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Meeru Dhalwala on Family, Business and Staying Inspired for 25 Years at Vij’s

It was raining when I arrived at Vij’s to talk to author, chef and businesswoman Meeru Dhalwala about being in the restaurant business for 25 years. Before we got started, I was given a choice: warm up and dry off with some chai at a quiet table or dig into a staff meal, Indian-style.

Staff meal, obviously! I was given a metal tray and directed to a feast of warm curried vegetables, dahl, chapati and raita. I found a place on the floor and tucked in, tray balanced on knees. Most of the women I was eating with had been at Vij’s for decades. Though I couldn’t understand their conversations (Meeru helped by translating when appropriate), it was clear that this team was more a family than a loose assortment of co-workers. As soon as the interview began, a clearer picture of how deep the connection went started to emerge…

Looking back 25 years ago to when you were just beginning your first restaurant, what kept you up at night? 

I knew nothing about the restaurant business when I moved to Vancouver —I had never even served or bussed tables or worked at a McDonalds in high school (my parents didn’t allow me to work in the restaurant business, as they thought I would start drinking, smoking and sleeping with boys). So there I was. I had just quit my job in DC to move to Vancouver and Vikram had just opened up the 14 seat Vij’s with Amarjeet Gill as his part-time dishwasher. The place had nasty, worn down carpeting. We had no money. But Vikram-Amarjeet-Myself were an immediately tight triangle. I fell in love with Amarjeet’s heart and to this day she is the heart of our kitchens. The very first time I walked into the restaurant, Amarjeet greeted me with the biggest smile. My Punjabi was very minimal and broken and she spoke no English, but with Vikram interpreting, it worked. Vikram and Amarjeet only had about 5 – 10 customers a day, so there was lots of time to talk.

Vikram was so…mega confident. It was contagious. I never thought twice. Even with all of his confidence, Vikram couldn’t run the front of house and the kitchen at the same time. I was taken aback by how magnetic he was with the 5 customers we did have, that I instinctively knew that, if he focussed on the customers, I could figure out how to cook.  At first Vikram was hesitant and had a tough time handing over his baby. But we made it work. Amarjeet helped me do all the cutting and prep (I didn’t know how to use a knife back then) and I handled the cooking.  Success came very very quickly. Vikram’s magnetism, combined with my careful interpretation of the few nostalgic curries I loved from my childhood resonated with Vancouverites. We went from 5 customers to a full restaurant three times a night right away. When we needed another person to help out, Amarjeet said she had a friend, Sandeep, who needed work and knew how to cook Indian food at home and therefore knew the spices—her only drawback was that she didn’t speak any English. No problem, as long as she was committed to working hard and didn’t lose her cool under pressure, Sandeep was hired!  A year later, we moved to our beloved West 11th and Granville location. By this time, we had hired 10 new women, all Punjabi and all with an ethic for hard work and calm.

So, at this stage you felt you were on your way, but worries didn’t evaporate, they shifted. Can you explain? 

During my first year at Vij’s, I taught myself all things about Indian food out of a desire for financial security (for Vikram, Amarjeet and myself). Once we had enough money to open a savings account, love of food itself had room to grow. Along with the love of food and savings account came the love of our first daughter, Nanaki, in November 1996. And this is when I started staying up at night worrying—busy business does not translate into long-term success and I knew that first hand.

What do you mean, that you knew ‘first hand’? 

When I was 15 and my younger sister 10, my dad left his civil engineering job and bought a grocery with all their savings plus loans. Although he had customers, he didn’t know how to manage employees and costs (I understand this in hindsight). We went bankrupt within a few months and we were then homeless for three months. Being a homeless teenager was the pits. And we weren’t just homeless, we didn’t have enough money for food. I still cry when I remember my parents counting pennies in the morning to figure out what we could eat that day. My sitar-playing, classical music trained Indian mom then got her first job in the US cleaning bathrooms, because she didn’t speak enough English to work any counter. My sister and I hid it from our friends. We told them that we had moved. I saw how my mother’s zest and self-esteem were eroded because no one had any patience to see through the lack of English and to her many other talents. No one outside our home cared about the elegant woman who sang, played musical instruments and cooked up feasts fit for royalty (her family) at home. When mom found out Amarjeet and I were running the kitchens, she also flew to Vancouver whenever she could and immersed herself into being a “kitchen lady”.

This childhood experience will always follows me. I suppose every woman I hire at Vij’s is my mom from the past. I have such a deep rooted respect for all their life experiences and the warmth with which they embrace even their hardships. Mine and Amarjeet’s role in this is to ensure they have secure, well paid and happy place of employment. The restaurant world is a fickle one and trends can change overnight no matter how well you’re doing your job. That autopilot fear of going out of business and therefore never taking anything for granted anchored itself in me at 3 am from the day Nanaki was born.

You’ve been in the game for a quarter century, beating the odds. From where you stand now, what would you say are some of the realities of running a restaurant that aren’t commonly discussed? 

I don’t know if many people outside this industry realize that a busy restaurant doesn’t translate into long-term financial success. And it’s not Food TV rock and roll behind the scenes. We have so many costs we can’t control such as sky-rocket-rents, taxes, rising food costs. Vancouver is not cheap!  Again, I feel that fear of not being able to provide for yourself or your family from when we were homeless and I put myself in the place of all our staff—from top management to dishwasher, as our dishwasher is a professional who is married with family and without whom Vij’s would suffer immensely. She (Nikki) is one of the most respected kitchen staff for all of us. I want to pay my kitchen well. Vikram and Mike (our GM of over 15 years) want to buy top dollar plates, bowls, cutlery to please our customers. We want to design our restaurants as if they belong to a combination of Meryl Streep and Beyonce. No one disagrees – all the pieces are important, but money is finite.

