Business

The celebrity chef who brought posh curries to Canada

Vikram Vij
Image caption Mr Vij's first restaurant almost didn't survive its first year

It was a determination never to serve chicken tikka masala that almost stopped the career of celebrity chef Vikram Vij just as he was starting out.

Today Mr Vij is one of the best-known chefs in Canada, a regular on the country's TV food shows, and the author of best-selling cookery books.

People queue around the block to eat at his three Indian restaurants in Vancouver. And his curry ready meals are stocked at supermarkets across the country.

Yet all the success, and his multi-million dollar fortune, almost didn't happen.

For back in 1994, when Mr Vij opened his first restaurant in Vancouver, aged 30, his refusal to serve the standard dishes available in most Indian eateries in Canada meant that customers were very thin on the ground.

And despite being backed by an investment of 23,000 Canadian dollars ($19,000; £12,500) from his father, the restaurant - Vij's - came close to having to shut down in its first 12 months.

Image copyright Vij's
Image caption Mr Vij continues to sell dishes not found in a regular Western world curry restaurant

Mr Vij, now 50, says: "It was like I had hit rock bottom. I had reached the point where I had no more cash."

Things were so bleak that he had to encourage customers to order dishes that had a higher profit margin.

"If they ordered a chicken curry, I would say 'order the lamb', because I knew that the profit on the lamb was maybe a dollar more," he says.

"So if at the end of the day, even if we just made $10 more, it was $10 in my pocket."

Thankfully, Mr Vij soon found out how vital good reviews are for restaurants.

Image copyright CBC
Image caption Mr Vij (second from the right) has been a judge on the Canadian Dragons' Den

In the months that followed, a string of food critics penned very positive reviews about Vij's, praising both its upmarket Indian cuisine, and the good service. This resulted in diners arriving in ever greater numbers.

So much so that within a few years Vij's needed to relocated to a much larger premises. And Mr Vij has never looked back.

'Egotism and narcissism'

Born in the Indian city of Amritsar to a relatively wealthy family, as a child Mr Vij wanted to be a Bollywood actor, before gravitating towards a career as a chef.

Aged 19 he left the country to train in classical cooking in Salzburg, Austria. Upon graduating, he got a job at a hotel in Banff, a small town in the Canadian province of Alberta, nestled in the Rocky Mountains.

It was there he remained until opening his own restaurant in Vancouver.

Image copyright Vij's
Image caption Mr Vij's restaurants remain popular with diners

With Mr Vij's wife Meeru Dhalwala also heavily involved in the business, a second restaurant opened in 2004, followed by a third in Vancouver, and another in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.

There is also a mobile food cart that moves around Vancouver, and a factory kitchen which makes the ready meals. And a new restaurant will soon open at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, the first place that Mr Vij worked in Canada.

As Mr Vij's restaurants became increasingly well known, he started to be invited onto cookery TV shows, which further increased his profile. He has also been a judge on the Canadian version of the Dragons' Den entrepreneurship show, and with his wife, written two cookbooks.

Image copyright Vij's
Image caption Mr Vij now owns three restaurants in Vancouver and another in Victoria

He gets a little uncomfortable when asked to talk about how he deals with being a public figure, but admits that the promotion is good for business.

"I think you need a little bit of that egotism and narcissism," he says. "Particularly for someone who is as much of a public figure as he is a businessman.

"You know, your face and your personality are very much part of the brand."

Coals to Newcastle

On a day-to-day basis Mr Vij now works as the front of house at his main Vij's restaurant in Vancouver, meeting and greeting diners. He describes the restaurants as his "babies".

"They're created by me and Meeru, who has done an extremely good job of maintaining the kitchen, the staff, the ladies, and managing the whole thing," he says.

Image copyright Vij's
Image caption Mr Vij now dreams of exporting to his home country of India

"So I am totally involved in this, and continue to be involved.

"The day I'm not involved with my own business, that's the day I will be underground basically."

Looking ahead, Mr Vij now wants to start selling his ready meals internationally ... including exporting them to India.

"The long-term vision is to take my Indian food ... back to India, and say 'look, one of your sons left the country, he went to Canada, he became successful, and now he's giving back to the country the same love and passion'.

"I always think of India as my my mother. It would be like cooking for my mother.

"One day I want to be able to tell my mum that 'look, you gave me all this love and nurturing, and I'm giving it back to you'."

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