The heartful chef
VIJAY SADHU is a perfectionist. Whether he is standing in the kitchen of one of his many successful restaurants in the United States, competing with Bobby Flay, or simply sitting in meditation, Chef Vijay determinedly puts his heart into everything he does. The result? Great food that is filled with love, hardearned and well-deserved success, and a daily effort to show up as his best possible self. Sitting at a table at Fausto’s, Kanha Shanti Vanam’s Italian Restaurant, he shares more about his passion for cooking and his journey of becoming a chef with MAMATA VENKAT, how finding a Guru and diving into spirituality changed his attitude in the kitchen, and how all of his experiences have shaped his most important role: being a parent.
Q: Chef, how did you discover your passion for being in the kitchen?
VS: My experience was very different. I was more into dancing when I was growing up, and I was part of a band that my friends used to have. I moved out of home when I was 15, and from that age I never depended on anyone. I was a dropout because of the band. We were performing a show in a hotel in Hyderabad, and the venue was right next to the kitchen. I was smelling the aroma and air of beautiful food, and I said, “Oh my gosh, this is so incredible!”
My eldest brother was a chef. My parents were worried about me. They were like, “What is this guy? He doesn’t want to go to school. He doesn’t want to go to college.” I was very careless. I didn’t really worry too much.
I said, “Take it as it comes.”
I started liking cooking, food, and serving people. There was no grandmother inspiration or mother inspiration. I’m a self-made person. I started working as an apprentice for some of the big hotel chains. Then, I had the opportunity to go to the U.S. at the age of 18 and ended up in Manhattan. There I started working for some of the best restaurants, peeling onions, and doing behind-the-scenes work. It was all old-school style.
Q: What does the journey look like for someone who is trying to be a world-famous chef?
VS: Back in the day, not every chef went to college. I didn’t go to college to begin with. After working in New York, I made some money, and then I thought about going to college. I moved to India for six months, worked for one of the top hotel chains, and wanted to be at the management level, but people would say, “No, you don’t have a degree, so you can’t be a manager”. I thought that was discrimination, but while having tea with a cousin of mine, looking at a newspaper, I saw something about study abroad in Australia. So I packed my bags and moved to Australia. There I finished my hotel management degree right off the bat. I worked for a good restaurant there, and then I moved back to the U.S. again. That’s when I really started.
Whatever I did, I put my heart into it.
That’s number one. I don’t compromise at all.
Q: What kind of attitude did you have in order to create success for yourself?
VS: From day one, I wanted to be a perfectionist in everything that I did. I don’t waste my time. If I do something, I’ll do it perfectly, otherwise I’ll say, “I don’t think this is for me” or “I’m not ready for this.” I don’t experiment with things, except recipes. That’s how I started working for some great chefs.
I had an opportunity to open my own restaurant in Milwaukee when I was a young guy, probably 29 or 30. It was called Saffron Bistro, with a lot of European influence, and it was rated one of the best restaurants in the world by Bon Appetit Magazine. My restaurant was a small hole in the wall, no bar, just tables and the food, some wines.
From there, it just kept growing, growing, growing. I appeared on television with other chefs, I was on the cover of a lot of magazines in New York and Milwaukee, and then I moved to India again. I came with my family here and opened a restaurant in Hyderabad. But the mentality didn’t suit me, so I packed my bags and moved back to the U.S. again. I opened a beautiful restaurant in Dallas called Northwest Frontier Cuisine. I prepared a lot of kebabs and barbequed food. My restaurant was once again rated one of the top restaurants in Dallas. I was the first Indian person to do that.
There I was blessed to work under one of the best chefs in the world, Steven Pyles, the father of Southwestern cuisine, who invented Tex-Mex. He pulled me out and said, “Hey, why don’t you work with me?” I worked for him, and then opened a restaurant called Sutra, with a Portuguese-Spanish influence and an Indian touch. It did phenomenally well. Whatever I did, I put my heart into it. That’s number one. I don’t compromise at all.
Q: I imagine that you apply that mentality of perfectionism to your meditation practice. What drew you to spirituality and, specifically, to Heartfulness?
VS: In 1998, my brother said, “Hey, why don’t you try Heartfulness?”
I said, “What is that?”
From my childhood, I was never into idol worship. I used to go to the temple with my parents, but I wasn’t really into it, although I believe there is a God. I started Heartfulness, and met the Guide, Chariji, in 1998 in Austin, did for a month, but I didn’t continue. I was back to my usual stuff. People do service, and cooking for people is my kind of service.
Two and a half years ago, I met my wife, who was into Heartfulness, and the first thing I told her was, “Don’t try to get me into Heartfulness.” One day, Daaji started coming in front of me in subtle form. There was a Heartfulness trainer in Dallas and I went to him and said, “I want to have a meditation session.” So I never stopped. I know we all miss parts of the practice here and there, but as I mentioned to you earlier, if I like something, I do it.
