Before Vikram Vij arrived on Vancouver's culinary scene, South Asian food in North America was synonymous with heavy northern Indian dishes like butter chicken and palak paneer.
That was 1994, when the Indian-born, Austrian-trained chef opened Vij's Restaurant on Granville Street, south of downtown Vancouver. Over the next two decades, Vij would help popularize the concept of a lighter South Asian cuisine that could sparkle with the bright flavours imparted by the likes of curry leaves and fenugreek without forcing diners to recline for two days to digest their meal.
Though Vij can't be credited for single-handedly transforming South Asian food, he's easily the best-known Indian chef in Canada and the most celebrated to boot.
And for two days next week, he's in Winnipeg offering a three-course tasting menu at the Raw:Almond popup restaurant at The Forks, where he's the lone internationally renowned chef cooking on the river ice among a lineup composed mostly of Winnipeg culinary fixtures.
"When I was asked to come and do this in Winnipeg, I was honoured and humbled," Vij said earlier this week in a telephone interview from Vancouver, where he now co-owns two restaurants, plans to open two more, runs a production facility for take-home food and is a partner in a food truck.
Vij is making his way to Winnipeg on Feb. 3 and 4 at the behest of a big fan who happens to be a friend of Mandel Hitzer, the chef at Exchange District restaurant Deer+Almond and co-creator of the Raw:Almond popup restaurant.
Vij said he could not envision what it will be like to prepare food inside a tent on the frozen surface of the Red River, but looks forward to the experience. "As a chef, I'm one of those guys who is visually based. Until I actually stand in the presence of the Taj Mahal, I can't imagine it until I'm there," he said.
Earlier this week in Vancouver, it was 8 C and overcast. "Holy cow," he said after being informed the temperature in Winnipeg was -26 C the same day.
"My goal is to bring awareness of my food and my cuisine and my country. When you have that goal and mission in life, weather does not hinder that," he said.
Hitzer said he was "blown away, honoured and excited" Vij accepted the invitation. "I think it's absolutely incredible," said the Winnipeg chef. "I've been anticipating a time when we can start building a community outside of Winnipeg, with other chefs."
Another famous chef Hitzer would love to see in Winnipeg is Martin Picard, a champion of Quebec cuisine best known for Montreal's Au Pied du Cochon and the seasonal Cabane Sucre in suburban St-Benoit de Mirabel. "I'd love to have him come and build a shack on the river," Hitzer said.
This year, Vij is the star import. The Vancouverite is planning to keep things relatively simple for his two-night Winnipeg appearance: a tasting menu of prawns, chicken curry and lamb.
Vij won't be offering some of the more unusual dishes from his Vancouver flagship restaurant, such as curried jackfruit or cricket paratha. For timid diners, serving insect-studded flatbread may not be the best idea when you're offering only three courses, he figured.
Only decades ago, most North Americans would be unfamiliar with even basic Indian ingredients, however. "When I came to Calgary in 1991, you could not even buy cilantro in that city," Vij recalls. "Now you can go to Calgary and buy every Indian spice."
He's most proud of seeing other North American chefs try out lighter versions of South Asian food, which he believes is supposed to be delicate.
"The most important thing is I've been able to get away from butter chicken and tikka masala and other dishes where people can eat some and not be able to eat anything else," he said.