Vishwesh Bhatt is the executive chef of Snackbar, a restaurant in Oxford, Miss. And he’s winning acclaim as one of the region’s best chefs for Indian-inflected Southern fare that reflects a changing South.
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.
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.
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.”