Food with a side of justice

I’ll be honest, Vimala Rajendran looked a bit tired. Not in a hungover, unshowered, Post-P-Bob’s-night kind of way with which we are all acquainted. No, Vimala had the rare look of someone who has been busting tail to create something out of nothing, putting in God knows how many hours to keep a burgeoning young business afloat.

Vimala has managed to take her loves of social justice and community and create an eatery that is also a charitable force.

Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, right here in Chapel Hill, is her brainchild. Born and raised in Bombay, Vimala has been a proud Orange County resident for 25 years and never once thought she would be a restaurant owner, despite her expert culinary skills. And to be honest, she really hasn’t opened a restaurant, in the classic sense at least.

The start-up restaurant business is as cutthroat as they come, with ambitious new owners being incredibly stingy, protecting their establishment like a mother and child. Every penny is pinched.

In the early 1990’s, Vimala was a single mother, facing increasing financial trouble and a hungry family to feed. Her rent was unpayable. She was drowning under a growing pile of bills.

But she found her reprieve — how else ­— through food. Taking on an almost Fight Club-esque persona, Vimala organized weekly community dinners in her home, feeding close friends from the neighborhood.

Is the first rule of Vimala’s awesome underground community dinners, don’t talk about Vimala’s awesome underground community dinners? Not nearly. Her dinners soon grew to feed more than 100 people in the Chapel Hill community, with donations from patrons helping to keep both her and her children afloat. Couldn’t pay? That was never a problem for Vimala, and it has grown to become her own personal motto with the Curryblossom Cafe: “Vimala cooks, everyone eats.” Oh, and does she mean it.

Vimala has patterned her new restaurant on this idea, as donations from customers provide free meals for anyone who is hungry, including Chapel Hill’s growing homeless population. As Vimala says, “we are an organization for food justice — not just food, but awesome food for all, regardless of ability to pay.”

However, the work of Vimala and her ragtag staff of foodies extends much further. The Curryblossom Cafe has donated food to countless Chapel Hill organizations, providing awesome Indian eats to homeless shelters, human rights protests, food banks — you name it.

The Cafe provided hot chai for Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches, and Vimala’s has even played host to local meetings, including English language lessons for local immigrants. The food is completely organic, local and delicious. However, the real essence of Vimala’s work is in her service, and not just her cooking.

All too often we argue over things that are completely pointless in hindsight. It’s our job: we’re college students. However, here is an example of someone who, with no words or ego, has managed to affect so many lives for the better. I asked Vimala: “What is it you do here?”

“We allow people to eat with dignity,” she said. You sure do, Vimala, I have no doubt.

Troy Smith is a guest columnist for the Daily Tar Heel. He is a junior public policy and Arab cultures major from Deep Run. Contact him at tgsmith@email.unc.edu.

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