Chef Avishar Barua on Experience, Ownership and Experimenting

The Top Chef alum dishes on all the elements that define his craft

When you think of a top chef, chances are you picture someone who spends their days sourcing ingredients from a farmer’s market, playing around with new recipes or dazzling guests at an exclusive restaurant. What’s often not conjured is an incredible amount of time spent working on solutions to a multitude of hospitality problems. Shedding light on those behind-the-scenes situations (as well as developing his own palate) is Avishar Barua, a Bravo Top Chef, an inherent master of food puns and owner of two forward-thinking restaurants, Joya’s (named after his mother) and the newly opened Agni—both in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

Perhaps it’s because Barua grew up not really liking food that his approach to the culinary industry is more pragmatic than creative. It wasn’t until college that Barua tried his hand at cooking, and while he nearly burned down his apartment trying to make Chinese food, the excitement led him to think he might prefer a life in the kitchen over one in medicine. At the dining room at Agni, a live-fire restaurant (named for the Hindu god of fire), we get his take on various elements that, together, form his craft.

Courtesy of Jon Adkins

On learning to like food: Culturally, in Bengali tradition, when people go out to eat they go out to Chinese restaurants because you can feed a lot of people for fairly cheap. Most of us don’t know how to make Chinese food at home, so my parents would go to Chinese restaurants more often than not. With that, there would be one or two dishes that I liked and I didn’t really want to try anything else. One of them was a Sichuan-style wonton called hongyou chaoshou. That’s the first time I saw chili oil, and at that point I got hooked on it because I really like spice. It’s one of the first flavors that I think I really enjoyed for what it does to your mouth and how it makes you feel. That one dish was something that took over for like 15 years. At one point I flew to China, I was like, “Let me go and try them over there!”

On having an open-minded palate: On the other side, I also like Taco Bell. You can like all kinds of things. What I find more often than not is if it’s something somebody will snark at and say, “Why would you like that?” that’s the sort of stuff that I actually like. I don’t see why you need to crap on someone else’s food. If somebody enjoys it, who are you to food-shame them? That was the thing, growing up at school if they had like Salisbury steak I thought it was kind of cool because I never got to have that at home. I thought, “Gravy and steak? That’s really good.” And people would make fun of me. Then I’d feel bad and I wouldn’t eat it. A lot of that I couldn’t express when I was younger.

Courtesy of Avishar Barua

On putting care into every dish: The double crunch tacos are not a me request, it’s because other people want them. The labor involved in that dish is very high—it’s a lot of work. That outside bread is a Bengali paratha, and we have a dough sheeter but people have to take each individual piece, put oil on it, roll it up like a torpedo, twist it and put it in the machine again. That’s every single piece and one-eighth of the dish. For the queso, we take pepper jack cheese, grate it down in the machine, add sodium citrate to it, burr-blend it and then portion it out and reheat it for every order because it’s like a glue. The inside shells come in as tortillas so we have to put them in a special mold and fry those too. The meat is smoked for 18 hours and then put in a combi oven for another four hours, and then it’s got to be taken off the bone, filtered through (you don’t want any particulates like bone or gristle), then it gets portioned for reheating. On top of that you have two salsas: one of them is made with fresh herbs and a guasacaca that we make; the other one is salsa macha, which is based off of chili oil. It’s got 12 components that all involve previous steps to get to just a salsa. Then the lettuce, we have to shave that across a slicer to make sure it looks consistent like Taco Bell. The cheddar we smoke and then shave. And then we have to fry it to order.

On the pick-up it’s like an entire fine-dining restaurant in one taco. Ideally it’s not what I love to make every single day, but people like it a lot because there’s so much care put into it. And if that’s our baseline point then everything else has got to be pretty crazy too, right?

