Other than my family’s kitchen, I have never felt so much love around a table as at Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe.
Vimala is Vimala Rajendran, a Chapel Hill food icon with a wrecking-ball smile who years ago began inviting anyone who was interested, soon more than a hundred people a week, into her home for donation-style dinners using pots she brought with her from India. That community eventually became a brick-and-mortar location on Franklin Street, to this day home of the best Indian food I have ever eaten.
After rooming with several of her sons for a few years and gleefully noshing on whatever the Leftover Fairy put in our fridge over night, I finally accepted an invitation to help out around their kitchen briefly last year. It was such an intoxicating privilege to be part of a place where so many different tastes, languages, politics and worldviews unlike anything I had ever experienced were flying around. The restaurant’s iconic “Everybody Eats” mantra, the idea that nobody would ever be turned away for an inability to pay, so blew my mind that I physically had trouble saying the words to ask for it the first time, like The Fonz begrudgingly admitting a mistake. One of the requirements on the job application was “someone we can be friends with the rest of our lives.” For someone so far away from home, it was such a blessing to have a place where the flavors of love could come rushing back in every bite.
I had admired this place for so long as a customer that I was terrified of making some horrible rookie mistake as an employee, and so I spent much of my time trying desperately to look like I knew what I was doing. One day as I sat down for my lunch break, Vimala pulled up a seat next to me and asked stoically, “Have you ever worked at a restaurant before?”
“Nnnnnoooo,” I stammered.
She looked quietly off into space.
“Me neither,” she said, smiling.