Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar
in Oxford, MS, has been nominated six times for a James Beard Award for Best Chef South. As it turns out, the sixth time is the charm. Last night, in Chicago, Bhatt took home the medal.
Tell me how the evening went down?
I've gotten pretty used to not hearing my name. And then I heard a name that clearly wasn't one of the four [other chefs].
You didn't have any inkling that this was your year?
I felt pretty good about it. I mean, you know, I felt good about it every year.
You're one of five people, so the odds are always good. But it's really hard to tell whose name will be called because they are all really good chefs and we're all friends.
Do you have any pre-ceremony rituals?
We traveled with a group of people wanting to come up. They had more of a feeling than I did. So I had a nice, nice group of coworkers and friends who came up from Oxford.
And so we don't really have a ritual. We went and had a really nice meal as a group, as family. Then everybody kind of just took it easy in the morning. We all met
before the awards and had a couple of cocktails across the street. I mean, that's sort of a tradition because there's this restaurant that's across the street from
the Opera House. It's nice and quiet, right? That time of the day. And so we just go and have a couple of cocktails and then we walk across the street. So that's what we did.
How do you establish an identity within the John Currence empire?
A lot of the credit goes to John for letting me express myself and letting me experiment with recipes or ingredients. If I had an idea, he was always encouraged me. Always.
Yeah, so that gave me confidence to try more stuff.
In the beginning, I would run it by him. And, finally, after doing this for a while, now we both have enough confidence. We've been working together for 20 years.
How do you describe what you make?
What I make is Southern food. At first glance, it may appear to be [something] you would not have seen in grandma's kitchen or church picnics, but those are the influences. That's sharing food with friends and family. That's what I grew up with.
How do you remain challenged and excited about what you do?
This is my passion. This is what I do for a living. So every day, you want to make people happy. You want to make sure that what you're putting on a plate in front of somebody is going to make them happy because, you know, otherwise, you don't have a job. So that in and of itself is a challenge and especially when, you know, we're talking about a restaurant where two or 300 people come through, you're trying to make them all happy. It's a challenge.
Oxford's is a small enough pond where I run into folks that come in to eat. If they didn't like something there, they tell me that.
When you were a kid and first arrived in Austin at age 17 from India, was this sort of the vision you had for yourself?
I did not. I didn't really know I was going to be cooking for living until I started working at City Grocery
I wanted to be a bureaucrat. I thought that was the greatest thing in the world.
Vishwesh Bhatt will cook at the Oxford Bourbon Festival and Auction, set for May 24th and 25th at the Vaught Hemingway Stadium. The event is a fund-raiser for Move On Up Mississippi.