‘Vish is Vish’: Oxford ‘Best Chef’ is five-time James Beard Award semifinalist

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Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Chef Vishwesh Bhatt stops to talk to patrons outside Snackbar in Oxford.

OXFORD — On just about any big-event weekend at the University of Mississippi, the college town is overcrowded with people mixing and mingling at the local restaurants to enjoy food, conversation and cool cocktails.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Royal red shrimp mac and cheese from the “not so small plates” menu at Snackbar

Snackbar, an upscale French bistro/North Mississippi cafe-esque restaurant founded in 2009 by Chef John Currence of City Grocery Restaurant Group, is no exception.

On any given day, Vishwesh Bhatt, 52, the restaurant’s head chef, is busy talking with his staff to make sure they have all the items they need for the day, figuring out what’s needed for daily specials, prepping the kitchen staff for the night’s crowd, setting up for service and conducting taste-tests of new dishes, all before the doors open at 5:30 p.m.

It’s this attention to detail and love of food that has earned Bhatt his fifth nomination as a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards’ “Best Chef: South.”  Eligible candidates are those who have “set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions,” according to the organization, and have been a chef for at least five years with at least three years spent in their region.

Bhatt is the only Mississippi chef to receive a nomination this year for the prestigious culinary honor that celebrates, as the foundation’s website states,  “chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone.”

“I don’t think that there’s a finer gentleman out there or gentlewoman that is nominated for a chef’s award this year. Vish is one of the finest human beings that I’ve ever had the opportunity to know, to be friends with and I am just proud as I could be and as excited for him at the prospect of his winning than I ever was for my own self,” said Currence, a past James Beard Award winner.

“Its very exciting to be nominated and to be considered among the tatent that makes up the list of semifinalists and finalists, but I think that he is the epitome of what the young men and women in our career should strive to be.”

Finalists will be announced May 7. Click here for a list of the nominees.

Oxford resident Rosie McDavid, program coordinator for the Ole Miss First Scholarship program at the University of Mississippi, says Snackbar is a go-to spot for her to meet up with friends and hang out.

Becca Walton, associate director for projects at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi (left), outside Snackbar with Chef Vishwesh Bhatt (center) and Rosie McDavid, program coordinator for the Ole Miss First Scholarship program

 

Menu options include daily specials, small plates, not-so-small plates, charcuterie, sandwiches, a raw oyster bar and desserts. McDavid insists “you go back in and try the crispy, Parmesan frites with that truffle oil.” And don’t forget about the cocktails, she said, while suggesting a bourbon old-fashioned.

“We call it the ‘Cheers’ restaurant,” McDavid said, referencing the popular television show. “It’s just you’re so happy to go sit at the bar.”

The friendly waiters, hot and fresh food and the speedy service are why McDavid calls this her favorite restaurant. She emphasized that Snackbar could not be what it is without Bhatt’s leadership.

Although a native of India, Bhatt considers himself a Southern chef. He has lived in Oxford for more than 20 years.

His style of cooking represents where he is now, but references his Indian roots, he said.

“My heritage and where I grew up is very much a part of me, but this is home and this is what I do. I’m a Southern chef. I’m from here. I’ve spent more time here than anywhere else,” he said.

Bhatt moved from Gujarat, India, in 1985 to the United States – first Austin, Texas, and finally to Oxford in 1992. The biggest surprise he encountered is the one-stop shop grocery store. Back in India, produce and spices were seasonal and only certain stores carried specific items.

At a young age, Bhatt learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother. On Sundays, his mother would prepare a feast for their extended family, and he was never far from her apron strings. He learned that if he helped his mother with tasks, he could eat more quickly.

When he enrolled at Ole Miss, cooking for himself became a habit. He was not interested in the cafeteria food and wanted to keep money in his pocket. This hobby grew as he began cooking for his roommate and friends.

Chef John Currence

Photo courtesy of chefjohncurrence.com

Chef John Currence, owner of the City Grocery Restaurant Group, which includes Snackbar

While a patron at City Grocery, the fine Southern dining restaurant that has become an Oxford landmark, Bhatt quickly noticed the level of passion that Chef Currence brought to cooking and telling a story through the menu, he said.

“Even in 1992, there was a seasonality of the menu, and I understood this concept because it was something I grew up with,” he said. “And, so I wanted to be a part of that.”

At the time, Bhatt was looking for a new job and thought City Grocery would be the perfect fit.

“I spent a lot of time at the bar, and I spent a lot money at the bar, so (Currence) knew who I was, and I knew who he was,” he said.

“So, we had a relationship already, and I said, ‘Hey, would you have a space for me? Could I come work for you?’ And he said, ‘Sure, show up tomorrow,’ and of course tomorrow, I showed up. I was like, ‘Oh, crap. It’s real.'”

Currence has created a “dine-asty,” according to his website, with his City Grocery Restaurant Group, which includes City Grocery, Bouré, City Grocery Catering Company, Big Bad Breakfast, The Main Event and, of course, Snackbar.

After working under Currence, Bhatt realized he wanted to cook for a living, so he went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, spent time in Miami and Colorado and came back to Oxford as a chef at Snackbar.

