Chef Vikram Vij's Addition to the Food Memoir Fever
Food appreciation has become a full-blown obsession in recent years. “Foodies” hit new restaurants as if they were summits to be bagged, Instagramming food feats with hashtags like #foodporn and #foodstagram. Food memoirs, with their juicy insights into the personal lives of chefs and inner workings of restaurants, are being gobbled up with equal relish and fictionalized in films.
Vancouver-based chef Vikram Vij has added his own story to shelves. In Vij: A Chef’s One-Way Ticket to Canada with Indian Spices in His Suitcase, Vij recounts with his pride his journey from the Punjab region of northern India all the way to western Canada, where his eponymous café, Vij’s, became the cornerstone of an Indian food empire.
Born in northern Indian in 1964, Vij grew up in a middle-class household that moved from Amritsar to Delhi, and eventually Mumbai. By Vij’s own account, he was restless, a thrill seeker, a dreamer. Drawn by the glamour of Mumbai’s five star hotels, young Vij would show up in his best pants and a freshly ironed shirt just to have the chance to wander the hotels’ marble lobbies and air-conditioned corridors. When sectarian violence broke out in India in 1984, Vij’s father decided it was time to send his son elsewhere. A year shy of earning his Bachelor of Science, Vij abandoned his study of chemistry and headed to a school of hospitality management in Austria, to begin his formal study of food.
the noise, my God: the howling mutts, begging for scraps, the thwacking of heavy knives against butcher blocks
The first half of Vij’s memoir is the most entertaining, reflecting perhaps the Technicolor emotions of childhood and young adulthood. India is depicted as a cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds, where “the smell of chickens would hit you like a gut punch”, and “the noise, my God: the howling mutts, begging for scraps, the thwacking of heavy knives against butcher blocks,” the clucking of chickens, honking of horns, the sellers competing for customers, all provided a colorful chaos that Vij adored. This was followed by the roller-coaster thrills of adapting to a new country when Vij left for Austria. There, the quiet of the countryside was “deafening”, the boiled beef tongue served for dinner impossible to keep down, the language best learned with the help of an Austrian girlfriend.
Vij’s is unsparing in his portraits of the people in his life, recounting his grandfather’s gambling along with his doting support, his father’s temper as well as his determination. Vij is equally frank about himself, acknowledging his own shortcomings as well as making clear his ambition and resolve. Vij’s willingness to work seven days a week landed him a job at a prestigious Relais & Châteaux property in the Alps that had hosted royalty. Working his way up the ranks, Vij eventually made his way into the hotel’s Michelin-starred kitchen. When a VIP guest asked the kitchen to prepare him something spicy, Vij was called in. That guest turned out to be a renowned Canadian hotelier, who offered Vij a job in Banff on the spot. And with that, Vij’s Canadian adventure began.
Whether authored by a chef or a food writer, the best food memoirs offer more than a glimpse inside the kitchen or a peek into someone’s personal life. Anthony Bourdain jump-started the genre back in the year 2000 with his salty tell-all, Kitchen Confidential, sharing the raucous life of a New York City chef’s life with equal parts humor and obscenity. Heat shifts the perspective from first person to third, as food writer and home cook Bill Buford apprentices with members of the food glitterati, from celebrity chef Mario Batali to world-famous Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, and fills out the pages with practical cooking tips. In Blood, Bones and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton shares about her love life as well as her kitchen, and after marrying an Italian, records astute observations about everything from traditional southern Italian families to ravioli. Ruth Reichl tells tall and entertaining tales about her many disguises as the New York Times restaurant editor (think wigs, outfits, accents) in Garlic and Sapphires, exploring bigger questions of treatment based on appearance. Tamar Adler expounds on her cooking philosophy in An Everlasting Meal, which is also generously sprinkled with accessible recipes to reclaim the kitchen.
So what does Vij’s story add to the genre? In the second half of the book, the arrival of Vij’s parents to Vancouver and his whirlwind romance with Meeru Dhalwala add charm to his arrival to Vancouver. But as those relationships mellow, the narrative loses some of its spark. The inner workings of his restaurant will likely be appreciated by those who have been lucky enough to score a table at one of his restaurants or who enjoyed his appearances on Canadian television. Those who aren’t already familiar with Vij may not be as fascinated by the minutiae. The details of taking out a loan to open a processing plant for his line of frozen food, or of choosing a lantern design for the décor of his restaurant expansion, will appeal only to Vij’s most hard-core fans—if that. Some kind of kitchen or recipe tips would have been appreciated more. The “Eight Key Lessons” with which Vij closes his book feel obvious, and the final one, “Learn from Your Failures” makes for an anti-climactic ending. (He would have done better to end on his first lesson, “Be Yourself”, which Vij clearly, exuberantly does.)
However, the memoir gives Vij a space to share his philosophy about both food and people with a wider audience. Sourcing should be local and sustainable. Indian cooking goes far beyond the standard curry house fare and merits the same respect that Western society awards to European cuisines. Like the cuisines, each customer deserves as much respect as another. (The notorious no-reservations policy means that celebrities from Harrison Ford to Martha Stewart have stood in line for a table, just like everyone else.) An egalitarian attitude is also applied to staff, who share tips as well as responsibilities. Vij may be plagued by the same braggadocio that other male celebrity chefs emanate (looking at you, Bourdain and Batali), but in Vij, that larger than life persona belies a profound respect for others.
It also provides a place for Vij to pay homage to many of the people who helped him on his journey. His second ex-wife (and mother of his two daughters), Meeru Dhalwala, has been largely behind the scenes in Vij’s success, but finally gets her due in this memoir, where her role in training and managing kitchen staff, and notably, in researching and testing new recipes for both Vij’s and its offshoot, Rangoli, is revealed. Even as their marriage unravels within the pages of the book, the respect which Vij holds for Dhalwala is clear.
Vij also honors his grandfather, “Dadaji”, remembering their walks through the markets of Amritsar, and their shared dream of opening a restaurant one day. Vij explains that his Vancouver restaurant is not named after himself, but after his beloved grandfather. Without a doubt, the younger Vij’s accomplishments would have done his grandfather proud.