The first book I ever read was Designing Destiny from cover to cover. I’d never finished a book before. It changed my perception about lifestyle and everything. I used to eat meat, breakfast, lunch and dinner, but after finishing Designing Destiny I stopped eating meat right away. I used to smoke and I just said no and stopped right away. It’s not just respect for the guru; I love him. I’ve started to really miss him from the bottom of my heart. I used to only listen to hip-hop and jazz, Cuban jazz. That’s what pumped me up in the kitchen or in my car. After finishing that book, now I listen to Babuji’s talks. It changed me so much, my way of thinking.
Q: Do you think that the love for this practice and the connection with your guide has positively impacted the way that your food turns out?
VS: I always cooked with love from the beginning. I used to call it focus. My mentors taught me that it was all about consistency, quality, using proper ingredients, and then putting love, putting your heart and cooking. That’s always been there. It wasn’t because of Heartfulness, but Heartfulness added a layer to it.
When I came to Kanha two and a half years ago, I visited Daaji. He looked at me, shook my hand, and that was it. Later, my brother came, so I went with my brother to Daaji’s apartment. While leaving, at the entrance, I started crying. It just happened. And I didn’t know why I was crying. It was like a child missing his mom.
My desire was always to cook for Daaji, and during this visit I started cooking for him from the first day. Until today, I’ve been cooking for him. That connection between him and I – I don’t ask for anything. I don’t want to ask for anything because I don’t need to. I took a break for two days and went to Vizag with my wife. I literally started crying in the cab, saying, “Honey, let’s go back. I miss him.” I don’t expect anything from him.
When I open my eyes, I think of him. That has improved my cooking a lot. My flavors have changed. The way I cook vegetables is different. The way I use spices. The way I create dishes is natural, spontaneous, and it just comes automatically now. When I cook for him, I don’t have to plan, it just comes. My love toward food has gone up tremendously. It has improved so much.
The way I create dishes is natural, spontaneous,
and it just comes automatically now.
My love toward food has gone up tremendously.
It has improved so much.
Q: How do you think your attitude in the kitchen has changed?
VS: There was a tremendous change after practicing Heartfulness. Three years ago, when I worked for the W Hotel, I was very tough and very straightforward, I would never compromise, and I would yell at my staff. At the end of the day, we all have emotions, so we need to balance them. People would sabotage me because I was tough. Ego was there. I was in competition, I was in the newspapers, in magazines, and it was a big deal. People would come from the East Coast to try my food. I always wanted more. My dream was to get a James Beard Award.
My ego started melting because of this practice. In general, I don’t like to show off, and I’m mellow, easy, I need my space. I took Daaji’s advice on how to change, how to look at things in a positive way. I had problems with everybody. I looked at the right way, but I didn’t compromise. I wouldn’t let things go. Now, every day, I park at my same spot, and before I go inside to work, I pray. I have seen the change, how people started approaching me in a positive way. They started approaching me in the kitchen, and that is a big plus.
Q: Your path during your teens and twenties was unconventional. It was not a stereotypical, linear path. I imagine that your parents had moments of deep stress, concern and worry. How has your experience impacted the way you parent? What advice would you give to people who are in their teens and early twenties who want to follow their passions?
VS: I don’t tell my kids what to do, and what not to do. All I tell them is to focus, and put a lot of your love in whatever you do. Don’t give up. Stick to your passions. Don’t jump from here to there. Don’t be fickle. Think always that there is a God that is helping you, that is always there for you. I don’t see what they study. I don’t go through their homework. I don’t do any of that. I am teaching them to be independent, but I’m there for them all the time. With my experiences of what I did in the past – smoking and drinking and relationships – I do tell them to be careful.
Every human being makes mistakes. Just don’t repeat the mistakes. I tell my daughter, who is sixteen, “If you get a ticket, you will have to pay for it, not just money, but you will have to pay the consequences. Do you really want to go through that, or do you just want to be careful?”
My son is nineteen: “I know what you do. I’m not asking, but cut it off, don’t do it.” Why? This is the reason. I don’t just tell them,“Don’t do it,” I give my own examples as a father and friend to show them why it’s important to be careful.
I don’t tell my kids what to do,
and what not to do.
All I tell them is to focus,
and put a lot of your love
in whatever you do.
We are missing that relatability between parent and child. Most parents are very controlling and they want their children to be doctors and engineers because they are doctors and engineers. But it doesn’t make any sense at all. If you want to be a painter, be a painter. If you want to be a magician, be the best magician out there. That’s what I tell my children. Be who you are.
We work for money, but that is wrong. Work with compassion, work with love. If you’re really interested, do what you want to do. In any field, there is no limit. If you want to be a carpenter, you can be the best carpenter. If you want to be a teacher, you can be the best teacher. If you want to be a chef, you can be the best chef. That’s how I look at things.
Q: What is the one lesson that has resonated in every moment of your life?
VS: I say, “Be in love, just focus, and think that your Beloved is doing everything.” You are just an instrument. Be a perfectionist. Whatever you do, do it perfectly.
Work with compassion, work with love.
If you’re really interested,
do what you want to do.
In any field, there is no limit.
Interview by MAMATA VENKAT
November 30, 2020
November 30, 2020
November 30, 2020