A Chef with an Impact Beyond the Culinary Scene

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For Vimala Rajendran, her restaurant, her food, her words and deeds, belong as much to the community as they do to her

By Matt Lardie | Photo by Beth Mann

In a town where chefs and restaurants often become institutions unto themselves, one name has stood out as much for her food as for her relentless dedication to her neighbors and community: Vimala Rajendran.

On the wall of Vimala’s landmark Franklin Street restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, is the statement, “Vimala cooks, everybody eats.” It’s far from a marketing ploy or snappy tagline. It’s a philosophy, a business practice and indeed, for Vimala herself, almost a way of life.

The restaurant will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary, and Vimala seems to be speeding up rather than slowing down. When asked to reflect on those years, she responds (in typical Vimala fashion), not with profit projections, celebrated dishes or plans for a great expansion, but with her philosophy.

“If I could be known for only one thing, it would be the ethics of the business,” she says.

Spend any amount of time talking to Vimala about her food, and you will quickly learn that, although she is passionate about what she cooks, those ethics are what drives her. Her fire burns for those she feeds, for her employees and for her neighbors.

Beginning as a series of community dinners cooked in Vimala’s home nearly two decades ago, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe in The Courtyard today is as much a living, breathing embodiment of Vimala herself as it is a restaurant.

Her “everybody eats” ideology manifests in her ingredients – Vimala estimates that she sources up to 90% or more from local farms and producers.

“I make sure there aren’t too many middlemen involved and buy direct from growers and producers as [much as] possible,” she emphasizes. “The ethics of the quality of the food is so important.”

Her 15 staff members enjoy the benefits of a living wage, paid vacation and sick leave, parental leave, vision and health care, the latter through a partnership with The Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. These benefits are almost unheard of in the restaurant industry. So unheard of, in fact, that the cafe was recently named one of “19 Great Restaurants to Work For” by Food & Wine.

“One chef with her skills and knowledge cannot do it all; she needs a team,” Vimala says. “It becomes imperative to share the proceeds of the project with her team.”

Whereas most restaurants try to operate off a 30-30-30 operations, labor costs and food costs formula, with the final 10% for profits, Vimala has put her own stamp on things.

“We have come up with a new formula [where] profit is only about 2% to 3%,” she points out. The other 7% to 8% of that traditional 10% profit margin is what allows her to pay her suppliers and employees more.

“I am just one of the workers, so I pay myself and everyone else a living wage,” she plainly states. “I have not yielded to the temptation to second-guess myself.”

Vimala’s customers can expect the same level of dedication and care as well. She’s quick to point out her open kitchen, a rarity in Indian restaurants.

“I am transparent to the core,” she says. “The people who dine with us have the right to know what is in their food and where it comes from.”

And her impact is felt beyond her own restaurant. She’s given away countless meals through the “Everybody Eats Fund” that allows customers in need to receive free or low-cost meals. Additionally, she has cooked for and hosted numerous fundraisers and rallies, including a peace and justice rally in the 1990s in Fayetteville where she tallied more than $4,500 in her jar after giving away free pakoras.

Another example is the Thanksgiving dinner she helps host for refugee families. This year’s dinner, the fourth annual, is centered around storytelling.

“Every item on the table will have someone’s story attached to it,” she says. “In a community, when a table is open and people gather, barriers are broken and conversations happen.”

“She’s like one of our best citizens,” chef Bill Smith says emphatically when asked about Vimala’s contributions to the community. “I’ve hardly been to any worthy fundraising cause where she isn’t there.”

“I admire her very much,” he adds. “She’s been real supportive of the immigrant community. You just name it, and there she is.”

Local food writer and journalist Victoria Bouloubasis echoes that sentiment. “Vimala’s impact as a chef and restaurant owner goes beyond simply speaking up or donating funds to organizations,” Victoria says. “She provides physical space, one that’s safe and welcoming to all, for communities to host gatherings, speak their truths, celebrate themselves and others. There’s an empowering element to her impact on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community because she’s quite literally feeding people on many levels.”

For Vimala, her restaurant, her food, her very words and deeds, belong as much to her community as they do to her. And she certainly has no plans of slowing down.

She is working on launching a podcast and hopes to somehow document her life in words and videos. She plans to continue her philanthropic work, with a focus on helping refugee families and advocating for sustainable food systems.

And after a nearly yearlong collaboration in the kitchen with chef Christopher McLaurin, she could even see the two embarking on a second restaurant together in the near future. Vimala lights up when talking about him. “I trust him; he’s focused, and he gets it,” she says.

A decade in, and customers still show up regularly for her samosas, tandoori chicken and warm hospitality, but what isn’t seen on the plate is what that food means to so many outside the restaurant’s walls.

“This institution is bigger than myself,” she says. “I recognize that, and I want to honor that.”

Those who know Vimala will tell you, she’s just getting started.

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