“If anything, I would like people to know that I am accessible. I have been told that some people are intimidated by me, and I don’t see why.”
Well, on the surface, it’s not hard for the image of local chef Avishar Barua to come across as such. His culinary curriculum vitae—his degrees in both biology and psychology, his credentials with the most-forward thinking restaurants in the country like renowned American molecular gastronomy mecca WD-50 under Chef Wylie Dufresne and the revolutionary Mission Chinese under Chef Danny Bowien—is staggering at the onset.
Not to mention the praise heaped on him for his groundbreaking work locally at Veritas Tavern.
But, here, in his home kitchen—where I am humbled to learn that I am the first such guest—he’s endlessly affable, treating me less like a member of the local food media, and more like someone he’s excited to treat to a new recipe.
Ya know, just a simple home-cooked meal—of grilled jumbo prawns, prime rib, painstakingly crafted carmelized onion soup, grilled smoked 48-hour short rib buns served with confit-garlic-sesame-chili Kewpie mayonnaise and kimchi compressed baby cucumbers, prepared in front of my eyes, by one of the greatest up and coming “new” chefs Columbus has ever seen. The open kitchen is like the meal—familiar bamboo steamers are stacked next to up-to-the-minute modern equipment, creating a dazzling tension of the familiar and the progressive.
Again, it’s easy to be intimidated.
Especially sitting nearby while a damn near six-course meal is engineered with such ease.
But, then, he makes me a cup of tea and we sit in the kitchen chatting—and that aforementioned approachability is as forward as his philosophy. We discuss our guilty food pleasures, our kindred weaknesses—fried chicken, Japanese curries, our mutual love of NYC’s Doughnut Plant.
“I think I just like fried stuff with sauce. If I see country-fried steak on any menu, I will order it…and Taco Bell also, but it’s a very specific order,” he laughs.
The man who just made me a meticulously-seasoned sous vide steak shares my tastes on both ends of the spectrum. We laugh and bond over the overall mutual horror of those who know us on this choice and that they think it is the worst. Pretentiousness is the worst, Barua immediately responds.
“Why can’t we just eat what we want sometimes? I’ve been to some of the best restaurants in the country,” he says. “Some of the foods that are popular are foods that have the humblest of origins.”
Perhaps that humility is part of his enthusiasm for the pop-up scene, one he’s had a huge hand in shaping in Columbus. He values community and the simple sharing of knowledge, and in these one-night-only offerings, he’s able to cook for a client base already on-board for some adventure.
“We get to try things we don’t normally get to try,” he said. “(It’s) our own restaurant for a night—we can send out things family style if we want to, we can do small plates settings—flex our muscles.”
That inclusivity stretches to his Columbus colleagues, too. A chef’s chef, he enjoys collaboration—from Matthew Barbee’s Rockmill Brewery to Trois Ragazzi’s Marcus Meacham—with just about anyone down to break down brick-and-mortar barriers.
“At the end of the day I’m not doing this for me, I’m not doing this for an ego—I’m doing this to get better as a community … we can play with table settings, we can play with the environment people are in. We can’t really do that in a restaurant.”
Even if he is free of ego, Barua’s culinary muscles flex themselves subconsciously. His brain is a high-powered shorthand catalog for the 285 cookbooks in his library, and he hits me with rapid recommendations for titles including his personal fav, H. Alexander Talbot’s Ideas In Food, as well as Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook, and Maxime Bilet’s Modernist Cuisine.
Oh, and remember those two scientific degrees? He doesn’t just let those gather dust.
He made his own candy bar, with N Zorbit M, a tapioca food additive that serves as a stabilizer of higher fat ingredients (such as milk chocolate and peanut butter) and has the ability to turn them into powders, producing a white powder that tastes exactly like a Buckeye.
“The scientific method was drilled into my head and that’s part of why all these things are happening,” he says.
More than anything, “all these things” happen because Barua isn’t just unafraid of pushing boundaries, he’s wired to, almost constantly. He likes the idea of deconstruction, but the notion of reconstruction even more.
“You deconstruct so you can determine what you like about each component, and then you put that in a way that is pleasing. There’s a mental association and a comforting feeling in food, and I don’t think it’s our job to take away from that. I think it should be fun at the end of the day—no reason to cook if it’s not fun. It’s very, very taxing on our bodies, on our families, we’re in the kitchen most of the day, we’re on our feet most of the day.”
If fun is the main motivator, his secondary urge to push ahead is the responsibility he feels to further Columbus as an emergent food city.
“I think Columbus is already part of the modern food scene, but we just have to be aware. If people come in from out of town…we should be able to be up to date with other modern food cities, with current events, with chefs,” he says. “There’s no point in even doing it if you stop learning. It’s tough sometimes if you’re making the same food every day, but you can learn something new in the process and that’s how people get places.”
It’s certainly gotten Barua—and Columbus—places. After bolstering his reputation at Veritas, and with his pop-up work, he’s now been tapped to spearhead the restaurant wing of the new massive expansion at Middle West Spirits. It’s appropriate that behind his kitchen new stills will push the limits of what an artisan spirit company can accomplish, while he does his part to keep the carrot and the stick in front of himself and the city on the culinary side of things.
“One of the reasons I’m doing this I want to leave place better than when I started. If you’re really someone who’s always trying to push the scene, you are always looking for the next step, and that’s the motivation,” he said. “I think Columbus has come along way. Everyone’s starting to talk.”
And when Barua talks, it’s hard not to listen. His love for the city, combined with his gentle, yet passionate efforts to nudge it forward, have helped develop that part of him.
“I don’t want to force anything. I have a direction that I think I am going, cooking-wise, but I don’t have an exact style yet. I think that will come with time.”
“I’m learning to have my own voice,” he laughs, bashfully. “I only speak if people want to listen—then I will talk.” •
The five-story expansion and restaurant opening at Middle West Spirits (1230 Courtland Ave.) is expected by mid-spring. For more, visit middlewestspirits.com. In the meanwhile, keep up with the adventures of Barua on Instagram @avishar.