Oxford, Miss., is a town steeped in Southern identity.
“In many ways this is an archetypal Southern town,” says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is based in Oxford. “There’s a courthouse square at the center, there are beautiful homes with rolling lawns framing it.”
And there’s the University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss, a campus once rocked by deadly riots over racial integration. To some, Oxford might seem an unlikely place for a native of India to achieve star status as a chef.
But Vishwesh Bhatt — or Vish, as everyone calls him — isn’t exactly cooking Indian food. He’s the chef at Snackbar, an upscale restaurant that serves Southern and French food with a twist. He uses traditional Southern ingredients, like catfish, grits or mac and cheese — but he prepares them using flavors and techniques of his native India.
Think garam masala home fries, daal hush puppies and his signature dish: okra chaat. Bhatt throws thin slices of okra into a deep-fry basket for about a minute, then tosses them with tomatoes, cilantro, chiles, chopped peanuts, lime juice, salt, pepper and chaat masala, a zesty spice mix used in Indian street food.
The result is savory, crunchy, tangy — it’s both Southern and Indian.
For Bhatt, food has been a bridge between the two Souths he’s called home: the American South, and the Global South. Bhatt was born and raised in Gujarat, India. When he was 17, his family moved to France briefly before coming to America. Their first stop was Austin, Texas.
He was 9,000 miles from home. Everything was different — until he went to the supermarket.
“And there were beans and tortillas and I was like, wait, I know what all these things are. I didn’t know a tortilla was a tortilla, to me it was a flat bread, and I was like, I recognize this,” Bhatt recalls.
Chiles, cumin, cilantro — Tex-Mex cooking shares many of the same ingredients as the Indian food he grew up with.
“I loved it,” Bhatt says. “That was where I first made the connection between how similar things were between India and the U.S.”
Food became a way for Bhatt to make himself at home in his new country. When he went to college in Kentucky, he studied political science, but he also learned to cook. It was a matter of survival: The dining hall fare was so bad, he says, he really had no other choice. Luckily, he did have some tools.
“My mom had sent me with like a thing of spices, a tin of spices,” he says, you know, mustard seeds, tumeric, some garam masala.” He still has it.
Bhatt wasn’t flying completely blind in the kitchen. As a child, he had spent countless hours helping his mother prepare large family feasts back in India. It was mostly busywork like shelling peas, he says, but those family meals were formative.
“Everything leading up to the meal to me was fun,” he recalls. “As a kid, it was the one time I felt I was a part of things.” The adults around him, he says, were often having conversations he didn’t understand, “but this, I understood.”
Soon enough, Bhatt was hosting his own dinner parties for college friends. He says it felt natural. “It was therapeutic, almost,” he says. “This was a way for me to become part of this larger group.”
But it took Bhatt more than a decade to realize cooking was his true calling. In the meantime, he moved on to graduate school at Ole Miss in Oxford.
And that’s where he met John Currence, a celebrated Southern chef and restaurateur who eventually became Bhatt’s mentor and boss. Currence remembers Bhatt as a constant presence at his restaurant.
“He was curious and he just really liked to eat,” Currence says.
Currence says Bhatt had a natural talent — he cooks in a way that’s intensely personal.
“You know, Vish is so beautifully influenced by the food of his family, particularly his mother,” Currence says.
But Bhatt wanted to explore other cuisines, too, so he ended up going to culinary school in Miami. After that, he cooked French food. And Southern food. And Caribbean food. Even a little English food.
But for years, the one thing Bhatt didn’t want to cook professionally was … Indian food. Currence has known Bhatt for more than 20 years, and from time to time, he says, he would suggest that Bhatt open an Indian restaurant.
“Vish’s sort of stock reply was, ‘But I don’t ever want to be the cliche Indian guy in a small Southern town in a little bitty Indian restaurant,’ ” Currence says.
Still, when Currence tapped Bhatt to be the executive chef of Snackbar, which opened in 2009, those Indian influences finally started creeping into Bhatt’s menus. It wasn’t exactly intentional, Bhatt says.
“You move forward and then you realize you want to leave what you are — or what you think you are — behind, but that’s always a part of you,” Bhatt says. It doesn’t really go away.”
[pullquote source=”John T. Edge”]It both confirms what you think about the South and subverts it at the same time. That’s what’s great about his food.[/pullquote]
Currence, who owns Snackbar, still remembers one particular dish: A Keralan fish curry served with a Southern staple — collard greens — that came finely chopped and creamed in a coconut milk Indian saag.
“I was literally moved to tears,” Currence says. “Here I was, experiencing that moment where an individual becomes a chef.
“It has been the most beautiful evolution,” Currence adds. “And it was at that point that people started talking about that restaurant as a place of significance.”
In the years since, Snackbar has become a favorite hangout for the Oxford community, a sort of clubhouse for locals like Julia Jimenez. “I come for happy hour maybe once, every other week — more if I can talk my husband into it,” Jimenez, who was dining with three friends, says with a laugh. (Also among the diners that night: a crew from Southern Living magazine.)
Now, at age 51, Bhatt is a three-time finalist for best chef of the South from the James Beard Awards — considered the Oscars of the food world. For Bhatt, the recognition is still surprising.
“It’s insane. I mean, I still have trouble believing it,” he says.
Bhatt says he very much considers himself a Southerner. “This is home,” he says. “This is where I’ve spent more time than anywhere else.”
Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance — which is part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss — says Bhatt’s food tells a larger story about the South.
“Just the hint of okra and the knowledge that okra is beloved in West Africa, beloved in India and beloved in the American South — those connections in a way spin out a story of Southern culture,” says Edge.
“It both confirms what you think about the South and subverts it at the same time. That’s what’s great about his food,” he adds.
It’s food rooted in the Southern past, while also pointing to where the South is going, as a strong economy attracts immigrants from all over.
“We live in a place that is changing rapidly and I think for the better,” Edge says. “The South is not losing anything in those changes — it’s gaining much. It’s gaining okra chaat.”
And it’s people like Vish Bhatt who keep the taste of the American melting pot ever evolving.
The radio version of this story includes music from blues musician Mississippi Fred McDowell. It was recorded by William Ferris and is part of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.