Quality over quantity: Vij's duo loves the taste of green

Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij
Team Power Smart leaders Vikram Vij (left) and Meeru Dhalwala run Vij's and Rangoli restaurants in Vancouver with a focus on sustainability, including local ingredients. (venturi + karpa images)

'There's no point using an Indian ingredient simply to say it's from India'

Carol Crenna
For Vacation Planner Magazine

Restaurants are a vital part of culture; it's been said that all great conversations in history have developed while eating around a table.

Managed in the right way, a restaurant can also be a force for good. Sourcing local menu ingredients can encourage bio-diverse farming, and, particularly if the restaurant is ecoconscious, cooking on that scale is more energy efficient than individuals preparing meals at home.

As best-selling cookbook authors and owners of award-winning Indian restaurants Vij's and Rangoli in Vancouver, Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala focus on quality rather than quantity when discussing food choices, use of resources and family time.

Thrift as a way of life

Though going green is a new currency in the restaurant industry as kitchens reduce heat wastage, electricity, water consumption and their utility bills, to Vij and his staff, who were all raised in India, thrift is a way of life.

He explains: "In Bombay (Mumbai), and particularly in smaller towns, water and electricity were not taken for granted because they were rationed – we got two hours of water and six hours of electricity per day.

"When there was no electricity to cool the home on very hot summer days, we would spray water on and fan ourselves; and in winter there is no heating, even in Delhi where it is cold."

Avoiding energy waste, food waste

At his restaurants, this mindset translates into dramatically reducing lighting and heating during the day when the restaurant is closed, though kitchen staff are working. The "front of the house" remains 18 degrees, and in the kitchen, cooking keeps it warm.

There is very little food wastage. "The value of food is so acutely recognized that even if there is a carrot and a half left, the staff will use it in a lunch recipe. Nothing is thrown away."

In the summer, when the city's water table is lower, not a drop is wasted in the restaurant. Instead of continuing to fill patrons' water glasses, self-serve jugs are provided, and any water left in jugs is dumped into buckets to water outdoor plants.

They've also developed conservation projects through the Green Table Society. Vij worked closely with BC Hydro's engineers to reduce energy consumption at his new Cloverdale production facility, built to accommodate his growing retail product line (15 frozen curry varieties sold in fine food stores.)

"The Power Smart team worked with our architectural drawings to recommend a lighting system that is very energy efficient," says Vij.

Lessons learned from Power Smart

When Vij and Dhalwala were approached to join Team Power Smart, they were embarrassed to admit they weren't doing many of the energy saving tips that were suggested.

Dhalwala says, "BC Hydro asked us to do simple things at home that we weren't, like using cold water when clothes washing, completely loading the dishwasher, checking the house's insulation and taking shorter showers – not to reinvent our lives."

Vij's worst habit was forgetting to turn off his computer at night and unplugging it from the power bar, though he does it now.

Dhalwala had trouble foregoing long, hot showers. "When we travel to India or Europe, I automatically shift my mindset, being far more conservative there than at home where we've relaxed our habits.

"In India, it wouldn't occur to me to take that length of shower because there you must wait half an hour for the butane to heat the water, then fill the three-gallon bucket with half hot and cold water to wash your hair and body."

But Dhalwala acknowledges that water is precious everywhere, noting she has since reduced her shower times by half.

Dhalwala also launched an eco-campaign for kids called Ten Percent. She switched from "finger-pointing at adults" to giving school talks, asking children to change their energy-wasting habits by 10 per cent in ways that they choose. Her family's first change was driving 10 per cent less: she now walks her girls 10 blocks to school.

Their next change was no longer blow-drying their hair; they air-dry it.

Dhalwala says children learn eco-habits much easier than adults; when taught at school or by parents, they don't consider it criticism of current actions, which she says adults do. It's simply something they're learning in the course of their day, and inevitably they influence parents.

"My children help me to become more environmentally friendly, saying, 'You are not going to drive to the grocery store for that one item,' or 'Don't think you're being eco-conscious just because you recycle that product's packaging. Let's buy it in bulk instead."

Buying local is important to many fine dining restaurateurs because they seek the fresh quality, the environmental savings, and the benefits from the burgeoning "agro-tourism," "community tourism" and "health tourism" industries that promote it. Dhalwala has spent years developing relationships with farmers, buying as many local and organic ingredients for their restaurants as possible.

The more she becomes educated, she says, the more she delves into the complexities of growing food. She compares the difference in nutrients, taste and energy consumption between hothouse local, greenhouse local and imported organic produce, for example, and between produce frozen at its peak and produce purchased fresh but then left sitting in a refrigerator for 10 days.

And although the spices they use are from India, herbs are from B.C., and much of the lentils, chickpeas and chapati flour are grown in Saskatchewan. "There is no point using an Indian ingredient simply to say it's from India, especially when we can use the delicious bounty from the oceans and land here," says Vij.

Back to conversations around a table, Vij and Dhalwala promote the important movement to "bring food back to the table" for both family health and the environment. In their new cookbook, Vij's At Home, they describe buying a dining table in 2008 as a life-changing moment because it dramatically influenced their family dynamics.

Vij started waking up early to cook the family breakfast, served on the new table, and for the first time they all began eating together. Dhalwala extended dinner time rituals, keeping the children at the table until 8:30 p.m. so that when Vij arrived home from work, he could see them.

She concludes, "for those 20 minutes each evening, we now have a meeting place called 'the dining room table' that provides quality time."