One of B.C.'s most celebrated chefs has cooked up big plans for new enterprises in Surrey.
Vikram Vij is best known for the busy restaurant that bares his surname in the South Granville area of Vancouver. The award-winning chef is also in the spotlight at myriad "foodie" events in Metro Vancouver and has written books about his culinary adventures, which began during Vij's boyhood days in Amritsar, India.
On the Surrey/Langley border, Vij and his wife/business partner, Meeru Dhalwala, have spent three years building a 28,000-square-foot production facility to cook and package Vij's Inspired Indian Cuisine, a flash-frozen product now sold at 92 grocery stores in B.C. and other regions.
In coming months Vij also plans to open another restaurant, this one in the Morgan Crossing area of South Surrey. A name has been chosen, but the restaurateur is keeping it secret until all contracts are signed.
"Our plan is to be in Surrey long-term," Vij told the Now.
The company CEO wanted to build the facility right, with enough space for future growth. The location was chosen to capitalize on Surrey's immigrant workforce and agricultural lands, and also its proximity to the American border, he said. "Twenty years from now, this will still be our main production facility."
Four years ago, the 55th Avenue property was a 1.5-acre vacant lot. The curry-coloured factory, built from scratch with Vij leading the way, opened in February. "I had no idea how to build any of this, but I planned it all," Vij said. "I made some mistakes along the way -- $200,000 mistakes. It was like having a child -- a lot of mistakes along the way, right?"
One of the challenges at the large-scale production facility was preparing food usually cooked in a small kitchen.
"Going from small pots to huge vats of sauces, that's been difficult -- from a small kitchen to a place like this," Vij said as he showed off huge new freezers, spice rooms and vegetable-prep stations.
"Like, I didn't even know how a kettle worked. We didn't realize you couldn't brown ingredients in a kettle, so we created a machine to do that right next to the kettle."
In a boxing room, a crew of six worked to hand-ladle a curry from a vat into 300-gram bags, which were then placed into a bin full of ice. The bags are later flash-frozen for delivery to grocery stores.
The factory currently produces 15 different kinds of bags -- seven vegetable meals and eight with meat. Each sells for around $10 or $11 in stores.
"We cook only one dish a day here, due to efficiencies and quality control," said the boss, who commutes to the factory from his Vancouver home. "When you pay attention to one dish, it's done with more passion and love."
Right now, the factory employs 12 people, a number that could increase to 40 as more product is sold in more markets across Canada and the U.S.
Still in the planning stages at the plant is a fancy test kitchen, which will play host to special events and cooking classes.
This week, Vij is a special guest at the inaugural Indian Summer Festival (July 7-17), an event in Vancouver that celebrates the "Year of India in Canada." The festival of arts and ideas will feature top contemporary and classical Indian talent in music, dance, literature, film, yoga and cuisine. For event info, click on www.indiansummerfestival.ca.