Friday afternoon in September, Meeru Dhalwala sits on an overstuffed black velvet sofa, drinking milky chai tea and politely nibbling on Indian sweets. She speaks in Hindi, and the woman and two men sitting across from her respond in Punjabi. The woman, Pummy, grew up in the same village in Punjab, India, as Dhalwala’s kitchen manager. Now Pummy lives in this home in Auburn, where Dhalwala arrives an hour late for their meeting, having driven her Prius straight from Vancouver.
Leaning forward, her freckled face serious and framed by springy black curls, Dhalwala talks about the restaurant, Shanik, she is opening in South Lake Union. She desperately needs to hire eight people to work in the kitchen, and she wants people without professional cooking experience, a blank slate upon which she can impress her way of doing things. All full-time employees will have health insurance, a benefit unheard of in most U.S. restaurant kitchens.
One of the men is Pummy’s husband; the other will function as a sort of recruiter, spreading Dhalwala’s “help wanted” message through temples and community centers in the area. If he deems her suitable. The hard work and commitment Dhalwala is outlining is a given, he says. He’s more concerned about how she manages her kitchen and whether the neighborhood is safe at night for wives, sisters, and mothers from his community. Dhalwala is the one with jobs to fill, but she is the one being interviewed.
Nearly three hours after her arrival, after Pummy feeds her freshly made flatbread, potato and cauliflower curries, yogurt, salad, and rice pudding, it’s time to get back in the Prius. The would-be recruiter left before the meal, but he did request a help wanted notice, handwritten and in Punjabi, that he could post around the community. Apparently Dhalwala met with his approval.
Dhalwala’s name isn’t familiar to many people south of the Canadian border, but her food already has an ardent fan base here. On any given night, a tenth of the diners at Vij’s and Rangoli, the Vancouver restaurants she owns with her husband Vikram Vij, are from Seattle. Food-obsessed locals drive up I-5 for the sole purpose of eating at the Indian restaurant New York Times food writer Mark Bittman proclaimed “among the finest Indian restaurants in the world.” Here a line forms outside, beneath the neon Vij’s sign, well before doors open at 5:30. And nobody but nobody gets to cut; it’s a tiny reflection of Dhalwala’s master’s degree in third-world development. She considers Vij’s a minute country, where she and her husband are the equitable governing body. Surviving those two-hour waits is a badge of pride, as is receiving the inevitable personal greeting from Vij himself, as he circles the room night after night.
Shanik opens the first week of December, at the corner of Terry and Republican, and finding a kitchen staff consumes Dhalwala’s thoughts, so much that she avoids drinking water at night. Midnight bathroom trips inevitably result in lying awake, worrying about the restaurant’s opening day arriving with nobody in the kitchen making masala. Every one of her 45 employees in Vancouver is female, and first-generation Indian with no professional cooking experience before Dhalwala trained them. It’s a successful formula that might be impossible to pull off in Seattle. Amarjeet Gill, her kitchen manager, is similarly consumed by the hunt for staff, so much so that she almost approached an Indian woman on the street outside the restaurant, until Dhalwala grabbed her by the arm and pointed out that a woman wearing a lab coat probably doesn’t want to trade it in to chop onions and garlic.
While her husband is the face (and name) of Vij’s, the kitchen is Dhalwala’s domain. The recipes have been largely her creation for nearly 18 years, though before that point she was working as a program manager at a human rights nonprofit in Washington, DC, focusing on development in countries like Rwanda, Uganda, and Malawi. She didn’t cook much more than chickpeas and rice. Over Thanksgiving in 1994, Dhalwala flew across the continent for the sole purpose of meeting a guy named Vikram Vij, a guy whose mom grew up with hers back in India. Their mothers had set them up on a phone date a few weeks earlier.
The news that Vij’s parents would also be in town while Dhalwala was staying with him horrified her mother. Heavens—her old friend might think she raised the kind of daughter who regularly shacks up with men she’s just met. Never mind that Dhalwala was 30 years old and had already been married. Still, to appease her parents, she promised to wear some profoundly untantalizing sleepwear. Under duress, Dhalwala bought the cheapest set of long pajamas she could find, a gaudy red and green Christmas plaid.
Vij had just bought a 14-seat diner in Vancouver, and the only unchaperoned time the new acquaintances had was after he left his restaurant at night. They stayed out eating, drinking, or just parking at the beach and talking, usually until 6 or 7 in the morning. On day five, he proposed. His one hesitation, he told her later, was whether he could truly be physically attracted to a woman who wore such ugly pajamas.
The couple married just four weeks later, on Christmas Eve. Dhalwala relocated to Vancouver in February, now married to a man she hadn’t known two months ago. Her plan was to find another nonprofit job, except she had no work permit. She filled her days hanging out with her new husband in the Vij’s kitchen. One day she noticed a milky skin had formed on the chai Vij served in his restaurant. And the particular spice combination he used discolored the milk. Dhalwala wasn’t a cook, but she was a tenacious problem solver. By April, she was experimenting with flavors and recipes.
Her entire culinary education happened in that kitchen. She hunkered down in that room, tasting, testing, and when the day was over, reading. The crusading personality she channeled into her nonprofit work had found a new focus. During Sam Sifton’s tenure as New York Times restaurant critic, he overheard Dhalwala tell a group of visiting Montana residents that she could not, in good conscience, fill a dinner order that consisted only of meat. She instead negotiated to put together a side dish of vegetables, and if the men didn’t like it, dinner was on her. They reportedly devoured her coconut kale and happily picked up the tab.
But by the time Dhalwala felt confident as a chef, “Vikram was already the big personality here.”
