Everybody eats: cooking up equality in Chapel Hill

Vimala Rajendran is on a mission to feed the entire community through her restaurant, Vimala's Curryblossom Café. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)
Through her restaurant’s prominence in the community, Vimala Rajendran stands up for social justice for all in Chapel Hill. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

By Sofie DeWulf

Vimala Rajendran has seen her fair share of miracles, all of which seem to connect back to her. Sometimes they’re big ones in the traditional sense of the word — characterized by the extraordinary.

Like what happened a few weeks ago, for instance. A man was on life support in a coma for three weeks at Duke Hospital. Vimala visited him one day and started rubbing his feet and talking to him.

He opened his eyes on Good Friday, and by Easter he had started talking. Vimala tells me the story with very few details, but despite this, I have no doubt that it actually happened.

Most miracles Vimala has been a part of, though, aren’t so big in the traditional, extraordinary sense of the word. It’s the little, everyday miracles that have defined her.

The community dinners that turned into a full-fledged restaurant. The fried chicken she makes that’s just as good as her traditional south Indian food. The “Everybody Eats” policy that ensures no customer goes hungry, even if they don’t have the money to pay.

It’s the details of her past, adjusting from life in India to the United States; her work in Chapel Hill and connections with the local community; her passion for social justice and peace; and her restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, that are the true miracles in Vimala Rajendran’s life.

The Place Behind the Woman

Vimala, 56, is a successful restaurant chef and owner, long-time Chapel Hill resident and mother to eight kids, now all adults (three are her own and five are her current husband’s, Rush Gleenslade, whom she married 12 years ago.)

While the United States has been her home for many years, Vimala is originally from India. This shows in the food she cooks as well as in her distinct accent, her brown eyes and skin, and her hair, which you can tell used to be a rich black but is now turning white.

Vimala was born in the state of Kerala, the southernmost tip of India, in 1961. She grew up in the populous city of Mumbai, although she doesn’t call it that. To her, it’s still Bombay.

She gets a faraway look in her eyes when she talks about Bombay.

“I was a very content child. I just loved the city,” she says.

When I ask her what she disliked about it, she waits for a moment and smiles.

“Nothing. I didn’t know any better not to like anything,” she says. “Now I long for everything.”

Her greatest memory? The food and the fact you could find signs of it everywhere: the sounds of it cooking, the smells at all hours of the night and day, the sight of street vendors and large piles of produce on the side of the road.

It was during her childhood in India that she learned how to cook. She laughs, because the reason for her getting into food preparation didn’t necessarily stem from a desire to learn, but instead came from a sense of impatience. Food was never ready soon enough for her.

She bothered her mother endlessly, to the point where she would get frustrated enough to hand Vimala things to do. At three years, she could sift and sort grains. By the time she was seven, she could cook entire complex recipes.

The Restaurant Behind the Woman

While Vimala loved to cook, she never thought it would become her livelihood.

In the beginning, she had the financial support of her now ex-husband, whom she joined in the United States in 1980 after completing studies in political science. However, years of abuse led her to leave, which suddenly left her a single mother of three struggling to make ends meet in Chapel Hill.

Community dinners became her saving grace.

Vimala cooked the traditional south Indian recipes she learned growing up, and neighbors would come and donate money to offset the costs. The dinners started in 1994.

Their popularity grew through word-of-mouth, and soon she was implementing takeout orders, catering and even serving outside of Johnny’s Gone Fishing in Carrboro.

Anyone who tasted the food told her she should open a restaurant, but that was never something she thought she could take on.

Despite this initial doubt, she couldn’t deny the opportunity, and with the help of investments from those in the community who believed in her and her food, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café opened in May 2010.

You could easily miss it if you didn’t know it was there. It holds an ideal location on West Franklin Street—just before the start of Carrboro where the road curves and turns into Main Street—but it’s hidden behind Kipo’s Greek Taverna, tucked in a courtyard.

The benefit of the courtyard is that there’s an outdoor seating area that will fill with people when the weather is nice.

The restaurant itself is fairly small, but the L-shaped layout is efficient, with a bar to order on one side and an open kitchen on the other. The brick, wood and warm colors on the walls as well as the smell of spices that greet you when you enter add to the welcoming feel of the place.

The staff is very diverse, drawing from all walks of life in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Justine Benjamin, a 24-year-old who’s been working at Vimala’s for about a year, appreciates the different backgrounds of her coworkers and how they are embraced in the restaurant.

“Sometimes they’ll make tacos or empanadas back there,” she laughs.

She also never fails to notice Vimala’s involvement in the restaurant.

Her boss gets in around 8:30 or 9 a.m. and constantly works until 4 or 5 p.m. She spends a lot of that time cooking and preparing food in the kitchen, but you can also find her serving meals and chatting with customers.

“She’s definitely involved in each step,” Justine says.

That includes dealing with all the logistics. Before she started Curryblossom Café, Vimala thought owning a restaurant would be impossible. Now, she says it’s even harder than she imagined.

“Cost of overhead, cost of food, cost of labor, human resource management, people’s moods and motivations and morale… it is a super-human task to own and run a successful restaurant,” she says.

Yet she does it, and she does it well.

