By NICK FEARNS
It’s not every day you can sample Indian cuisine prepared by a master and watch him practise his craft. Students and faculty at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus didn’t get one night, they got two.
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Vikram Vij visited Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute. On Oct. 15 Vij held a special dinner event at the Benchmark restaurant attended by over 70 people. The next day he spoke to students and faculty about learning Indian cuisine as well as his experiences as a chef born in India. He also cooked with Niagara College instructors and local chefs after his talk.
“If 14 or 20 years ago you asked to host an Indian dinner at [Benchmark] restaurant with Indian food, probably five people would have showed up. And of those five, three of them would be family and two of them would have been staff,” said Vij. “Last night, you saw the enthusiasm that 80 people showed up for a sit-down Indian dinner is a testament of how Indian cuisine and culture has come a long way.”
Born in India in 1964, Vij moved to Canada in 1989 to work at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta. He has since opened two restaurants, Vij’s Restaurant in 1994 and Vij’s Rangoli in 2004.
Vij is also the past president and active member of the Chef’s Table Society of British Columbia, which is dedicated to supporting innovative and sustainable food programs involving chefs, producers and others working in the local food industry.
He said it is not hard to have a sustainable Indian cuisine
“I think about it as a village in India. A person grows tomatoes, a person grows onions. They grow their vegetables and at seven o’clock in the evening, they bring their wares to the market; it’s a form of a bazaar, a form of a meeting place in the evening.”
"This is what I have done. It is not a formula. It is not a bandwagon. It’s not like, ‘Oh, my god, this is a new concept,’” said Vij, adding, “I just took what my background was, and created what I did and put it on a plate, so what you actually taste is Vikram Vij on a plate.”
Vij’s lecture was formatted so he could show how to cook an Indian dish, but also take questions from the audience. Niagara College’s Culinary program students assisted, helping pass around the many spices Vij had brought and distribute the food.
For Vij, teaching isn’t just showcasing the food.
"Teaching Indian cuisine to the younger students of Niagara College means a lot to me personally, because I believe that it will build tolerance for other cuisines and cultures.”
By trying a different culture’s food, it opens the door to a greater understanding and acceptance of that culture.
Vij took questions from the audience including one on why he employs only women as cooks in his restaurants. He explained the 80 women he employs came about as an accident, not on purpose.
“An aunty of mine said to me, ‘I will find you all your kitchen staff you ever need, just don’t get males in there because we love coming and talking about our in-laws and our husbands. It’s almost like a therapy for us. If you put a guy in there, he might have an issue,’ so I said yeah, and it works out.”
Vij added that he does employ men, in the dish washing areas.
Many students who attended the lecture said it was interesting and informative.
Craig Youdale, acting dean of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute, said, “It is important he recognises our particular school is leading the way in innovating and connecting with industry. He sees it was the best opportunity to showcase his passion and belief in Indian cuisine.”
Youdale added Vij’s lecture allowed students to “learn more and appreciate more” Indian cuisine.
Bethany Diplock, 18, of St. Catharines, said, “When I heard Vikram would be here I was quite excited.” She lives in a building with many international students and loves the “heat, flavour, and smell” of Indian cuisine. She didn’t find the served chicken dish was too spicy, adding, “I love spicy food, the different flavours blending together.”
Apoorua Athavale, 23, in the Culinary Management program, said she was glad to hear Vij would be coming here. “I have seen him on Top Chef and feel he represents India.”
Athavale said she enjoyed the blend Vij created, but the level of spiciness was “basic.”
For Vij, the key to cooking excellent Indian cuisine is “to know when to add the spices, how much to roast, how many to roast, what happens to those spices, the understanding of the spices.”
“Indian cooking is like playing music. You don’t just pick up the guitar and start playing music; you need to know the notes, to understand the notes. You have to understand where it is coming from. Once you understand that, it’s beautiful music. But unless you understand that, you are screwed.”