McNair students welcome visit from top chef

Up and coming culinary stars of Richmond treated to secrets

On Tuesday, Matthew McNair secondary school's culinary arts program had the honour and pleasure of hosting celebrated chef Vikram Vij in our teaching kitchen.

Vikram arrived with his two Masala Dabbas (traditional Indian spice tins containing colourful and fragrant spices like coriander, cumin, turmeric, paprika, fenugreek, and cardamom) in hand. "Indian spices to me are like paints to an artist; the colours and textures are so rich that you can add a little of this and a little of that, and you create your own flavour blend or profile, just as artists do when mixing colours," explains Vikram.

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After a brief introduction to each class, Vikram began sharing his stories and philosophies about cooking.

In his characteristic engaging manner, Vikram entertained students with anecdotes about his youth, his school life, his lifelong love for cooking, his travels, and the wisdom he has gained over the years.

Vikram was born in India in 1964 and lived in New Delhi and Bombay until the age of 19, when he left to study hotel management in Salzburg, Austria, and where he received his chef's training and eventually became a certified sommelier.

In 1989, Vikram moved to Canada and worked at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta before moving to Vancouver and further honing his skills from 1992-1994 at Bishop's restaurant with renowned chef John Bishop.

In September 1994, Vikram opened Vij's Restaurant on West Broadway in Vancouver, where I first met him. I fondly remember that little hole-in-thewall restaurant.

It seated 16 guests, had a small blackboard listing the appetizers and four entrées, nothing was over $10 a plate, and even though the restaurant was a one-man show, Vikram always came out to chat with guests.

In 1995, his wife Meeru Dhalwala joined him, and they began collaborating on the menu.

Since then, the restaurant moved to its present location on West 11th, and in 2004, Vikram opened a second restaurant and market called Rangoli just next door.

He started Vij's at Home, a line of prepackaged gourmet curries, and in an effort to keep up with growing demand for the popular packaged meals, he built a food production facility in Surrey.

In 2012, Vikram launched Vij's Railway Express - a mobile food truck serving Indian curries in downtown Vancouver for weekday lunches and private catering events, and he is presently working on moving Vij's to a larger location on Cambie Street, as well as opening a new concept restaurant in South Surrey called My Shanti.

Vikram has been involved with numerous organizations and societies, championing sustainable agriculture and aquaculture.

His and Meeru's dedication to the work being done at the UBC Farm resulted in the building of a state-of-the-art culinary teaching facility that is dedicated to teaching future chefs and nutritionists about ethnic food and cuisine.

Vikram has received numerous awards and accolades, appeared on various television shows and in print publications, and published two award-winning cookbooks with his wife. An impressive curriculum vitae indeed.

However, on a Tuesday in January 2014 in the McNair culinary arts kitchen, it is not the list of accomplishments that impresses but rather, Vikram's dynamic personality and pure love of food and cooking.

His snippets of wisdom: "cook and try different foods," "eat breakfast...it's the most important meal of the day," "sleep early," "don't cook because you have to...cook with passion," and "wash your hands after touching red chilli powder," will hopefully last in the memories of our budding young cooks and inspire them to cook with passion like Vikram.

When asked about his experience today, Vikram replied: "I am honoured to be invited to work alongside the students at McNair today. Dora, Chef Raymond, and the culinary staff at the school are doing a tremendous job with the students in showcasing many different cuisines in the classroom.

"It is very important to me for people to taste and learn about Indian cuisine and to have it be elevated to the status of what French and Italian cuisine is in the world.

"It is culinary programs like this one at McNair that help show future generations that there is so much to learn about cuisines from all different parts of the world."

Finally, I leave you with a recipe that Vikram shared with my students and staff today.

· Vij Family's Chicken Curry

Ingredients: ½ cup canola oil 2 cups finely chopped onions (2 large) 3 inch stick of cinnamon3 Tbsp finely chopped garlic 2 Tbsp chopped ginger 2 cups chopped tomatoes (2 large) 1 Tbsp salt ½ tsp ground black pepper 1 tsp turmeric 1 Tbsp ground cumin 1 Tbsp ground coriander

1 Tbsp garam masala ½ tsp ground cayenne pepper 3 lbs chicken thighs, bone in 1 cup sour cream, stirred 2 cups water ½ cup chopped cilantro (including stems) Serves 6 Preparation: In a large pan, heat oil on medium heat for 1 minute. Add onions and cinnamon, and sauté for another 4 minutes. Add ginger, tomatoes, salt, black pepper, turmeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala and cayenne.

Cook this masala for 5 minutes, or until the oil separates from the masala.

Remove and discard skin from the chicken thighs. Wash thighs and add to the masala. Stir well.

Cook chicken thighs for 10 minutes, until the chicken looks cooked on the outside.

Add sour cream and water and stir well.

Increase the heat to medium-high.

When curry starts to boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times, until chicken is completely cooked.

Poke the thighs with a knife. If the meat is still pink, cook for 5 more minutes. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Cool curry for at least half an hour.

Transfer cooled chicken to a mixing bowl.

Wearing latex gloves, peel chicken meat off the bones. Discard bones and stir chicken back into the curry.

Just before serving, heat curry on medium heat until it starts to boil lightly. Stir in cilantro.

To serve: Divide curry evenly among six bowls. Serve with naan or rice.

Wine: A Spanish Tempranillo with good fruit and balanced tannins is a great pairing.

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