Food | November 2013
Virtually all southern chefs grew up watching their mothers and grandmothers cook. That early start is what instilled in them a love of food and started many of them on their careers. Chef Vishwesh Bhatt of Snack Bar in Oxford is no different, except instead of having a "Granny" or a "Mamaw," he had a "Ba." Bhatt grew up in India and speaking Gujarati, Mahatma Gandhi’s native tongue. He moved to the United States with his parents in 1986 when he was 18, but his love of food began long before then. “I was in my mother’s kitchen from around age seven or eight. It wasn’t really cooking but I wanted to be there. Inevitably, I would get in the way because I would want to know how soon we could eat,” Bhatt says.
His mother and grandmother cooked for everyday meals and for holidays. “I remember my grandmother cooking for Diwali [the five day fall festival of lights]. She would go and get all the fresh ingredients and fresh spices from people. This was the 1970s and these connections were dying slowly,” Bhatt says. His own talents as a cook began to emerge while he was in college at the University of Kentucky. “My greatest memories involve cooking for friends, especially when we got tired of the college cafeteria. I had a Korean roommate. I started out cooking for the two of us. Eventually, it was 15 or 16 friends. They bought the groceries. I would cook and we’d all drink a bunch of cheap beer,” Bhatt says.
Soon, word of his talent spread beyond his friends. “One day, my advisor asked if I would cook dinner for his wife’s birthday. I was hesitant at first, but he said, ‘Oh, we’ll pay you, of course.’ I agreed and it went well,” Bhatt says.
Bhatt took his first restaurant job in Oxford in 1992. He worked for six years before deciding to go to culinary school. After cooking at different spots around the country, he returned to Oxford in 2001 to work with John Currence at City Grocery. In 2009, he opened Snackbar, another of Currence’s projects. At Snackbar, Bhatt prepares his blend of Southern and Indian cuisine, as seen in the accompanying recipes.
1 ¼ cup red lentils
2 hot green chili peppers
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp minced garlic
¼ tsp turmeric
For tadka, or the spice mixture:
3 tbs Clarified Butter/oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tsp garam masala
1 onion minced
1 tomato chopped
2 tbs lime juice
3 tbs chopped cilantro
2 tbs Butter
1. Rinse the lentils in cold water. Combine the lentils, chilies, ginger, garlic, turmeric and salt to taste with 5 cups of water and (pressure) cook until the lentils are tender. Remove and discard the chilies and whisk the lentils until smooth.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add mustard seeds. Once the seeds start popping, add cumin, curry leaves and garam masala. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add tomatoes and cook until they start to break down. Add the cooked lentils, simmer and check the seasoning.
3. Stir in the lime juice, cilantro and whole butter, then serve hot.
A Long Journey to a Southern Kitchen
Vishwesh Bhatt traveled from his native India at age 18 to attend college in Kentucky, but his path ultimately led to Oxford and a chef’s coat
Story by Paul Knipple | Photography by Terry Sweeney