If you have ever visited Vancouver, you were probably directed to Vij's — a splendid Indian restaurant run by Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala. The restaurant has garnered swooning praise over the years for its sexy, dim-lit interior, its fragrant and fresh interpretation of classic Indian dishes, and its innovative integration of wine and cocktails with the menu.
Well, last week I was in Vancouver, and Vikram Vij himself welcomed me into this kitchen. I got to peek into his home kitchen and see how not one but two trained chefs cook at home! Come see how they marry a warm, homestyle kitchen with the efficiency of restaurant cooking.
Vikram and Meeru are passionate restaurateurs, but they also have a home life infused with the good food they share at their restaurant. They recently shared their love of home cooking in a new book, Vij's at Home: Relax, Honey. They clearly love to entertain at home, throwing huge parties for friends and colleagues. But they also like the intimate rhythms of cooking at home with their young daughters.
Vikram and Meeru's kitchen is a gorgeous blend of restaurant-inspired design, with an extremely serious professional range and hood, and lengths of stainless steel countertop. (Note on that stove: It has an integrated charcoal grill, with an exhaust to blow away all the smoke. I was impressed. And jealous.) But unlike many kitchens decked out in stainless steel, this one also has warmth, with honeyed wood cabinets and a long butcher block island in the center of the kitchen.
Vikram walked through the kitchen, opening cupboards and pulling out tools. In person, Vikram is warm, funny, and quite keen to explain the choices they made. He also rattled off a few differences he and Meeru had in deciding how to lay out the recently remodeled kitchen (it's only three years old, in its current state). He and Meeru are clearly a marriage of complementing opposites, and he played up the push-pull of their differing opinions when talking about the kitchen. "I wanted it to be even more commercial than it is. I wanted a full restaurant kitchen!" But Meeru said no, this is home! She insisted on the wood finishes as well, bringing a modern yet warm touch to the kitchen.
Vikram also growled a bit about the laundry space in the kitchen. "I would have preferred not to have had the laundry in the kitchen. You know, for me, a kitchen is for cooking. There were other places you could have tucked that machine in; I could have used that counter for a much better spot!"
One thing I love about the kitchen is how it is its own space, yet still open to the patio (next to a little vegetable garden) and the dining room. It combines the best of the open kitchen with the best of a separated kitchen. Vikram and Meeru explain in their latest book how their dining room for years was just an office; they would have dinner parties and their guests would be balancing plates on their knees in the living room. Finally, as their daughters got older they decided to cook together as a family more often, and so the dining room was created. It was actually this dining room that inspired their new book.
Vikram explains how important it is to him to cook with his daughters. He creates recipes just for them, including his Butter Chicken Schnitzel, a dish born out of his culinary training in Austria and his daughters' yearning for chicken nuggets. "Chicken nuggets?! No way." says Vikram. "So I made up Butter Chicken Schnitzel." He lets them help, too — pounding chicken cutlets flat with his big stainless steel rolling pin.
It's clearly a kitchen that has seen many parties, and much family cooking. "This is actually a functioning kitchen," Vikram says. It's not for show; it's well-used and loved.
9 Questions for Meeru & Vikram (and Their Kitchen)
Vikram showed me around the kitchen, and Meeru answered these questions.
1. What inspires your kitchen and your cooking?
The visual beauty of the raw food ingredients laid out on our kitchen counter/island, as well as the anticipation of the entire eating experience. For me, this means: the taste of the food as well as the knowledge and satisfaction of knowing how much our home cooked meal will nurture our "insides".
2. What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
Meeru: Pressure cooker. I am a very whimsical home cook and my mind set doesn't even start thinking about dinner until my walk or bike ride home from work at 4 pm. I also like to ask our daughters what they're in the mood to eat for dinner. Mood for eating dinner can often depend on how your day went and what will comfort you that evening. We live in the city and we purposely chose to live near many grocery stores and markets. So we incorporate food shopping into our daily schedules — once we discuss our "mood". Since we try and eat vegetarian 5 nights out of 7, the pressure cooker comes in very handy for cooking raw, bulk chickpeas in 25 minutes or black beans in 15 minutes, brown rice in 8 minutes, etc. The newer pressure cookers are totally safe and not as loud.
