Vancouver chef Vikram Vij cooks for Canadian Forces overseas
Restaurateur summoned by defence minister to join him for holiday tour aboard HMCS Charlottetown, Kuwait base
As a child growing up in the city of Amritsar in northwest India, Vikram Vij knew the sounds and sights of war very well.
"Indian and Pakistan were fighting," the Vancouver-based celebrity chef recalls, his voice catching and his eyes brimming with tears at the memories.
"And there would be warplanes going above us. We would have blackouts."
It is that childhood experience of war and of the soldiers and pilots who fought for India that fuelled his desire to do something unusual — and, until now, secret.
There are regular visits by comedians, singers and hockey celebrities to entertain and give a boost to Canadian troops who are based abroad during the holidays. Over the years, they've included Rick Mercer, Tom Cochrane and Don Cherry.
But this year, the troops got something very different. Vij flew to the patrol ship HMCS Charlottetown, stationed in the Mediterranean, last Saturday and then to a military base in Kuwait the following day, where Canadian Forces are part of Operation Impact, aimed at fighting ISIS.
Vij, known for his appearance on the TV series Dragons' Den and his high-profile success as a restaurateur and entrepreneur, said he eagerly agreed when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan asked him to accompany him on the trip.
"It is my sense of duty for India and for Canada," Vij said during an interview at his popular Vancouver restaurant, Vij's, before he left.
Recalling again his childhood pride in the military, Vij said, "We all wanted to be soldiers."
Instead, he came to Canada, where he wields a saucepan instead of a gun.
In the days leading up to his visit with the Forces, Vij showed off the spices he intended to carry in his suitcase: garam masala, turmeric, fenugreek and cinnamon among them.
He was told he would have to improvise. Aboard HMCS Charlottetown, that meant cooking with the navy chefs. Video footage of the visit made available by the Canadian Armed Forces shows the menu included chicken curry.
Sailors raved about it, calling it "'amazing," "delicious" and "probably the best chicken I've ever had."
In Kuwait, Vij held cooking lessons for the military personnel.
Food 'important' after deployment
One of his students was Sajjan, who asked Vij to come after talking to soldiers about the idea of having Indian food for this year's holiday meal.
"The interest was extremely high," said Sajjan in an interview from Ottawa before he left on the trip.
When you deploy, having a unique flavor really does make your day.- Harjit Sajjan, defence minister
"I assure you, when it comes to food, how important it is. When you deploy, having a unique flavor really does make your day."
Sajjan, of South Asian heritage, laughed as he denied a joking suggestion that he only invited Vij in order to enjoy the cuisine himself.
"Look at how busy he is with his business, his shows, everything else that he does," said Sajjan of the chef. "But the sense of appreciation that he has for the troops, wanting to do this is genuine."
For Vij, the mission made good on a debt he has felt since boyhood to those who serve in the military.
"Being away from their families at this time of year is extremely difficult, and if I can just soothe their burden and just make them smile a little bit more, what more can I ask for?"