Out of the kitchen and into the Dragons’ Den for Vikram Vij

posted on October 14, 2014

By Marsha Lederman, the Globe and Mail | Link to Article

By Marsha Lederman, the Globe and Mail | Link to Article

Celebrated chef Vikram Vij, the latest investor to be cast on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, knows what it’s like to stand before a group of successful business people and ask for money; he did it himself 20 years ago, when he was looking to start his own restaurant in Vancouver.

He presented a business plan to four wealthy Indo-Canadian investors and asked for $20,000. “And they all turned me down,” he says. “[They] said ‘Sorry I don’t think this is the right concept. I do not think a modern Indian restaurant would actually work.’”

Crushed, Vij called his father in India, who told him to keep working, and promised to come for a visit. He arrived with a little brown bag stuffed with bundles of cash – $23,000 (U.S.), acquired by selling his last property in India.” With $10,000 Vij himself had saved, he was able to open his restaurant, Vij’s, in 1994. It was tiny – just 14 seats. And the kitchen was so ill-equipped, Vij’s mother would make chicken curry at home and carry it on the bus all the way to the restaurant from suburban Richmond. “For the longest time she didn’t tell me that everybody on the bus would look at her [as if to say], this crazy woman has a pot of chicken curry between her legs,” says Vij.

The restaurant, now in a much larger location and about to move again, got great reviews, and the customers came – including the businessmen who chose not to invest. “The guys used to come here and have dinner,” says Vij. “And they would look at me and I would say to them: ‘I told you so.’”

Vij and his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, have spun the concept into an empire, with sister restaurants, a gourmet line of boil-in-bag foods sold in grocery stores across the country and partnerships such as Vij’s Delhi-licious kettle-cooked chips, and Vij’s Railway Express food truck (not to mention bestselling cookbooks and judging stints on Recipes to Riches, Top Chef Canada and Chopped Canada).

When he settles into his Dragons’ Den chair on Wednesday, he will be the guy with the bucks, sitting in judgment before other entrepreneurs in need of an investor.

It’s new territory for Vij. While he may feel at home judging other cooks, investing in ventures that have nothing to do with food is a whole other matter. But even if he’s out of his element, the show’s executive producer says Vij is a good fit.

“You don’t have to be a Bay Street trader … to be a good Dragon; you have to be a self-made entrepreneur who’s built a business,” says Tracie Tighe, who auditioned Vij during one of the show’s regular casting calls. “We looked at him as someone who’s knee-deep in building a bigger business right at this very moment.”

There are sacrifices, though, as Vij spreads himself thin: less time for his family, including his two daughters, aged 15 and 17; less time on the floor of Vij’s, where he has always been a huge presence, greeting customers and far less time for cooking. But he (or Dhalwala) still makes lunch for their younger daughter every day (their older daughter is now at McGill). On the day we met, it was pasta with a made-from-scratch tomato cream sauce. After the lunch hour, Vij texted her to see what she thought. “She said it’s yummy, Papa.”

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