Though Vij plays no role in Shanik other than that of supportive husband, he did drop a clue as to its existence the evening of April 23, one so unseasonably warm in Seattle that the windows remained open at Matt’s in the Market even as the nighttime chill rolled into Pike Place Market from Puget Sound. Vij was sharing the kitchen with Matt’s chef Chester Gerl, to cook a joint dinner celebrating the restaurant’s fifth anniversary.
Seats sold out within days, and in between courses Vij circulated throughout the room as if he’d been there for a decade. He placed his hand on guests’ shoulders as he asked how they were enjoying the lamb, gazing intently with eyes an unexpected cornflower hue against his dark skin. When Vij addressed the room and listed Seattle as “the one city outside Canada that I’d open a restaurant,” the crowd erupted into an actual cheer, as if he just made an unexpected dash to home plate. The chef concluded with the wish, “Let Seattle smell and taste of good Indian food in the future.” Of course, at that moment, he was aware that his wife was well on her way to making his toast a reality.
Dhalwala’s partner in this venture is Oğuz Istif, the chief operating officer for all things Vij’s—the restaurants, the plant in Surrey that produces Vij’s at Home frozen curries, Vij’s Indian railroad-style food truck. He came to Canada from southeast Turkey, working as a front-of-house manager at Rangoli before going back to school for his MBA. Istif is 12 years younger than Dhalwala, a soft-spoken sharp dresser with impeccable manners and large brown eyes fringed with lashes. Those last two attributes ensure perpetual adoration from the women in the Vij’s and Rangoli kitchens, who always make sure to set food aside for him before it runs out. He also helps distill Dhalwala’s concepts of social justice into sound business practices but will speak up when there just isn’t room in the budget for the custom seat cushions she wants, made with wool sheared and felted by three enterprising moms on Orcas Island.
The plan was to open a restaurant in Istanbul, but a cookbook event Dhalwala hosted at Elliott Bay Book Company last November recentered the map. A group of Vij’s regulars attended, and afterward, over a glass of wine, one of them asked, “Would you ever consider opening a restaurant in Seattle?”
Plenty of people have asked that same question, but it helped that this one, Joe Herrin, is a principal at Heliotrope Architects and offered to actually set up meetings so Dhalwala and Istif could see a few spaces. They looked downtown and in Fremont, but South Lake Union “suited us right away,” says Dhalwala. The sterile, even drab, buildings on Amazon’s new campus might seem an odd choice, but the rapid-fire urban regeneration reminded her of Vancouver’s Yaletown neighborhood. She also likes the fact that Shanik’s building is LEED Platinum certified. Herrin is the architect for the space, creating elements like the champagne-colored steel screen that separates the dining room and vestibule, its floral filigree pattern a mix of Indian and Turkish design elements.
Dhalwala is fond of explaining, “I’m treating Shanik like an unplanned third pregnancy.”
As workers scurry around the construction zone that will soon be their restaurant, Dhalwala and Istif debate the takeout counter to the left of the restaurant entrance. It’s called Tiffin, the British-Indian term for the stainless steel stacked-container lunch boxes. Amazonians can order lunch in these reusable containers, trading in empties with their next lunch order. Dhalwala wants people to wash the tiffins before returning them, but Istif thinks this will lead to fewer returns.
“We have to make people be responsible to something,” Dhalwala argues. “Otherwise we’ll just be mollycoddling them.” Though she moved to the U.S. from India when she was four years old, she retains a lilt that isn’t quite an accent. She’s wearing black jeans and a brown and black tunic her eldest daughter calls her “party shirt,” a last--minute change after spilling milky tea down her front on the way out the door in Vancouver this morning. She made the tea for Istif, since he was more concerned with being on time for their 10:30 meeting in Seattle than with breakfast.
Shanik is named for her younger daughter. The elder, Nanaki, sports an ancient and deeply religious Sikh name that Dhalwala thought inappropriate for a restaurant. “It would be like calling my restaurant Muhammad and serving pork; it would be like calling my restaurant Krishna and serving beef.”
Dhalwala is fond of explaining, “I’m treating Shanik like an unplanned third pregnancy.” Vij’s is like her eldest daughter, “that coddled first child, sensitive and elegant,” while Rangoli is very much the younger child, “playful and naughty and never following the rules.” As for Shanik, says Dhalwala, “even if you’re not planning for it, when that baby is born it’s as special as the first two.”
Shanik has a 40-seat lounge area in the back, with a spray of tiny lights on the ceiling to mimic the Himalayan night sky. It’s designed as a place for customers to have a cocktail while awaiting one of the dining room’s 72 seats—having an overabundance of customers is a given at her other two restaurants.
And yet Dhalwala still lies awake, worries about the restaurant and its currently empty kitchen usurping her usual nighttime worries about climate change. She’s accustomed to having her food under public scrutiny, but when the inevitable restaurant reviews come out, there’s no one to deflect any criticism. Istif has his own warm front-of-house demeanor, and “Vikram is a show,” says Dhalwala of her husband’s legendary greetings in the Vij’s dining room. But she plans to spend most of her time in the kitchen. The idea of her greeting customers with bawdy jokes and her husband’s signature namaste bow strikes her as ridiculous.
However, the idea of designing a menu that isn’t a collaboration with her meat-and-potato-loving husband makes Dhalwala positively giddy. Shanik’s food will be about 40 percent vegetarian and distinct from their jointly owned restaurants, serving some brand new recipes and other favorites Dhalwala hasn’t cooked for years. Beyond that, she’s still feeling her way. This process will extend beyond the day the doors open, as she and Seattle get to know each other. But already, she says, Shanik is indelibly her vision.
“I’ve got this one chance to be a human being. I don’t want to blow it on shit that doesn’t make me happy inside.”