F&W Star Chef
Experience: Harvest Café (Oxford, MS), Henry (Oxford, MS), City Grocery (Oxford, MS, The Brown Palace Hotel (Denver, CO), Full Moon Grill (Boulder, CO), Blackwater Café (Jackson, MS)
Education: University of Kentucky, Johnson & Wales (Miami)
Vishwesh Bhatt began cooking simply to save money—the Gujarat, India-raised chef was a student at the University of Kentucky in Lexington when he started making his own rice and beans to cut down on his cafeteria costs. The habit eventually grew into a dinner party ritual. When a professor offered him $50 to prepare food at an event, Bhatt realized his hobby could become a career. His first restaurant job, in 1992, was at a health food spot in Oxford, Mississippi, called Harvest Café; it took him six more years to make the decision to go to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in North Miami.
From the start, Bhatt had his sights on working in the South. “The produce that was available here—the greens, okra, black eyed-peas and eggplant—really made sense to me as an Indian immigrant,” he says. He joined chef John Currence on the line at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, in 2001 and he’s stayed with the restaurant group ever since. Bhatt opened Snackbar in 2009 under the City Grocery umbrella, connecting Southern and subcontinental foodways on one menu. His work earned him a People’s Best New Chef nomination from Food & Wine in 2011, and a James Beard Awards semifinalist slot for Best Chef: South in the same year.
Here, Bhatt talks about merging ingredients and influences from the South and south Asia, India’s multicultural cooking and the magic of fresh herbs.
What recipe are you most famous for?
I believe it would be my okra chaat. It’s the one dish that truly reflects my journey: I’m a guy who grew up and learned to cook in India, and is now a chef in the South. It’s crispy fried okra with a bit of shallot, some lime juice, a little cilantro, some peanuts and spiced tomato.
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
Definitely my collard greens. I braise them in a typically Southern way, but I season them the way my mother would. We sauté peanuts and onion in some clarified butter—I usually add some mustard seeds to the butter, which is a very Indian thing to do. I’ll add a little piece of bacon or ham for flavor, some stock, and cook them down.
Gumbo is another dish that says a lot about me. It’s a dish that I learned once I moved to the US; I never had anything like it before I came here. But as an immigrant, gumbo makes a lot of sense to me. It’s a dish that has been influenced by a lot of people and cultures. Gumbo tells a story, and when I make it I feel like I’m adding to that story. I make mine with a nice dark roux, and there always has to be okra in there.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
When I was learning Western food, the book I used the most was actually Joy of Cooking. I’d use it for basic recipes: biscuits, chicken noodle soup, oyster stuffing and cornbread.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
I think it’s fresh herbs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s cilantro or fresh thyme or parsley or basil or sage. If you just work in a fistful of herbs at the very end they add a really nice complex dimension to everything. A sprinkle of mint on top of summer produce always makes things interesting—like watermelon or tomato with a little pinch of salt and mint.
Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
I would say canned beans. They are pretty hearty, so even if you don’t have a lot of meat you’ve got a fairly substantial meal. They’re easy to cook and they pick up seasoning very well. And you can use beans to stretch a little bit of meat—I used to do that in college.
You’re planning a budget-friendly food trip—where would you go and why?
Although I’ve been there many times since I left, I’ve never really gone to India just to eat. Just like the US, India has a huge population of immigrants. In Bombay there is the Farsi community of Persian immigrants and they have a really unique food culture. In Gujarat, where I grew up, there is a small community of Africans who have been in India for more than 200 years. The Chinese have been in West Bengal for 150 years. These communities have kept their food cultures, but also blended with the local flavors. I haven’t had the luxury of time to explore this stuff.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would you take him and why?
I would take Thomas to a street food stall in my hometown of Gujarat. I think every time he goes out, people try to impress him. I’d want to eat something really simple with him, like a vada pav sandwich, which is essentially fried potatoes squashed in between some bread with a couple of chutneys.