Where the 'new South' finds its spice

Oct. 13, 2010 11:44 pm

CHAPEL HILL
A warm breeze rushes through The Courtyard, a collection of shops and offices on West Franklin Street, carrying with it an aroma that wafts near a softly babbling stone pond. Perhaps it’s the smell of tandoori chicken marinating in ginger and garlic, or sesame-seed-speckled plantains frying in a crunchy rice batter, or even Basmati rice with cardamom. It could be one of many home-cooked Indian dishes that Vimala’s Curryblossom Café has been serving up since it opened in June.

It’s easy to miss the café. It can’t be seen from Franklin Street and sits tucked away in a corner of The Courtyard. But Vimala Rajendran’s restaurant doesn’t need a prominent storefront to attract diners. Her personality and her cooking have been bringing hundreds of locals to her restaurant for months—and to her dinner table for years.

“I believe that when people meet around the dinner table, there is a joining of spirit that comes. It breaks down barriers,” Rajendran said.

Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is the product of Rajendran’s lifetime love of cooking, years of hard work and generous support from the community. Rajendran, owner and executive chef of the café, came to the United States from India and has been living in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area for 25 years. Her first marriage ended in divorce, and around 16 years ago, she became a single mother and had to take care of her family without child support, alimony or public assistance. And without a green card, she wasn’t able to work.

To survive, she started cooking for friends, who in turn donated money to support her. Her donation-supported home cooking became known as Vimala’s Takeout, and three years later she started hosting her locally famous community dinners.

“Whatever was an obstacle at one time has become the best source of opportunity for me,” she said.

Small community dinners began to draw a big crowds — more than 300 people came to her home at some of the final events. And though opening Vimala’s Curryblossom Café forced Rajendran to stop hosting the dinners, she said that she hopes her work will inspire others to start up their own.

The community has shown its support for the café.

Rajendran raised $125,000 through personal loans from friends to open the business, and she is still looking for $25,000 to put in some upgrades or grow to a bigger location because the current space has only 28 indoor seats.

“One thing that I’d like the community to know is that I’m extremely grateful for their support,” Rajendran said.

It’s mostly dark inside of the café, and chairs are stacked on top of tables. Soft light spills through lime green drapes, and there is a light shuffle of activity in the kitchen. The café is closed, but everyone works hard to prepare for catering a wedding. Amelia Roberts and Kathryn Stein work on assembling samosas, or stuffed pastries, in the dining area. Both Stein and Roberts got to know Rajendran through her community dinners and have been working at the café as general employees.

“I’ve been impressed with the way she’s able to bring together the community,” Roberts said.

Family and friends are important at the café. Rajendran’s policy is that employees must take off their aprons and eat with family or friends who come to visit, and her family members often make appearances at the café to help out. Rush Greenslade, her husband, works at the café. He said opening the business has been a positive experience.

“Food has been one of the things that brought us together,” he said.

Though the café is closed this afternoon, people don’t stop coming up to the door. Like Marie de Jong, who said she hoped to get her first taste of the South Asian cuisine at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café. She, like many others, has known Rajendran for years.

“She has a marvelous spirit,” de Jong said.

Rajendran quickly emerges from the café and greets de Jong with a hug, offering her food despite the hectic circumstances. And Rajendran is willing to offer food to anyone who comes in the door. Vimala’s Curryblossom Café keeps an “everybody eats” policy, which means that anyone can come for a meal regardless of their ability to pay. She said the main goal of the policy is to “desegregate the Southern table.”

“People of all different classes, religions and colors can sit at the same table,” Rajendran said.  “We are creating a new South here.”

Growing up, Rajendran learned generosity and kindness from her parents, who always shared the food they had even when they didn’t have much. Life also taught her what it’s like to live with very little.

“There was a time when I didn’t own anything,” she said. “I just had the clothes on my back and my children in tow. But every prayer was answered.”

Rajendran said her childhood in India and her experiences at markets in Bombay helped shape her passion for cooking with healthy, quality ingredients. Both of her parents were good cooks and shared their knowledge with Rajendran. But it was her own “insatiable passion” for good food that made her look outside of her home for ideas.

“I became a good cook from almost an innate sense of knowing good food,” Rajendran said. “When I was 7 years old, I was kneading dough and making flatbreads.”

A passion for good food keeps Rajendran looking for local ingredients to include in dishes served at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café. Some of the meat and produce at the café is sourced locally from several farms and farmers markets, said Robert Jones, sustainability coordinator for the café. He works with Rajendran on sourcing as much food locally as possible and said they have set a modest goal of sourcing about 30 percent of the food locally year-round.

Jones is also one of about 12 people who loaned Rajendran money to open the restaurant.

“I feel really strongly that we need to be investing in our local communities,” Jones said. “I felt like it was a way of supporting this community and supporting the local food system.”

Vimala’s Curryblossom Café has a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding community. People who come to the café know that they’re getting quality food, the same quality she served at her community dinners. Having made a name for herself in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area over the past 25 years, Rajendran hasn’t had trouble attracting business. That’s why there’s no budget for advertising — there’s no need for it because as Rajendran said, the food speaks for itself. And though the business is thriving, it’s the people and the memories, not the profit, that she says make all of the hard work worthwhile.

“The best thing about having a restaurant is that some part or another of my 25-year history walks in the door every day, and it’s so incredible,” she said.

This story was reported as part of the J463 Digital Newsdesk Production class.