In the heart of an industrial complex on the border of Cloverdale and Langley, one building stands out from amongst the uniform, drab blocks of grey and beige that line the dead-end street.
It’s the last warehouse on the block, but it would be difficult to miss – boldly painted mustard yellow, lime green and rich burgundy.
If the building’s colour scheme wasn’t enough of a clue, the wall of mouth-watering aroma that hits as you step into the lobby makes it abundantly clear – this is no paper mill or electronics factory.
It’s the newest venture for celebrated Indian chef Vikram Vij, who, after three years of planning, designing and building, opened the facility in May of this year.
The 28,000-square-foot production plant is home to Vij’s Inspired Indian Cuisine, where several of the chef’s most popular restaurant dishes are being hand-cooked in mass quantities, packaged, frozen and distributed to grocery stores, to be prepared and enjoyed at home.
As owner of Vancouver restaurants Vij’s and Rangoli – his namesake once touted by a New York Times columnist as “easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world” – he and his business partner/wife, Meeru Dhalawala, have shone light upon the world of Indian cuisine beyond tikka masala and butter chicken.
Since first opening Vij’s in 1994, he has published two award-winning cookbooks, opened restaurant/market Rangoli, had multiple appearances on Food Network Canada and become a fixture of the country’s culinary scene.
It’s an impressive list of accomplishments for someone who, as a young man, didn’t want anything to do with his home country of India, its cuisine or its culture.
“I didn’t want to be an Indian chef – I wanted to get out of there,” Vij recalls of his decision to leave his home in Bombay at the age of 19, when he headed to Austria to study French cuisine in Salzburg.
Wanting to break free from the stigma of living in a perceived “crap, poor” country such as India, he spent several years of working in fine dining in Europe, before moving to Canada in 1989 to take a job at the Banff Springs Hotel. But as India’s economic and social profile improved on the international stage, Vij began to realize his Indian heritage – not to mention his knowledge of its bold, flavourful cuisine – was something to be embraced, not ashamed of.
“After 26 years, I’m finally becoming more of an Indian.”
Since bursting into the Vancouver culinary scene 17 years ago, Vij has become what he describes as “an unappointed ambassador” for Indian cuisine, who remains true to his one mission, no matter what business venture he embarks on.
“I want to bring the awareness of my cuisine and my culture – that’s the only vision I’ve ever had,” he says. “It’s really important that people realize that Indian food is as complex and as flavourful as any other cuisine in the world.”
Building the Surrey facility is merely another step along the 46-year-old’s path of spreading the “good word” about Indian food. And he insists the same love, care and attention is put into every batch of curry prepared on-site as the dishes served up at his Vancouver eateries.
While guidelines are followed for each recipe, Vij said each batch ends up with its own character – something that is true to what he feels is the essence of good cooking.
“I don’t want it to become a formula,” he says. “It won’t taste exactly the same from one time to another. And that’s OK – that’s cooking. Anybody who has cooked will realize that’s what it’s like.”
Making himself available to taste-test each product before it’s packaged and frozen is just one example of how hands-on Vij has been with this project. As someone who admittedly thrives on stress, he was on the front-lines every step of the way, from battling with the city for approval of permits, to the building’s design, construction and food-safety inspection processes.
There have been a few bumps along the way, including an ill-fitting piece of machinery that needed to be replaced at an expense of a few hundred thousand dollars.
Vij is quick to admit that, with a final price tag of $7 million, the facility may have been a tad on the ambitious side.
“I bit off way more than I could chew.”
He’s optimistic, however, that as the demand for the Inspired Indian Cuisine line grows, so will the need for such a large production space. The 300-gram packages – in such tempting flavours as caramelized onion and ginger lamb curry, curried kale and potatoes and coconut beef curry – are currently available all throughout B.C., as well as in Alberta and Ontario, with plans to expand across the country and into the U.S.
And now that this project is off and running, he’s already planning his next endeavour.
On top of moving Vij’s to a Cambie Street location in the new year, the entrepreneur also has his eye on a location for a new restaurant – yet to be named – at South Surrey’s Morgan Crossing.
It’s his hope that by bringing his passion for Indian cuisine into a new region and demographic, he’s able to reach those who may have not experienced it, either at his restaurant, or in the comfort of their own home.
“I never wanted my cooking to be an elitist cuisine. Every human being can afford to eat my food. Even if it’s once a month, you can indulge a little bit at home.”