being in the kitchen?

Finding and using personal creativity. I am always getting inspiration from my world travels and transforming it from one palette, onto the plate and sharing it with everybody.

Recipes are important when you are learning a new dish or cuisine, but cooking should be fun and creative. You should cook with your family and friends and try to put your own touch and love in the food. 

(6) Tell me the difference about the regional cooking of Indian food (North, South, etc.)

North Indian cooking is mostly yoghurt based or richer gravies. South uses its natural abundance of Coconut so lots of coconut water, dried coconut and lots of recipes based on seafood as well, due to the coastal areas.

(7) Why are people so drawn to Butter Chicken and Chicken Marsala  
Because, that is what we as Indian chefs presented to them first and every menu has them, so people would naturally think that they are the only dishes of India. Plus a good butter chicken is like a great hamburger, everybody loves it.

(8) How did you come to open your restaurant and what was the most difficult part?
The most difficult part in the beginning was worrying if I would make enough money to keep it going. Back then $100 a day was what I needed to break even. So if I made $97 dollars, I would ring in an order of naan bread, just to make myself feel good that we got to $100 dollars that day. I never gave up and the hard work of my family, of Meeru Dhalwala my wife and co-owner, and my staff paved the way to where we are today.

(9) If you could dine with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

Gandhiji – because of his powerful vision to free India. He united people while believing in its own country called ” India” , and he did this using a non violent movement that many great world leaders have followed and found inspiration from;  for example: Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Barack Obama.

Don’t forget to find out more about Chef’s Challenge happening this weekend. Details can be found here.