Courtesy of Jon Adkins

On collaboration: I can’t think of a time where I’ve walked into a kitchen and thrown something. I’ve never done that because when I started cooking I saw that happen and that was something I didn’t learn from and didn’t gain a lot of positive insight out of so I don’t know why I would want to perpetuate that. I think when you’re stressed out and nervous, having that pressure doesn’t necessarily result in better results. And from my studies in psychology (I have a degree in psychology) one of the things we looked at was time pressure and how it’s never really productive to scream at somebody. I don’t even know what it achieves other than like, “Hey look I’m the boss.” And that’s not what it’s about—it’s always a collaborative effort.

What’s more interesting to me is when something is going wrong, trying to figure out why. Maybe someone had a bad day and they just need a break… They just need some time to themselves. Sometimes finding that solution will prevent a mistake from happening again.

Courtesy of Jon Adkins

On running a kitchen: We have a good production schedule. [At Joya’s] we’re open five days, from 8AM to 2PM. That’s 30 hours a week. The amount of work that’s required to do that is 400 hours of labor. That’s the most efficient we can make it. Is it practical? We don’t know. But the result, food-wise, people like it so why would we stop doing it? We can find a solution as long as we have a pathway, we can find better ways to make our production even more and the time spent even less. My mom always says with Bengali cooking, “You can’t cheat the time.”

On creativity: I don’t know much about creative stuff. Some would say that I am a creative, but I don’t think I am. I just find creative solutions. It’s just like, I have a problem, how do I solve it? That’s where the creativity comes in because often I don’t have a budget and I don’t have space, so we find ways. If I get inspired by something, I’ll use my science background, like “Why is this good?” Usually if I can get to “why” then it’s like, “how does this work?” and can get to a destination faster.

Courtesy of Jon Adkins

On experience: I think it’s good to have experience, I recommend it, but I don’t think anyone needs to have anything really other than a good work ethic, a strong mindset, a way to evolve their thinking. I mean, use YouTube—there are so many new tools and resources that we didn’t have before that get you in the perspective of a chef without having been in the kitchen. Because I have a lot of experience I can get to certain results faster, but just because I think a certain way doesn’t mean I can expect everybody else to. I always go, “If I was five-year-old me, how would I learn how to do this?”

If I can get to that point it’s good because ultimately, when you’re eating the food at Joya’s, I’m not making every dish, my chef is, and if my chef’s not, the staff that he has there are. So how do we translate the message down so they can make it awesome every time? That’s where things can be challenging and restrictive, but that’s not a bad thing. As everyone’s proficiency goes up we introduce more and more challenges.

On creating food for an airport lounge: Right now we have two menu items [at Escape Lounge inside CMH]: an egg sandwich and a burger. But they’re not the same as at Joya’s—obviously we’re not going to be able to make our own bread over there. We took that on as, “How can we make something equally delicious that would work for an airport setting?” I decided on two sandwiches because sometimes you don’t have much time, so what if you’re able to take some food with you onto the plane? A sandwich is easy to carry on, but we wanted to make it so that it would be OK if it sat for an hour or two, it would still be good. We approached it that way, because you’re probably going to go to the bar and get a few drinks at the airport and then you’re going to be on the plane like, “I’m hungry. Oh cool, I brought a sandwich!”

On being a business owner: Right now I have to learn, “How do I communicate to people, how do I make sure the food is quality, how do I not say these things or be this dumb and annoying boss?” Because we’ve all worked at companies where there’s a boss that you don’t like and I don’t want to be that guy. There are other things to life. It’s not good to be obsessed [with cooking], it’s better to remember why we’re doing it. We’re doing it to make people feel better, to take care of others, to encourage a team and staff. That’s equally—if not more—important as the food. It’s weird that I’m saying that, but that’s what makes the experience better. The priority is for everyone to have a good experience. How can we get people to forget the problems of the day and enjoy just a few moments of life? Genuinely being able to feel good through food is an awesome experience, so that’s why we’re doing it. And we want to encourage it, let’s do more of that.

Hero image courtesy of Jon Adkins