OXFORD • When Vishwesh Bhatt was a small boy growing up in Gujarat, India, he liked to be under his mother’s feet when she was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal.
“I’d come in from grade school and be in her way as she tried to get ready for supper,” said Bhatt, 53. “So she put me to work. She’d give me a potato to peel or a cup to measure out rice. That let me hang out with my mom, but I also found out the quicker I finished the task, the quicker I got to eat.”
As he got older, she taught him how to use a knife and how to work the stove. What Bhatt didn’t realize at the time is that he was learning the fundamentals of cooking.
Today, Bhatt is the executive chef at Snackbar restaurant in Oxford. And two weeks ago, he was named Best Chef: South by the James Beard Foundation.
“I have this medal that says I’m the best chef in this region, which I’ve never thought I am,” Bhatt said. “There are so many people better than I am. I just think I make unique food. I consider myself a Southerner and a Southern chef.”
Bhatt’s journey from small child in the kitchen to top culinary award-winner has been a long and interesting one.
After finishing high school in western India, he moved with his family to France for a year and then to Texas. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science and biology from the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
“I did an internship and helped with a couple of political campaigns, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I was going to,” he said.
He moved from Lexington to Oxford to attend graduate school at the University of Mississippi. His plan was to study public administration.
“I wanted to be a bureaucrat,” he said. “I thought that would be the funnest job in the whole world. That didn’t work out so well either.”
While in grad school, Bhatt started working in restaurants to earn beer money. He went from working a couple of nights a week to working every night.
“And 25 years later, here we are,” he joked.
In the mid-1990s, Bhatt began working at City Grocery for John Currence, also a James Beard Award-winning chef. He went from being a prep cook to working on the line, first at lunch and then at dinner.
“After working in restaurants for three-and-a-half years, I made up my mind that this was what I wanted to do,” he said. “So I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Miami. I looked at a map and found the warmest place I could go to.”
After an externship in Colorado, he came back to Oxford and City Grocery briefly, then moved to Jackson for a year to help a friend open a restaurant there.
But his heart was in Oxford and in 2002, he moved back as the catering chef for City Grocery. He then worked his way up to lunch chef before becoming the dinner chef.
In 2009, Currence had the opportunity to move into the space next to his wildly popular Big Bad Breakfast restaurant on North Lamar. He came up with the idea for Snackbar, an upscale restaurant featuring Southern cuisine.
“John and I walked in here and I didn’t really see the space as he did,” Bhatt said. “This was all his design. We worked on the first menu together. About a year later, he let me loose.”
In 2014, when Snackbar was less than 5 years old, Bhatt was named a semifinalist and then a finalist for his first James Beard Best Chef: South award.
James Beard was an American chef and food writer. The foundation named in his honor was set up to provide scholarships to aspiring food professionals and to champion the American culinary tradition, which Beard helped create.
“I think I was on their radar for two reasons: one was John Currence. The other was John T. Edge and the Southern Foodways Alliance,” he said. “That symposium brings a lot of people to town.”
Bhatt was more surprised than anyone that he’d been nominated.
“I got a text saying ‘congrats’ from John and I texted back and said ‘for what?’ and then all of a sudden my phone started pinging,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. A lot of people I admire and follow – friends – are James Beard winners. I was well aware of what the honor meant.”
Bhatt didn’t win, but the next year, he made the short list of five finalists again.
“I thought somebody made a mistake,” he said. “When it happened again the third year, I knew this was serious business. Then I made the short list the next two years and didn’t win, even though when you’re one of five people nominated, the odds are good you’ll get chosen. But when you walk in that room and there are chefs there like Thomas Keller and Frank Stitt and John Currence – it’s OK when you don’t win. It’s just a total fan moment.”
On May 6, Bhatt and his wife, Teresa, went to this year’s awards ceremony in Chicago for his sixth nomination.
“This was the first year I said I actually wanted to win the medal,” Bhatt admitted. “I figured if they thought enough of me to bring me here six times, maybe it was deserved.”
When the Best Chef: South category came around, Bhatt kept waiting for one of the other four chefs’ names to be called.
“When I didn’t hear any of the four, I realized they must have called my name, even though I didn’t hear it,” he said. “My wife started screaming and I realized it was real. It’s still sinking in. That night is a blur. Everybody was so excited. I had turned off my phone but I had 138 messages when I turned it back on. Of course, I’d been in that room before and not won, so I also knew that feeling well.”
Now that Bhatt and Snackbar have been nationally recognized, the culinary bar has been set even higher.
“Until now, this was just a little chef and little restaurant that got nominated,” he said. “Now that we have a James Beard award, the expectations have been raised. We’ll have to work even harder.”
Bhatt figures one reason he may have been selected is because he tries to put a part of himself on every plate that goes out of the kitchen.
“I want people to know there’s a story behind this food,” he said. “I’m not trying to change the classics. I just want to add to the quilt we already have with the memories of my childhood. The way I season things is part of that – toasted cumin, cardamom, black pepper, star of anise, ginger. But the other thing is the journey to becoming a Southern chef. This is where I learned to cook.”
While Bhatt is thrilled to have a medal that says “James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence” on one side and “2019 Best Chef: South” on the other, he’s even more proud of his staff at Snackbar.
“We’re in a transient town, with college students who come and go,” he said. “To be nominated for six years in a row speaks volumes to the staff we’ve had, the quality of people we have. They believe in our vision and that what they’re doing is important. That’s what I’m the most proud of. That’s something Oxford needs to be proud of. That’s something Mississippi needs to be proud of. In Mississippi, we have everything lined up against us – most of it self-inflicted – but if we put our heads together, we can accomplish things.”