Years after the opening of Snackbar, Currence walked into the restaurant and noticed how Bhatt’s Indian influence crept into the menu from the ingredients and flavors down to his technique. Currence was brought to tears because, for the first time, he saw his friend transitioning from “an accomplished cook” into a chef.

“And that’s what most people don’t know about our craft — the step in which somebody becomes a chef — not when they can just create something without a recipe. But it’s when you’re absolutely cooking from your heart, from your insides and telling the story of your life through your food,” said Currence.

“That is the final step, when you cannot absolutely contain what is inside of you that you want to express through your food. … For Vish, it was doing that thing that he thought was insidious, and it turns out that was the path to defining who he was as a chef.”

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Customers make their way to Snackbar during the 5:30 p.m. open time.

 

 

 

 

Besides Currence, Ben Barker and Frank Stitt are two of Bhatt’s culinary influences, because, he said, they understand food better than anyone else he knows.

“They understand that food is more than just eating. It’s about the folks who grow it and about where things come from. There are stories behind everything,” said Bhatt. “There’s a reason that certain things are a certain way.

“Plus, they are just really good human beings and really successful chefs that don’t have a big ego and really are always willing to share. That’s what sets them apart in my mind.”

So, what is like working for Chef Vish?

“You have your slow nights, and you have your busy nights, but your busy nights … it’s crazy to me how we make it work,” said Andy McCown, chef at Snackbar. “It’s organized and as professional as we can make it, but we don’t just have reservations.”

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

The raw oyster bar inside Snackbar

McCown said they serve people in the dining room area, where most of the reservations are, the booth area, the oyster bar and the Snackbar.

“We’re catering to everybody, trying to get big orders at the tables out and small things people order at the bar, but it’s our job. It’s what we’re supposed to do,” said McCown.

Working for City Grocery Group for 10 years and Snackbar for five, McCown said he has learned so much from Bhatt. But mastering the skill of patience is the most important advice he has taken from the seasoned chef.

Working one day last summer at Snackbar reassured Deandre Metcalf that the Third Street Bistro he’s planning to open in Clarksdale this fall is not too small a space to provide great food and service.

“Vish has a tiny kitchen. It’s a lot of prep area, but the actual kitchen where everything comes from is tiny and to see the magnitude of ingredients and just the degree of difficulty in each plate in that small area just kind of reassured me that I’m not thinking too big for this little space,” said Metcalf.

Although Metcalf worked one day for Bhatt, he said he could understand why he’s recognized as a best chef among other nominees.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Parmesan frites with truffle oil at the Snackbar

“When I came in Chef Vish was julienning some onions for a recipe. Very simple. Something you could’ve pointed at someone else and made do, but Vish was actually in there, making sure it was done right, taking his time with it and that’s the difference. That’s where that name comes from because he can still step on that line and actually do this.” said Metcalf.

Vish never envisioned himself as being a five-time nominee for the James Beard Foundation Awards or even considered himself making a difference.

When he learned of his first nomination, Bhatt thought someone was joking, and even with No. 5 he still can’t believe it.

“It’s such a big, big, big honor to be on the list and to be considered for it. Some people think you’re the top chef in the region and, to me, I have trouble wrapping my head around that,” said Bhatt. “Not that I don’t think that I do good work. It’s just that I know there are so many people out there that are so talented and know so much. To get some attention in Oxford is just amazing.”

To simply put it, he’s just doing what he has a passion for while being true to himself. That’s the advice he gives to other young chefs.

“It doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and get better, but learn to walk before you can run. Always listen to what people who came before you have to say. …Don’t worry about what anyone else does — worry about your job. If you do what you’re supposed to do, things will fall in place like they’re supposed to,” said Bhatt.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

People rolling in to sit at the bar at Snackbar

He added that having realistic dreams and aspirations is good, but if you’re willing to work, you will succeed.

“There’s a lot of talent in the state. I just happen to get some recognition,” said Bhatt. “I encourage people to go out and support their local small restaurants, local farmers and farmers’ markets.”

This humility is what keeps locals coming back for more.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Becca Walton (left) visits with Chef Vishwesh Bhatt (center) and Rosie McDavid.

“When you think of a celebrity or celebrity chef, you think of arrogance or attitude, but Vish is a humble, approachable, community-minded person who is quiet but has a substantive presence,” said McDavid. “He donates his time to very important causes … he’s an advocate for all kinds of things. He has an impact in Oxford but not just in foodways.”

Whether or not Bhatt wins the award, still having a job, being part of the City Grocery Group, meeting new people and giving advice or sharing recipes to those who need it are more than enough to make him feel “very special more than anything else,” he said.

“There’s guy’s like Vish. I wouldn’t say who doesn’t care less about winning, but winning is as far from his mind when he goes to cook everyday,” said Currence. “He cooks because he loves to cook. Vish cooks because he loves to make people happy. Vish cooks because he loves to share the love of his life through his food.”

And, for people like Metcalf, there’s no denying Vish is special.

“Every little thing on Vish’s line has a Vish touch to it. There’s nothing ordinary on his line down to the french fries. There’s something different about all of his food. …You don’t go out for a meal in Oxford and hang around in the parking lot without hearing Vish’s name. Vish is Vish.”