Vikram Vij has become synonymous with Indian food in Vancouver. But can you name other prominent Indian chefs and restaurateurs in the city? Despite their relative media obscurity, there are many other individuals who cook excellent Indian cuisine and run much-loved South Asian restaurants. Below, we highlight four of them and share their inspiring stories.
“I grew up in my aunt’s place, and my aunt’s eldest daughter was a fabulous cook. She used to make her own chutneys and cook seasonal dishes,” explains Abhishek Roy, chef and co-owner of Atithi Indian Cuisine (2445 Burrard Street), during a chat at the restaurant. Born in West Bengal and raised in Rajasthan, Roy moved to Calcutta to complete a hotel management diploma. He went on to work for Taj, an Indian luxury hotel chain. His résumé includes a stint with Carnival Cruise Lines, as well as time working under chef Prasad Chirnomula at Thali restaurant in Connecticut. He also managed Sahib, an Indian restaurant in Seattle.
In 2007, the former owner of Maurya, Mayur Arora, recruited Roy as his executive chef, which is how Roy ended up in Vancouver. Roy was executive chef at Maurya for just a year. “When he [Arora] sold the place, I thought, ‘Let me try a restaurant on my own.’ I wanted to have my own identity, to offer more regional, home-style cuisine.”
And so, Atithi was born in 2009. Roy owns the restaurant with his brother-in-law, Dipankar Bose, and his wife, Lopa Datta, who manages the front of house with her gentle charm.
At first, Roy says, customers who came in were confused by the lack of a tandoori oven, but gradually they fell in love with the homey, Bengali-style dishes. Roy also keeps regulars interested with daily specials that allow him to experiment in the kitchen. “I always try to do new things,” he says. “It keeps the challenge alive.”
Muraleeswary Mariyadas, owner and chef of Chutney Villa (147 East Broadway), immigrated to Vancouver as a refugee from Sri Lanka in 1999 with a desire to better herself and become a great chef. “I never took any courses or anything. I just learned everything myself,” she says during an interview at the restaurant. Mariyadas, who couldn’t speak any English when she arrived, says she’s learned a lot from her experience working as a cook and running her own business. “I’m so happy. I want to give thanks to Canadians,” she adds, grateful for all she’s been able to accomplish.
She started off at the now-closed Palm Leaf Restaurant and worked there for three years, before becoming a cook at Chutney Villa in 2004 when it was owned by Chindi Varadarajulu. In 2011, when Varadarajulu wanted to sell the place, Mariyadas made up her mind to take it over: “I knew the customers. I knew the cooking. It was a really easy decision for me to buy it.”
There was one problem: Mariyadas didn’t have enough money. Luckily, her daughter, Suhashini Robinson (also a good cook, the proud mom says), and son-in-law Shawn Robinson stepped in. “Why should you work for anyone, Mom? We’ll buy you the business!” said Suhashini at the time.
Since then, Mariyadas has taken the original South Indian menu and added more vegetarian dishes and Sri Lankan specialties like kothu rotti, in which ingredients like mutton or chicken are chopped and mixed on the grill with iron spatulas. “People love it. They say this is exactly Sri Lankan food,” Mariyadas says.
She believes that her greatest strength as a chef is consistency. Visitors from places such as Seattle, Victoria, and Calgary like her cooking so much that they urge her to open a location in their cities. “If you pay the money, I’ll open it,” she always jokingly responds.
Happy families dig into lunch in the elegant, modern surroundings of Rasoi (1–3268 King George Highway, Surrey). Through a window to the kitchen, executive chef Rakesh Kumar and owner-chef Harpreet Atwal can be seen working busily.
Atwal was born in Jalandhar in Punjab, moved to Canada in 1993, and opened the restaurant in 2007 after nearly 15 years toiling in a Richmond fish-processing plant. He loved to cook at home and wanted to extend that passion to a family business. His brother scouted Kumar in Jalandhar when he was working at the well-known chain restaurant Yellow Chilli. Kumar was eager to come to Canada, so he didn’t take much convincing.
Kumar hails from Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, where he received a culinary diploma. After graduation, he gained experience at several upscale hotels before becoming executive chef at Yellow Chilli. At the hotels, Kumar worked at their curry stations, diligently honing his craft. “I am a curry expert,” he says matter-of-factly.
Atwal sponsored Kumar and his family to come to Canada, and together the pair developed a healthier northern Indian menu in which everything is made from scratch with fresh ingredients. Atwal was determined not to serve a butter chicken that had food colouring and rich additions like cream and butter. Instead, he drew on knowledge gained at Yellow Chilli to come up with a recipe that uses ground cashews, watermelon seeds, tomato sauce, and turmeric to create just the right flavour, texture, and hue.
“It has rich flavour, but it’s not made from butter,” Atwal explains.
The two men, who have become like brothers, are sometimes joined in the kitchen by two of Atwal’s sons, while his wife, Sulinder Atwal, takes care of the customers. Kumar says cooking is all about “day-by-day learning”, while Atwal stresses the need to think long-term and never sacrifice quality.
Desi Dosa Madras Restaurant (8859 120th Street, Delta) has a similar kind of familial environment, where co-owners Praneal and Premila Prasad carry on the legacy of their father and husband, the late chef Pathmaraj Prasad.
Pathmaraj immigrated to Canada in 1986 and worked as a delivery boy and cook in Toronto before moving to Vancouver in 1991, where he met Premila. After cooking at places like the Keg, Pathmaraj finally opened a restaurant of his own in 2009.
“He cooked simply but really effectively,” says Praneal of his father’s South Indian cooking.
In 2010 Pathmaraj was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and the future of the restaurant was suddenly devastatingly put into question. So in 2011, the family recruited Shijo Jose to work as head chef and cook alongside the weakening Pathmaraj, who passed away in 2013.
“He was a very good person. I’ve worked all those years in different places, but I’ve never had an employer like that,” says Jose by phone. “He treated me like a brother. I’m so sad, but we have to continue his dream.”
The family chose the right chef to keep Pathmaraj’s vision alive. Jose, born and raised in the southern Indian state of Kerala, completed a yearlong culinary course and then went on to work at several luxury hotels in Goa and Kerala.
In 2008, he immigrated to Vancouver to become the head chef at Salam Bombay before he moved to Desi Dosa.
Jose credits his success as a chef to his breadth of experience.
“I worked hard in India when I was training. I would work from 6 in the morning until midnight, since the chefs work long hours there,” he says. “I learned from different chefs and used to do banquets and VIP parties.”
Above all, Jose loves to cook, and to push his culinary boundaries. “It’s my passion,” he explains. “I’m always learning lots of new things. I never get bored in this job.”
This boundless love of cooking, shared by all of the chefs featured in this Best of Vancouver issue, contributes to the vibrancy of our Indian restaurant scene across the Lower Mainland.