What with only a few weeks to go until the start of one of GFR’s favourite culinary festivals, we had the opportunity to ask some questions with the Chef who has most probably done more to introduce the concept and cuisine of Modern Indian cooking to our great country than any other, the charming and most entertaining Mister Vikram Vij.
Chef Vij will presenting at Savour Stratford on Saturday the 21st of September 11am as part of the GE Cafe Chef Series, on Saturday 3pm on the City Hall Learning Centre , and on Sunday the 22nd at 11 am on the Toronto Star Culinary Stage. He’s going to be an extremely busy man!
Good Food Revolution: So Vikram, what have you been up to since we last bumped into you at The Stop’s Night Market?
Vikram Vij: Well, I just finished a huge gala for TIFF, 100 years of Indian Cinema and now I am looking forward to being at the Savour Stratford festival in september.
GFR: Have you been to Stratford previously? What normally comes to mind when you think of Stratford?
VV: No, I have never been to Stratford before but I am looking forward to meeting the farmers and the wine makers and the people who are going to be attending my events.
GFR: And what are you doing at Savour Stratford later this month?
VV: I will be cooking, and talking about Indian food and spices and matching great wineries with Indian spices. It is going to be lots of mingling and mixing with people.
GFR: And how will you be preparing for your Stratford appearance?
VV: I have some great students that will be assisting me and I am bringing my own roasted spices and we will have lots of fun cooking.
GFR: Are you planning on drawing some ingredients from the bounty of local Perth County Fall ingredients?
VV: All the produce that we will be using is coming from the local farmers and is all regional.
GFR: Seeing as you eat raw garlic every morning, have you tried any of the fantastic Ontario garlic?
VV: Yes I have not only eaten it but also cooked with it… and it is great.
GFR: Are there any locally grown ingredients that one finds in Ontario that one cannot source out in British Columbia?
VV: Sassafrass is something that is an east coast flavour.
GFR: Although you have said that you were always a “halwai; a chubby boy who loved his food and drink,” was there a pivotal moment when you decided you wished to become a Chef?
VV: More than a chef, it the fact that I wanted to bring awareness to my cuisine and the culture. I learnt french cooking first and then I bridged the gap by cooking Indian food.
GFR: When it comes to cooking Indian food at home what are some good starting tips for the novice?
VV: Sautéeing of the onions is the key and make sure that you have a glass of vino going with it. Cooking is meant to be fun and whymsical.
GFR: For you, what makes for the perfect curry?
VV: A good bottle of wine, a great conversation about life and some delicious curry made with lots of love and care.
GFR: Where do you usually eat when you are visiting Ontario?
VV: Toronto has such great restaurants and the Chefs are innovative, imaginative and are willing to take risks, like Patria, Weslodge, Bent, Bar Isabel, Marben.
GFR: What is your problem with the North American obsession with Butter Chicken?… or Chicken Tikka Masala for that matter?
VV: What pancakes are to a white person, Butter chicken is to us. The complexities of Indian food are so delicious that there are so many ways to make dishes. Butter Chicken or Chicken Tikka Masala are just two of the dishes from the huge repertoire of Indian cooking. It would be like saying that pizza and pasta are Italian cooking.
GFR: Do you have a favourite combination of spices?
VV: I love using Onions, Ginger, Garlic and then some whole spices of Cloves, Cinnamon, Nutmeg and then lots of Turmeric and Chilli powder.
GFR: Most people think of Indian food as being classed into Northern and Southern Indian cuisine, but are there more nuanced regional variations? And is any one of those particular regions especially loved by you? As you hail from the Punjab is their a special place in your heart (and stomach) for Punjabi dishes?
VV: My mom’s north Indian food is very tasty. I always remember my aunts home made pickles and her goat meat Achar.
GFR: Do you have a sensitive palate, or are you comfortable with a lot of heat in your food?
VV: The kind of heat, i like in my food is that my palette should be fine but by the time, I am finished with my meal, i should have a sweat on my forehead and on my back.
GFR: I’m very aware that you enjoy your wine. What has been your most memorable wine pairing with Indian food?
VV: I was just in Niagara and was attending the Cool Climate Chardonnay’s function called i4c, there I feed Steven Spurrier MW my curry and paired it with delicious cool climate Chardonnays and they worked really well. Peter Bodnar Rod was instrumental in bringing me to this revelation. I also love the style of Chateau des Charmes wines and their great acidity is a favourite of mine.
GFR: I know that you read Chemistry at university in Bombay. Do you ever apply science to your cooking a la Modernist cuisine? What do you think of that movement in general?
VV: Chemistry helps me understand the logic and the science behind what happens to ingredients and why my grandmother use to put some spices first and then some afterwards. When I was growing up, I only heard the old wives tales but never understood Why? Chemistry helped me a lot. Molecular gastronomy is very interesting to taste and see the uniqueness but I cannot fill up on foams and essences.
GFR: Having lived and worked in India, Austria, and Canada, how would you compare the food culture and hospitality of each of them?
VV: India is family eating, lots of bold and robust flavours, Austria is very sophisticated and subtle, Canada is young and pure and very impressionable.
GFR: Do you know of other Indian Chefs in Canada who are pushing the concept of Modern Indian in the same manner as yourself?
VV: I personally , think there are great Indian chefs coming through some great culinary colleges and I have met a few and I am so impressed with their hard work. They are focussed and want to achieve something in life. When I was in the Chefs School, we worked very hard and needed to, otherwise the Austrian teachers would not pass you and they were very very long days.
GFR: After you have finished your presentation at Savour Stratford what do you plan to do with your time there?
VV: I think, I am going to go for a run in the fields, enjoy the fall and maybe read something. I do miss that aspect of my busy life. Sometimes, I just do not get the time to listen to music and sing along.
GFR: Well Vikram, we certainly look forward to seeing you once again when you visit Stratford, and perhaps we can share a bottle of great Canadian Chardonnay together!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he still remembers when Chef Vij crashed his infamous 36th birthday party at Niagara Street Café.