In a bustling Franklin Street kitchen, a restaurant matriarch works alongside her staff to prepare innumerable dishes for the lunch rush.
Her name is Vimala Rajendran. Her most recent culinary venture began when she started serving meals off of her front porch in 2009 before the Orange County Health Department shut down her 1,500-customer operation.
However, Rajendran transformed her underground culinary enterprise into a Chapel Hill staple: Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, which offers both Indian and Southern cuisine, like samosas and southern biscuits.
Rajendran is an immigrant from Kerala, India and first moved to the U.S. in the early 1980s with her husband. When her first marriage ended in 1994, Rajendran's dependent spouse visa was invalidated. She faced a decision — return to India with three children, or figure out how to earn a living in Chapel Hill with no government support.
"When I became a single mother, and a parent who had to raise the three children with no child support, alimony, public assistance or permission to work, I started cooking out of my home," she said.
Dinners at her house gained massive popularity over time. She began to cater various events, which allowed her to gain recognition.
After the Orange County Health Department shut her down in 2009, she soon acquired a permanent restaurant space downtown, which is celebrating its 11th anniversary this May. Rajendran said her customers raised about $80,000 to help her purchase the restaurant.
"In March, we got the key," she said. "In May, we opened the doors."
Rajendran regrets the restaurant was unable to celebrate its 10th anniversary because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the restaurant continues to exercise caution against the virus. Much of its business is take-out, and dining is available only in the outdoor courtyard.
Rajendran’s vigilance around the virus is a small testament to her commitment to the community.
Rajendran is the founder of the Curryblossom Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental justice, farmworker rights and restaurant worker rights. This foundation is a reflection of Rajendran’s belief that “delicious, wholesome food is a human right,” according to its website.
Under her direction, the Curryblossom Foundation has donated 100 quarts of food to the Refugee Support Center in Carrboro and 1,600 meals to local hospitals. A collaboration between Vimala’s and the Marian Cheek Jackson Center provides food for elders across Northside neighborhood in Chapel Hill.
“I just believe that injustice anywhere even in the smallest of places leaves the whole community in a place of deprivation,” Rajendran said. “The Curryblossom Foundation was set up mainly to be a fiscal sponsor for felt needs in the community.”
Rajendran is also a founding member of RAISE, Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment. Through this organization, she has advocated for restaurant workers’ rights – base pay at Vimala’s is $12/hour plus tips, compared to an industry standard of $2.13/hour. Workers also eat meals cost-free during their shift. The restaurant does not pursue profit, only to break even.
Emma Flanagan, who has worked at the Café for three years, said Rajendran creates a healthy working environment.
“I have rarely met a person who knows so clearly what they want and who is so good at getting it out of people,” Flanagan said. “Vimala will figure out what you’re good at, and put you there.”
Rajendran was born in Kerala, India but spent much of her childhood and young adult life in Mumbai. There, she developed a passion for food and fresh produce.
“I was drawn to food, whether it was growing or available to cook,” Rajendran said. “Produce always excited me, especially to watch it grow or to be piled up on the side of the street for sale.”
Rajendran believes that delicious food starts with high-quality, ethically-sourced, local ingredients.
“We will intentionally develop relationships with farmers and other businesses who are like-minded, who are into sustainability,” Rajendran said. “Even when I make a southern biscuit, I like it with North Carolina-grown wheat.”
She said she also uses North Carolina-grown wheat to make her famous samosas, which she considers to be her most signature dish. Her samosas are fried pastries filled with either potato and peas or beef, cabbage and peas.
Though her culinary approach is traditional, her menu changes seasonally.
Rhea Jaisinghani is Indian-American and a senior at UNC. She has frequented Vimala’s during her time at UNC and said she has appreciated the dynamic yet traditional cuisine there. She said one of her favorite new things at the restaurant was the mint chutney she dipped samosas in.
“(Rajendran) said she put granny smith apples in them, which is wild, and it made the texture a little thicker and it elevated the taste and added a bit of pungency to it,” Jaisinghani said.
Rajendran brings the Chapel Hill community together around social activism and a passion for tasty food. The café’s business motto says it best — "Vimala cooks, everyone eats."
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