Vikram: Kitchen knives. Vikram will cook dinner at least every Sunday, and this is definitely our meat dinner. Vikram is opposite from Meeru and not whimsical. He likes to plan out what he'll make for dinner the day before and shop the day before. Even at home, he cooks like a professional chef and doesn't talk while he's cooking. He will chop his onions, garlic as if he's on some professional cooking show, even at home. And the knives come in handy and give Vikram much pleasure when he's cutting whatever meat he has chosen to make for dinner. At home, we normally eat free range/organic meats from BC farmers and we often pre-buy a winter's supply of local lamb, beef or pork. For Vikram, this gives him much pleasure and satisfaction, and cutting the meats is one part of this satisfaction.
3. What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in this kitchen?
Cooking at home is a daily occurrence and for us, and this question is very difficult to answer. It's all memorable and at the same time it's all not memorable and just something we do all the time. Nevertheless, Vikram cooking Butter Chicken Schnitzel with Nanaki and Shanik (our daughters) is one such memorable meal.
Meeru likes to have informal dinner parties on Saturday evenings, which Vikram joins after he gets off work. At these parties, Meeru invites people she doesn't know that well (sometimes people she has never met) and who don't know one another. For one such party, she made curried beef shortribs (with bone in) in the pressure cooker, mung bean and quinoa salad, paneer and eggplant curry, and chopped collard greens with mango.
4. The biggest challenge for cooking in your kitchen:
Our current kitchen is our planned, ideal, renovated kitchen that we've only had for 3 years. We're in the restaurant business and we both knew what we wanted and didn't want. So, there are no cooking challenges, really. The kitchen is spacious and has a perfect ambiance for cooking. Our challenge is really not to take everything out and make a big mess.
5. Biggest indulgence or splurge in the kitchen:
We completely relocated our stove and refrigerator, cut open the wall between the kitchen and dining room, and added a wooden block island in the middle for all chopping and prep work. We also added a pots and pan rack on our ceiling, above our island and by our stove/oven for easy access to all our pots and pans.
During dinner parties, guests often gather around our kitchen island for our first glass of bubbles and eat the first hors d'oeurves. If the conversation gets interesting from the get go, we'll stay around our island and keep replenishing drinks and continue on with eating and talking. Often, this way our guests can be a part of our prepping the course. For the actual dinner, we always sit down at the dining table. With the opening to the kitchen, the cook never "disappears" to prepare the next course.
6. Is there anything you hope to add or improve in your kitchen?
Vikram would ideally prefer a bigger kitchen so that we could add a breakfast nook. But we don't have a bigger kitchen, and don't plan on moving. And our current kitchen opens up to our dining room. Meeru loves the current size and has no desire for a breakfast nook.
7. How would you describe your cooking style?
Meeru: At home she is whimsical and loves to create or change a recipe as she cooks. Cooking is a mood enhancer for her. She loves informal.
Vikram: Even at home, he is professional and a total planner. He insists on setting the table perfectly and timing everything about dinner. Can't cook without a glass of wine. He loves formal.
8. Best cooking advice or tip you ever received:
No point in stressing while cooking. The more you relax, the better the food and the better your mental well being at the end of a busy day. The cook's mood is contagious to those s/he is feeding. Doesn't matter if recipe doesn't turn out the way it does in the photo of a cookbook or website. People usually appreciate a home cooked meal and the effort you have made, period.
9. What are you cooking this week?
Goat meat curry. Indian style gazpacho (still trying to perfect this recipe).
A Few More of Vikram's Favorite Kitchen Tools
As mentioned, Vikram's favorite tools are his knives. But he also pointed out a few unique kitchen objects and tools that he loves as well.
• Buy Vikram & Meeru's books: Vij's at Home: Relax, Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking, $23.02 at Amazon. Vij's: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine, $19.77 at Amazon.
• Read our review: Cookbook Review & Recipe from Vij's at Home: Relax, Honey
• Visit Vij's Vancouver: Vij's website
We're always looking for real kitchens from real cooks.
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(Images: Faith Durand)