Two pale yellow daffodils, in a clear shot glass, glowed in the 4 o’clock afternoon light filling the Snackbar restaurant.
The restaurant is small. A notice from the local fire marshal on the wall states: “More than 38 persons in this restaurant is dangerous and unlawful.” Snackbar won’t be open for one more hour. Its chef walks up from the parking lot, his white coat radiant in the setting sun.
His name is Vishwesh Bhatt, and he has been Snackbar’s chef for four years. He has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award for the Best Chef in the South. He was a semifinalist twice since 2011, and these award nominations were significant to him.
“I’m surprised but honored to be nominated for the Beard Award,” Bhatt said. “I’m working, and still will be.”
John Currence, magnate of The City Grocery Group, was nominated for a Beard Award in the American Cooking book category for his popular first cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some (Andrews McMeel Publishing). This is Currence’s first nomination for his writing skills.
The James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit organization that celebrates American food culture. The foundation was named for the renowned chef and author, James Beard. According to its website at www.jamesbeard.org, the foundation offers programs with educational initiatives, culinary scholarships and publications.
In an interview with Food and Wine, Bhatt revealed his most famous dish to be inspired by a combination of Indian and the American South influences: okra chaat. The dish is made of crispy fried okra with a bit of shallot, some lime juice and a little cilantro, peanuts and spiced tomato.
Hailing from Gujarat, India, Bhatt was a student at the University of Kentucky when he began cooking as a way to save money. It was only later, after being offered payment from a university professor to cook dishes for a dinner party, that he realized that he could turn his skills into a career.
His first restaurant job was at the Harvest Café in Oxford in 1992. Then he traveled throughout the South. He cooked at several restaurants, one being Blackwater Café in Jackson, Miss. He moved on as far as The Brown Palace and Full Moon Grill in Boulder, Colo., before deciding to return to Oxford in 2001.
“I came back to Oxford because I have friends here,” Bhatt said. “The support system here is good. My favorite thing about this town was how well the people here have taken in me — the hospitality.”
He commented that the food culture in Oxford is opportunistic.
“There’s more restaurants here than when I first started cooking in Oxford,” he said. “And there’s always room for more restaurants. I like that this city has access to fresh produce from the local farms who sell their produce through our local farmers markets. Our sister restaurant at the Farmers Market and Oxford City Grocery.”
Bhatt’s mentor is Currence, who he has worked with for more than 16 years as part of the City Grocery restaurant group. Currence recently named Bhatt corporate chef overseeing the kitchens at City Grocery, Snackbar, Big Bad Breakfast, Main Event Catering and Lamar Lounge. Bhatt recalled the moment he was asked to oversee Snackbar.
“I don’t know why (John Currence) chose me. I’ve worked with him for a very long time, I suppose that’s why,” he said. “One day he asked me, ‘Would you like to be the chef of Snackbar?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’”
He chuckled at the memory. After the interview, he immediately went to the kitchen, where he chatted with everyone preparing for the restaurant’s opening for the day. Bhatt is a busy man, but his personality is warm and certain. Under his leadership, Snackbar begins to bustle.
“I’m always thinking of new recipes for the menu,” he said. “Always. Some recipes have not changed, especially the popular dishes, but the menu has gradually changed in the past five years or so.”
Two patrons sat at the restaurant’s bar. One began describing the restaurant to his friend, a newcomer.
“You’ll love it here,” he said. “It’s different than most restaurants you’ve eaten at.”
Story and Photos by Callie Daniels. Callie is a student at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, and a HottyToddy.com contributor.
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