A curious crowd gathered at Williams-Sonoma on luxe Bloor Street in Toronto last month, where celebrity chef Vikram Vij was whipping up a vegetable quinoa pilaff recipe in the store's gourmet kitchen – to the delight of surprised fans.
“Show me your hand,” he said, as he unpretentiously scooped some of the cooked grain into a charmed onlooker’s palm. “Go ahead, eat that. Do you taste the beautiful, nutty flavour?”
Chef Vikram Vij prepares vegetable quinoa pilaf. Photo: © Neal Burstyn
The holidays are shaping up to be an especially festive season for the esteemed and graceful Food Network star. No, he won’t be cooking an elaborate Christmas feast – the Indian-born, Canadian chef is far too busy with his two critically acclaimed Vancouver restaurants, Vij’s and Rangoli, to entertain at home – but he will be dishing up something special that tastes just as good as it feels.
Teaming up with Plan Canada, Vikram is helping create awareness for the Gift of Hope quinoa project, which provides families in developing countries with the tools and resources to grow their own gardens and prepare meals centred around the superfood.
Hello! caught up with the Dragon’s Den investor and Chopped Canada judge, who, after his impromptu cooking demonstration, told us a bit of about the project, shared some holiday entertaining tips and opened up about the time he cooked for Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
Photo: © Neal Burstyn
Tell us about the quinoa project – why is it called a 'Gift of Hope'?
What that Gift of Hope does is it enables Plan Canada to go to support developing countries like Bolivia and teach families not only how to grow quinoa, but how to cook and sell quinoa. When you’re handed down something for free, you feel like you’re at the bottom and your self-esteem is down. But when you empower people -- not just give them the food, but actually teach them how to grow their own food – it provides long-term sustainability.
I know that sustainability is important to you. Is that what drew you to this project in particular?
I come from a country that is so poor and it always bothers me when people do not finish their food. I have a rule at my restaurants where I want people to either eat the whole dish or take the dish home – but it should not go in the garbage. There are people out there who are hungry and sometimes we are throwing away food for no reason. Do not waste anything. Respect the land you come from and respect other human beings who are maybe not as lucky as you. It’s another way for me to give at a time when I have abundance. I can say, "I have abundance, and I’d like to share the abundance that has been given to me."
When I was visiting Peru, I realized that quinoa was one of those little grains that has the versatility of just being a salad or being a main course. Instead of using noodles or rice, you can use quinoa. It’s heartier, it’s protein-enriched and most importantly, you’re using a different grain, so it’s broadening your horizons. When you broaden your horizons by using different things, you break down barriers. You become tolerant towards each other and you become a beautiful democracy of food. So that’s what I wanted to create. I’m not saying "don’t eat pasta, don’t eat meat" – but why not try eating quinoa once a week?
What are your plans for the holidays?
For me holidays are to stay in, be at the restaurant and to make sure everyone is having a good time at the holidays. I mean, I love what I do. I love people. So it’s not bad work. I don't have any big plans, as such. What I like to say is, "I’m always on a vacation, I’m always having fun!"
Do you have any tips for amateur chefs who are entertaining friends and family this season?
One of the things I always say to people is don't try to make a five-course meal for all your friends who are coming over. Do a potluck style – one couple brings one dish, you make one dish, you provide the venue and then you all cook together. Don’t try to cook everything yourself, because by the time you sit down after you’re finished cooking, you’ll be like, "I am so done. I’m tired. I’m exhausted."
For those who are on a stricter budget, what do you recommend to help cut food costs without cutting flavour?
Buy in-season, local food and vegetables – either frozen or whatever is there. Onions, ginger, garlic, salt, pepper. I think there’s a lot of unnecessary emphasis on fancy ingredients. It’s more about the timing and the flavouring of a dish. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a really beautiful meal.
If you could have any star over for dinner who would it be?
I would invite Gandhi over. I would invite Martin Luther King over. I would have Mother Teresa over and talk to her about how humanly possible it is for her to be so humble. What I want to learn is not how to become a star, but how to be a humble, better human being, because that is far more important. I would never invite somebody over just because they are a celebrity. I would invite somebody who is an awesome human being, who also happens to be a celebrity.
Have you ever entertained any celebrities yourself?
I’ve had lots of celebrities, lots of actors and actresses who came into the restaurant, but one of my favourite memories was when Pierre Trudeau came. He walked into the restaurant with his son, Justin, like everybody else – no security guards. There was a wait at the back, and it seemed like people were wondering: "Is Vikram going to change his policy?" Because I don’t take reservations. It doesn't matter who you are or how much money you have, nobody gets a table ahead of anybody else.
So he comes in and he goes to the back and he waits. He gets a table in 20 minutes. At the end, when he is finishing his dinner – I’ve loved him for years – I go and touch his feet and I say, “Mr. Trudeau, thank you, because it was your immigration policies in the 1960s that allowed immigrants like me to come here and be successful.” And he was so gentle, he picked me up and gave me a big hug and he said, “I’ve had Indian food lots of places and this is one of the best ones I’ve had.” After that day, I went home and poured myself a huge scotch! Like, “Man, Pierre Trudeau said my food was good!”