Chef Vishwesh Bhat
Chef Vishwesh Bhat

Vishwesh Bhatt

F&W Star Chef » See All F&W Chef Superstars Restaurants: Snackbar 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.
Peanut and Watermelon Chaat
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Every chaat has a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of tartness, a little heat, and a little crunch. That's what makes them so fun to eat. This chaat marries the fleeting succulent sweetness of watermelon with the hearty crunch and saltiness of peanuts. "It's a very Southern combination that I thought should work," Bhatt says. "And it did." Eating watermelon with a sprinkle of salt and a dash of hot sauce is popular in chef Bhatt's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. This sweet-savory chaat recipe marries that inspiration with a sprinkle of chaat masala, a tangy spice blend often used as a seasoning for fruit in India.
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Chana Daal with Squash
Rating: Unrated
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Chana daal adds texture, heft, and density to this stew of tender summer squash. Adding the squash at the very end ensures it doesn't completely disintegrate before the daal is softened. "The inspiration for this recipe is doodhi chana, a stew of bottle gourd and dried split chickpeas that I grew up eating in Gujarat," chef Vishwesh Bhatt says. "I always thought it lacked the oomph of other preparations my mother made. Then I discovered ras el hanout, preserved lemons, and pomegranate molasses, which elevated the previously boring gourd to new heights." Here, they do the same for yellow squash. Added at the very end of cooking, ras el hanout, preserved lemon rind, pomegranate molasses, and fresh dill and parsley add beautiful color and flavor to the finished dish.
Sugar, cardamom, and fresh mint are all you need to transform ripe melon into a memorable dessert.  Muskmelons, such as cantaloupe and honeydew, are sometimes treated like an afterthought—that's why chef Vishwesh Bhatt sometimes calls this recipe Don't Forget the Melon. "If you have the right melon that's nice and ripe, it's just so good," he says. "Summer is just the perfect time for melons. If you think they're boring, then jazz them up with this recipe. Just a tiny bit of sugar, cardamom, and fresh mint transform ripe melon into something so special you'll want to eat it over and over again." Ripe, peak-season cantaloupe, honeydew, or other muskmelon will all work beautifully here. Serve it over ice cream for an extra-special treat. 
Chilled Zucchini Soup
Rating: Unrated
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"This recipe came about as a happy accident, when my nephew mistook zucchini for cucumbers when we were making a cold cucumber soup," chef Vishwesh Bhatt says of the origins of this dish. More than a decade later, he stands by the result, which has a tangy buttermilk broth that gets subtle vegetal sweetness and a wonderfully smooth, creamy texture from the zucchini. Small, tender zucchini are perfect for this soup. If you're using bigger ones, remove the seeds, which harden a little as the squash matures, Bhatt notes.  "It becomes a little less fun if you get those in the soup, as you have to chew on them, or they get stuck in your teeth." Bhatt tops the soup with vaghaar, a garnish of tempered spices and aromatics, for a final burst of aroma and flavor.
"Once the summer starts, there are inevitably big baskets of zucchini and yellow squash that we just don't know what to do with," says Oxford, Mississippi-based chef Vishwesh Bhatt. "This fricassee is a terrific place to use them. It's really light, it's really quick, and it's really easy to cook a big batch of it, making it an ideal centerpiece for summer gatherings." Fricassee is a cross between a quick sauté and a stew. This recipe calls for a habanero chile, which can be very hot but has beautiful floral notes that you can't replicate with other peppers. If you take care to remove the seeds, the heat will be more manageable. "This recipe is inspired by a dish my friend Nina Compton served us for dinner one night at her restaurant, Compere Lapin," Bhatt says. It's a great one to reach for in summer, but because good quality frozen shrimp and yellow squashes can be found year-round in grocery stores, this dish can be thrown together almost any time of the year.
The only reason you think cucumber sandwiches are boring is because you haven't had one that is made right, says chef Vishwesh Bhatt. Benedictine, a creamy spread of cucumber and herbs; along with a spicy and herbaceous peanut pesto with serrano chile, cilantro, and citrus; and chaat masala add verve to these sandwiches. And after layering in the crisp cucumbers, spicy chile slices, and juicy tomatoes, take a bite. "Once you serve this one, it's going to become a fixture at your summer parties," Bhatt says.
This next-level summer salad turns heads with its punchy charred jalapeño–and-herb-spiked dressing and a palate-perking topping of toasted crunchy coriander and cumin seeds.
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This next-level summer salad turns heads with its punchy charred jalapeño–and-herb-spiked dressing and a palate-perking topping of toasted crunchy coriander and cumin seeds.