In the Kitchen with Executive Chef Avishar Barua of Middle West’s Service Bar
“There’s two ways you can go about it: you can be snooty about it and say ‘I don’t like fast food, or you can be like, ‘Fast food is the ultimate food,’” says Avishar Barua, Middle West Spirits Service Bar Executive Chef, “because they spend billions of dollars on research to make the perfect food.”
Barua likes Taco Bell. It’s clear from the “Hard Tacos, Soft Tacos” sign hanging over the doorway to his kitchen at Service Bar. The sign originally belonged to a Taco Bell, but an old high school friend of his liberated it from its owner, destining it to be displayed prominently as a subtle advertisement for Service Bar’s Cheesy Brisket Crunch.
Sound familiar? It’s a nod to the Bell’s own Cheesy Gordita Crunch, but instead of that ground up mystery beef, Barua’s creation features 18-hour-smoked cubed brisket, wrapped in a crispy corn tortilla and paratha, or Indian fry bread, with pepper jack queso spread between. Atop the brisket a special salsa guasacaca, a layer of Barua’s version of Taco Bell’s old verde sauce, shredded lettuce, and smoked middlefield cheese are piled on.
“You have to do lettuce and then cheese, like Taco Bell does,” Barua says, “So the sequence is there. And sometimes people will ask for fire sauce, and I’ll make it, because I love the fact that they know where we’re going with this.”
That’s probably one of the biggest values Barua sees in food: its ability to reveal commonalities between people. Most people know the Taco Bell experience, whether it’s a 3 a.m. meal after an evening of debauchery or simply satisfying that craving for cheap, “perfect” food. If there’s nothing else to talk about, Barua says just the mention of a favorite dish or restaurant can spark a conversation between strangers, new friends, or quarreling family members.
“We’ve had some bad nights as a family, but the worst night is like, if someone doesn’t come down to eat, ‘Oh my god they must be really pissed off right now,’” Barua shares.
In the Barua house, Avishar is the first to explore a career outside the field of science, a move his family opposed vehemently, then accepted conditionally: school was a must.
He promptly attended Columbus State (after already earning degrees in biology and psychology at The Ohio State University), where he was able to receive instruction and a chef apprenticeship. He logged 6,000 hours at 1808 American Bistro and Veritas in Delaware, working alongside chefs Josh Dalton and Silas Caeton, experimenting and creating daily specials. For a brief time, Barua ventured out to New York, manning the kitchens at Mission Chinese Food and Wd 50 from 2013 to 2014, before making his way back home.
Barua’s practice of experimenting has carried forward into his work at Service Bar, where he regularly cooks up new items for his diners to try. And although some chefs have said today’s diners are still playing it safe, Barua says the average eater is becoming more and more openminded.
“It used to be a time when people were like, ‘Raw fish? Ew. Why would you ever eat raw fish?’ and now every restaurant has sushi. You gotta have sushi on your menu, and it’s a good way to make money,” he says. “I have great faith in the dining population, to be honest, and we try stuff out here all the time, so sometimes we’ll do an amuse bouche; I sent out sweetbreads the other day.
I don’t think it’s about the diner, it’s about comfort,” he continues. “I think there’s a way you can get them to do it, and I think the best part about this job for me is that I get to be the communicator, the mediator. How do I find a way to incorporate this technique or ingredient in a way this person will enjoy?”
He gets sneaky with his techniques and ingredients, usually allotting one twist or surprise per item. His crispy ribs come with Hibiscus Commander Tso’s sauce and radish, the short ribs come with steamed milk bread, and the roasted potato gnocchi come with oxtail. Barua isn’t secretive about his recipes either, instead valuing a chef culture that shares, embraces, and allows everyone to move forward, unlike the culture he came up in nearly 10 years ago.
“When I started cooking, Columbus was very secretive. Like, every chef would have their different recipes, and they wouldn’t share with you, and they were kind of fighting each other: ‘I want to be the best,’ ‘No i want to be the best,’ and because of that, no one was getting better. We just had the same stuff, on and on and on. It’s not what cooking is about. It’s about sharing. So, share everything, open it up, talk. And I think we’re finally doing that more.”
Despite his temporary residence in New York, Barua says he’s in Columbus for good now. While others are clamoring to get the city some recognition, Barua says it’s already there, that you can find anything you want in Columbus if you look for it.
“I think Columbus since day one has been a great place to be,” Barua says. “People leave, but they come back. Columbus is home.”
For more information, visit middlewestspirits.com.
Bonus! Service Bar was voted as one of the Top 10 New Restaurants in Columbus of 2017!