N.C. chef Vimala Rajendran tells how cooking can save a family — and build a food ecosystem
A. Well, having grown food myself and also valuing grown organic food so much; I decided I would not, if I could help it, bargain for better prices. So I always let the farmers set the price. An example being, tomatoes are in great abundance at this time, so there’s one farmer who says he’ll give me his entire farmers market surplus at 75 percent off market price. I said, This is great, because I just feel uncomfortable bargaining for food. I turn around and give great amounts of cooked food to the farmers for them to enjoy.
But it’s difficult. Someone recently called me and said, “There’s a great abundance of tomatoes right now, we sell them at $3 per pound, would you like to buy 50 pounds for $2 a pound?” and I said look, I have these two other arrangements with other farmers, and that is one is giving me free tomatoes, another is giving me tomatoes for a dollar a pound, do you think you could match somewhere in between? And that was a very uncomfortable thing for me to do, but I feel that’s something I have to do for the sustenance of the restaurant now. So there’s something that changed from our first basement apartment where the rent was $350, to renting a house in Chapel Hill, to running a restaurant now.
Having grown food myself and also valuing grown organic food so much; I decided I would not, if I could help it, bargain for better prices. So I always let the farmers set the price.
Q. How did you get funding to start a restaurant at a time when banks are hoarding cash and refusing to lend?
A. Well, credit is tight, and we couldn’t get a bank loan. So, we went to the community. I would talk to anybody I could reach in town, saying “We have a possibility, what do you think?” And within five days, we raised $80,000. And they’re all interest-bearing loans, except for one person who wrote a $15,000 interest-bearing loan check, and a few days later he called me and he said, “Five thousand of that has to be a gift to you for the mentoring and community building that you do for so many, and the affect of your work is immeasurable, I want to give you a gift.”
(Shannon Barry photo)Q. So how is it switching from cooking at home to cooking in a professional kitchen?
A. It’s been a learning experience for all of it, the commercial equipment being bigger. It’s great in a way — having a walk-in refrigerator is a dream, we can even put things on a cart and roll it in. Also, the sky’s the limit as far as accepting produce that the farmers bring to our door. They exchange food with us and hang out, and I send food to their farms that are already cooked using their produce. So we have quite a few farms we are sourcing from, if you can look on our website, I think they say the farms, close to ten farms in the area selling us stuff.
The best thing about having had the community dinners at the house is that those folks know they can come here and actually mingle with other people who are dining and build community. So that continuity is something some new restaurants don’t have, and I’m just so honored that I can continue the tradition and there’s a sense of being a good neighbor and having a sustainable respectful relationship with the farmers and the land that we’re connected to through them. To have that connection — when I hug a farmer, it seems like I’m hugging the Earth that they’re working from. It’s so precious. I feel if I cannot dig the Earth, someone does for me, and a hug from a farmer means the world to me.
Q. What advice would you give for a young person who wants to start a community-oriented food business?
A. I believe — from so many personal experiences in my life that I’ve had to overcome — that if I can do it, anyone can do it. If a young person wants to go into food production, every community has an abundance of resources. I would advise them to talk to anyone they can make eye contact with and anyone who will listen, and then the word gets out, and people begin to say, “Hey, have you thought about partnering with this person?” Because there are other people who have had the same struggles, who have either overcome them or who can together overcome and solve the problem.
Q. Ok, it’s 7 o’clock at night and you’re relaxing at home, and some friends drop in. What do you cook for them?
A. I say, hey, take a seat, what do you want to drink, put some music on — that distracts them for 10 minutes or so — and I have already put on a mung dal which will take about 15 minutes to become dal, and as I’m talking I’m also putting on brown basmati rice, and while those two things are beginning to come to a boil, I’m already chopping onions and the local harvested vegetable of the day — if it were today, it’d be squash and tomatoes — just chop it up, turn on a little bit of oil, put in a few seeds, mustard and cumin, and put in the chopped onions, then put in the vegetables and maybe turmeric for color and good measure and health, and that’s it. Just put a lid or the cover on the baji — a vegetable cooked with no sauce is called a baji — and that’s it. Soon, you’ll have three items all ready. If there’s no time to fry up a pappadam, potato chips will do. You know, you have to have something crunchy.
Q. Does tomorrow evening sound good? I’ll bring the chips!