Up until 10 years ago, all was a good but constant balance of taking care of our humans, ordering the right plates plates and managing sales to be able to afford it all. By 2010, my 3 am fear became about losing our individual creative intellect and zest for life to the demands of keeping the balance of restaurant industry demands. Then came the big wham of a realization that climate change is really climate havoc and all that was happening was lip service in our industry. And then the 3am became about the fact that to be pro-active in terms of my restaurants contributions to climate havoc, I needed to spend money. New money.  Other costs do not change and in fact increase, so this money had to come from somewhere.

Customers love to know we pay our staff well, buy organic, compost, but at the same time living in Vancouver with rents and housing prices doesn’t leave many with the wallet to add more costs for expensive sustainable fish or organic beef.

It pains me that to be environmental in my business means to be expensive. At least right now. By charging $40 for a “green” fish, I’m not making big changes—I now call this the new form of luxury. Environmental luxury. Those with money can enjoy sustainable fish. Real changes are those that the majority of the population can afford and now this keeps me up at 3 am. My daughters futures. There is no such thing as feminism or social justice when there is no planet fit for human and their problems.

Left to right: staff meal at Vij’s (photo Scout Magazine; Meeru and Amarjeet (photo by John Sherlock); Staff meal at Vij’s (photos Scout Magazine).

Is Vij’s kitchen currently all-female?

Yes, except for Vikram (he knows how to cook everything we make, and he still gets the line to tweak). We love him.

How does the atmosphere and dynamic of an all-female kitchen differ from the typical, male-dominated kitchen? 

Most importantly, as I mentioned above, we are all calm no matter what is going on. While we do love our work and one another, we are clear that we work and earn money for our children and families. Temper has no role–how pathetic would it be that when we go home, we spend the few hours we have with our families in some form of agitation left over from work? What is temper? To me it’s dumb and overused because it’s easier than thinking things through and acknowledging other people as equals. It’s inefficient and its energy somehow oozes into the food. Don’t get me wrong—I throw temper tantrums in my personal life with people who have chosen to be with me and with whom I share my life. At work, I do not think I or anyone has a right to throw temper tantrums and ruin someone else’s day or energy. Not fair. Fyi, I’m throwing way less tantrums at home now as well. I say we save our tempers and collect our tempers as a huge force for much bigger and meaningful things such as pollution and equal pay and respect for men and women of all heritages.

What do you think are the right steps to getting more women into professional kitchens and into higher positions within the restaurant industry?

We women need to speak up and walk in the door with a big smile and strong warmth and just ask for what we want and need. It’s hard when the power has not been shared equally for such a long time and it’s hard to steer, manage and have empathy while creating a new balance of power. So, example: At Vij’s we are super fluid with taking leave for our families. We also co-train in everything with no worries that someone will be better at our jobs and we’ll lose them once we’re back from leave. Mat leave was a regularity for 20 years and we all were able to fill in for one another easily. I am the co-owner and make all decisions with Vikram in our business. It took a long time before men in general stopped calling me a fireball or firecracker and just accepted that I’m firm with what I want for myself and my kitchen staff. I still sometimes go home at the end of an event and fight back tears because some man has commented on me being some form of “fire” or treated me like a cute little girl because of my size and curls. But I have a visual and personal goal that picks me up every time: my daughters. All of us women need to have a personal, ingrained visual that gets us up each time. And at 55, I’m having to get up less and less. Good sign.

Going back to my kitchen staff—they do not take any shit from anyone at Vij’s – but their way is so graceful. They just shut down on you and not in any passive way. They fix the issue and continue working. They don’t change anything they don’t want to and will just say “no”. Very very rarely has anyone—male or female—spoken rudely to anyone in my kitchen and I firmly believe it’s because Amarjeet has spread such calm dignity in our kitchens and this calm dignity is a force to reckon with or become a part of. We also treat the word “victim” very carefully and reserve it for real vs. using it as easily as one uses a temper tantrum.

Now that we have a better understanding of the history and dynamic in the kitchen, let’s talk a little about what you see for the future. We don’t need to jump ahead another 25 years, but let’s say you were to imagine 5 years from now, what would you like to see change for Vij’s (and what would you like to see stay the same?)

Five years from now — heck even one year from now — Vij’s has to maintain its anchor of creative/fun/ethical cuisine and good service. We can only do that if our team stays strong. I can’t tell you how much I love and appreciate our core staff. They are everything. Looking in to the future, I’d love to be able to be in a position to give each staff an additional paid week of vacation (and also make it possible for them to actually take the time off to take it).

I don’t consider myself bossy but I do feel proud that I’m a good boss. This is because I have never forgotten what it feels like to be an employee and being spoken to with a ‘fake nice’ or ‘condescending nice’. I remember what it feels like to be spoken to with such dismissive, disrespectful energy (albeit hearing the right textbook words) when I’ve made a genuine mistake. With my 25 years of co-leading Vij’s/Rangoli with a strong male and female proportion of staff, I would love to coach men and women—managers on how to communicate in engaging and sharing ways. It would be an accomplishment to work with teams to teach them how to feel what they are trying to communicate so that they can more clearly convey it.

Aside from that, I’d also like to contribute to a serious dialogue about what we can do as a bigger Vancouver-team to make changes to avoid climate catastrophe. That’s important.

Neighbourhood: West Side
3106 Cambie St.

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