Winterlicious Culinary Events: Four Hands Dinner

Special culinary experiences are offered during Toronto’s Winterlicious series; exclusive meals and events that are generally not available and could only occur once. In 2016, they presented the Four Hands Dinner: hands belonging to Chefs Vikram Vij (Vancouver restauranteur and a Dragon from Dragon’s Den) and Miheer Shete (Chef de Cuisine at O&B and Chopped Canada winner)

As guests were waiting to enter into the Arcadian Studio, a welcome cocktail of rum, citrus juices, carbonated water and a medley of spices circulated to provide a sense of what’s to come: a night of Indian cuisine with a Canadian twist. At the door to welcome everyone into the event with a hand shake were the Chefs themselves.

Admittedly, the event had a rocky start as the passed canapés were swarmed by guests – a tray of twenty no match for a crowd of over a hundred. The predator in me came out as I stalked the servers, if you were even a minute late all hints of food would vanish. And there were plenty nibbles to try: the salmon roe on blinis were dainty but had no Indian characteristics while the lamb kofta hot and savoury yet could use more meat.

The samosa was FANTASTIC, the crust not overly thick and encapsulating tons of juicy seasoned minced meat. These went well with the crispy chickpea and potato fries with a creamy curry aioli on top.

Gradually the crowds started to calm as additional servers entered the room from various entrance to give the timid a chance at the passed bites. Personally, I thought it’d work better if O&B set up a couple of stations (predominantly for the cocktails and fries) while also circulating canapés to help disperse guests. I was impressed by Chef Vij’s dedication to hospitality: throughout the initial portion he mingled around the room, making sure people had a chance to get a drink and bite.

Starting the cooking demonstration earlier could have helped as well. Perhaps even continuing the canapés so guests would have something to nibble on while the intoxicating aroma of cooking spices wafted from the chicken curry Chef Vij was whipping up.

The recipe paid homage to his mother, who made the curry daily and transported it by bus from Richmond to Vancouver when Vikram first started his restaurant. For entrepreneurs in the crowd, what a delight it’d be to hear about the tenacity and dedication it takes to grow a business from a single restaurant to the current empire.

We also learned some tips about cooking. For example, reminding us that Indian cooking isn’t necessarily about using the “best” ingredients. Rather, it’s about getting the timing and succession of adding ingredients right.

Vikram simplifies his approach to food as having love, passion and care. Moreover, he recounts using his “village mentality” in Vancouver, using local ingredients within traditional recipes to showcase what our country has to offer. This was evident in the four course dinner that was served afterwards – the fish from the East’s Fogo Island, wines originating from Niagara & Okanagan Valley and even the rum in the dessert sourced from Newfoundland.

Before we took our seats at the large brightly decorated harvest tables, Chef Shete joked about the menu to come, including the challenge of taking things that are “brown, browner and brownish” to make a dinner. In the end, the meal would combine French presentation with Indian Canadian cuisine.

The idli terrine certainly was not shades of brown, the layers of the savoury cake coloured a vibrant green and yellow. On the bottom of the plate, a thick layer of congealed gunpowder butter, which was packed with salty and spicy tastes. After all the fried canapés, the idli was too heavy and rich of a starter; a larger portion of the Moong sprouts salad and less of the cake and butter would have been better. It’s a rather interesting salad as the lentils aren’t cooked, rather soaked in water so that it softens and begins sprouting.

Yet, I’m glad Chefs Vij and Sheete didn’t try to “westernize” the courses. The starter was something I’ve never had before and it’s great to experience new things. They certainly didn’t shy away from using spices, although I felt the heat level was bearable. As Chef Vij puts it: the flavour should be full and rich, but not too spicy… you should experience the heat not on the tongue but the brow.

The following Ajwaini Fogo Island cod married India and Canada the best. The Newfoundland fish wonderfully cooked with a crispy skin and incorporated a light dusting of spices. The nutty mix of Prairie grains was studded with crispy curry leaves and diners could customize the heat level depending on the amount of Indian green goddess dressing added to it.

Despite Chef Vij not wanting a restaurant whose menu serves typical butter chicken and tikka marsala, the dinner’s main consisted of a smoked butter chicken pot pie. Instead of a flaky crust, Chef Sheete used a besan bannock roti as the base so that the pastry was chewy and lighter, ideal for ripping into pieces and dipping into the fragrant sauce. The chicken was left in a large piece staying succulent, while the sauce was luxurious but not too creamy.

The side of rutabaga raita (a crispy chip) was addictive, something I continued to snack on despite being stuffed. Cubes of the nasty pickles kept enticing me also, a thrilling kick of spice and acid that after a heavy meal I was craving.

Throughout dinner, the Chefs kept us entertained with stories, explanations of the dishes and answering questions. Moreover, I was surprised that Chef Vij stayed the entire evening, circulating amongst the tables after every course to see how we enjoyed each one. He also graciously signed the take home recipe and posed for pictures with dinner guests.

A gulab jumun donut provided an ending so sweet that Buddy from Elf would be proud. Normally, these heated milk solids are served Timbit sized soaked in a sugar syrup. At the Four Hands Dinner, an entire donut was presented drench in maple rum. At least the chefs had good sense to pair it with a neutral lemon sour cream ice cream to tone done the sweetness.

I couldn’t help but be proud of how far Canada’s culinary scene has come in terms of diversity. Chef Vij recounts how in 1994 he won an award for best Asian restaurant. Although he humbly accepted it, he later returned it and explained to the editors that with so many countries amalgamating Asia, it’s really hard to say he’s most deserving for the world’s largest continent. It was through his urging, that media later expanded their awards for include Chinese, Indian, etc. cuisines.

Nonetheless, we still have steps to go to give all the culture’s cuisines equal footing. Chef Vij unapologetically admits that when he started his first restaurant he wanted to provide diners with an authentic experience (so no choosing your own spiciness levels) and he would not do so cheaply. After all, if you’re proud of your creations and want to give diners something of quality, why would you want to be cheap?

Yet, I still hear reviews proclaiming, for dim sum, pho, Indian food, etc. the price is expensive. Something that’s generally not a phrase that’s uttered for describing French or Japanese cuisine. So, we should heed Chef Vij’s advice, that if Canada is to become a culinary destination we need to be proud of our backyard and not be opposed to paying more for quality.

When asked why he hasn’t opened a restaurant in Toronto, Vikram explains that keeping restaurants successful is difficult. If something has his name on it, he wants to ensure it lives up to the name and hence he’d spread himself thin trying to manage restaurants over such far distances. Alas, to really taste his creations, I’ll have to make the journey to British Columbia. Until then, thank you Winterlicious for giving Torontonians a taste of this charismatic chef’s creations and philosophy.

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