When I started my journey and opened my first restaurant in 1994, my goal as a chef was to bring awareness to the fact that Indian food was not just butter chicken or chicken tikka masala. Unfortunately we should blame ourselves as Indians, because we've created buffets of cheap food. It's where people go when they're really hungry and they just want to pile their plates with cheap rice. We didn't elevate it. We didn't show the world that we have nuances in our cooking that are beautiful.
Indian cuisine has roots that go back thousands of years and is one of the oldest. It has been taken to different heights, from the Muslims when they invaded us in the 1400s, and then the British and the Portuguese. We've adapted to the times. It's the cuisine of Ayurveda, the cuisine of healthy eating through spices: turmeric for your joints, cumin seeds for your heart. It's like a cuisine of preventative medicine.
I think we need to get away from the word authentic. What is authentic? How does something become authentic? If it's tasty, then that's all that matters.
Butter chicken is actually an Indian creation from a northwestern province where they used to add leftover cooked chickens to a tomato-cashew gravy. I don't have butter chicken on any of my menus at my restaurants, but I wouldn't say I'd never serve it. I just don't need it because every other restaurant out there serves butter chicken. I want to do something different, and I don't want to be compared to other people.
But if I'm going to do butter chicken, I'm going to a damn good job of it. The wrong way is to buy the sauce. The classic way is to start with the gravy, add the fenugreek, the cashew paste, the cream, and then cook the pieces of chicken breast in the sauce so it's nice and tender, and has lots of flavor.
I have no problems with someone making butter chicken in their restaurant or at home. I enjoy a butter chicken myself. In my second cookbook, we actually have a recipe for butter chicken schnitzel. It's because I studied in Austria and learned to make the best chicken schnitzel in the world. So I made the schnitzel, and my kids love butter chicken sauce. But does it make me less Indian? I grew up in India, cooked in Austria, worked in Banff, and then came to Vancouver. I smoke, drank, and had sex before I got married. Am I still an authentic Indian?
I think we need to get away from the word authentic. What is authentic? How does something become authentic? If it's tasty, then that's all that matters. As long as some thought was put behind the dish, then that's all that matters. I really believe that cuisines are like rivers and they should always flow and never be stagnant. Cuisines have to keep flowing. My menu should change and flow all the time.
To me, authenticity means understanding the flavours and spices. You've honed your skills in a kitchen where the spices play an integral role. You don't have to go to an Indian chefs' school, but you've travelled a bit, worked in a kitchen where people understood the nuances of the spices. It's like playing music; you have to understand the notes and know how the guitar works. You can pick up the guitar and some noise will come out, but is it a tasty noise?
It is with great pride that I see non-Indian chefs dabbling and trying Indian flavours and spices, and pushing boundaries. It's a testament that I, and by that I mean everyone at Vij's, managed to get the younger, non-Indian chefs to go out and try it. I'd encourage them to keep pushing limits. That's my goal. Call me for help. Let me know what I can do.
The beautiful part is to see young chefs coming out of their shells and not wanting to cook what they were told to. Right now I have a chef working in Toronto with the Oliver and Bonacini restaurant group because we have a partnership with them to hopefully open a restaurant in Toronto this year. He's going to get that platform that took me 20 years to build, where I was holding people's hand to just get them to come and try my food. But, he also has a tougher wall to break because people are going to compare it to Vij's all the time. Still, he's doing fantastic food and preparation.
As told to Karon Liu