In addition to being a phenomenal cook, Vimala is a skilled businesswoman. Before she starts to cook every morning, she catches up on emails and phone calls, which can involve everything from possible auction items to potential projects.

Her business decisions are not only in the best interest of the restaurant but also the community. This can be seen in her partnerships with local businesses, such as Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Vimala is in the process of finalizing a deal with the company. Initially, she plans to buy their existing products, but her ultimate goal is to “do something no one else has done” and possibly collaborate on a beer that complements her food.

She’s always trying to come up with new ways to do things and grow the restaurant, and her efforts have certainly paid off.

In its first year of business, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café made $680,000, and that number continues to grow. Over seven years, the restaurant has gone from eight employees to 30, four weddings per year to 30, and $200,000 to $400,000 earned from catering to UNC-Chapel Hill.

The Food Behind the Woman

One of the very first things Vimala asked me when I met her was if I had eaten. It took a little encouragement, but I did end up accepting the free meal she offered me.

I told her to surprise me, and soon after, a worker brought out what I later learned was Vimala’s favorite thing on the menu: appam — a rice and coconut pancake.

It was served with a side of chicken curry on a stainless-steel Thali dish, completing the truly authentic feel of the meal. We talked while I enjoyed the sourdough taste of the fluffy-in-the-middle, thin-at-the-end appam that perfectly balanced the flavorful curry.

Later, she revealed to me why she offered the food: it breaks down barriers.

“When you eat it, I am making a crack in the closed door for you and me to interact.” It was also a chance to show me more about who she is.

“My entire history is on that plate,” she told me.

The menu at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is filled with items inspired by Vimala’s roots.

To someone unfamiliar with traditional south Indian food, the menu can be a bit overwhelming, full of names like paratha, bhatura, samosas and uttapams.

Surprisingly enough, Vimala also offers her own take on Southern classics, such as fried chicken and plantain fritters. (She’s even won an award for her grits.)

If nothing on the menu tempts you, there are always plenty of specials written on the chalkboards in the restaurant, which are constantly changing based on what’s in season and in stock. Whatever choice you make, though, won’t be a wrong one. Everything is delicious, which is why people keep coming back.

Many of Vimala’s assorted mix of customers are regulars, who have grown to love the food as well as Vimala. You can distinguish the regulars from the newcomers because of the familiar way Vimala will greet them or hug them, or their confidence when they order from the menu and sit in the restaurant for a while.

Frank Worrell, 66, is one of those regulars. Like many of the visitors to Curryblossom Café, you can tell he’s interesting just by the look of him, with his white beard and mustache that’s curled at the ends, round eye glasses and all-black outfit.

He’s been eating at Vimala’s regularly — about five days a week for the past three years — and orders the same thing every time: rice and dal, a split pulse soup Frank says is the “comfort food of India.” (I try it later, and I can’t disagree. The soup is instantly comforting.)

Frank remembers Vimala back when she served food outside of Johnny’s, and he’s still impressed by the commitment to quality she has to this day. The reason he and many others love Vimala’s food so much is because it’s prepared with “a certain consciousness.”

“It may sound really weird,” Frank says, “but the food seems really clean.”

That’s because all of the ingredients Vimala uses are wholesome, healthy and organic. In addition to that, everything is sourced from local farms.

The inspiration behind this? For one thing, it reaffirms Vimala’s dedication to supporting the community. The other source of inspiration, not surprisingly, is her home country.

“Back in India, we always ate what was unloaded from a farm to the market,” Vimala says.

She or her mother would go to the market twice a day to buy produce because her family didn’t have a refrigerator, so everything was fresh. She missed that freshness when she came to the United States, where everything was bought at a grocery store, so she decided to bring it back with Vimala’s Curryblossom Café.

The Mission Behind the Woman

Vimala’s community involvement is further strengthened by her commitment to social justice.

There are signs of this throughout the restaurant. There’s the “Everybody Eats Community Meal Fund” jar on the takeout counter in front of the kitchen, which supports the day-one policy that anyone who wants a meal, regardless of finances, will be able to eat at Vimala’s. The goal is to make food accessible through affordability.

There are also the “Refugees are Welcome Here” and “Stop Profiling Muslims” signs on the window near the side entrance of the restaurant. Vimala is a strong believer that anyone is welcome to work and eat in her restaurant.

She’s held lunches to support refugees and migrant farm workers. On ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ on Feb. 16, when immigrants protested by not working, all profits made at Vimala’s went to staff members because a lot of the employees’ family members are immigrants.

In addition to that, Vimala speaks up for domestic abuse awareness, women’s rights, truth in advertising and international peace and love, which is inspired by her strong Christian faith.

Anyone in Chapel Hill who knows Vimala considers her an activist in the community. She believes it’s because she has a lot of ideas, but she also takes action.

“I stand up for what is just and right,” she says. “I question injustice and do something about it, while feeding people at the same time.”

Vimala’s efforts don’t go unrecognized.

Just a few weeks ago, she received the Public Health Champion Award from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health for her commitment to healthy food and social justice. She doesn’t care as much about the recognition, though.

“I am more proud of the daily reports of the impact of the food we serve here to heal and grow people than the awards we’ve received because I’m doing what I’m doing,” she says.

It’s just one more confirmation that it’s the little miracles, not the big ones, which define Vimala Rajendran.

Edited by Molly Weybright