Avishar Barua leaves day-to-day operations at Service Bar, launches new company

The former Top Chef contestant's fingerprints will remain when Middle West reopens its restaurant, but his time will be spent launching Worthington cafe Joya's and other forthcoming ventures

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Avishar Barua

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, Service Bar and executive chef Avishar Barua pivoted immediately to carry-out dining, a decision that enabled the restaurant to maintain some staff and also introduced an unexpected clarity to Barua’s work.

Prior to the pandemic, Barua said he had a tendency to focus on minutiae when assembling a dinner plate — an approach he quickly abandoned out of necessity amid the chaos of running a restaurant in the COVID-19 era. “Now it’s more like, if you leave here happy, then we’re happy,” Barua told Alive in August 2020. “Anytime I add anything more than that, it gets complicated.”

This newfound ability to roll with the punches and to not get too hung up on mishaps served Barua well when he was drafted to appear as a contestant on the 18th season of “Top Chef,” which filmed in Portland, Oregon, and aired on Bravo beginning in April 2021.

The decision to continue working through the pandemic challenged the Service Bar staff — “We were here every day, and it cost all of us personally, mentally,” Barua said in a late January interview at the restaurant, joined by Middle West Spirits co-founder and head distiller Ryan Lang and general manager Josh Daily — but those chaotic months also fostered spirit of community that Barua described as transformative.

“We wanted to contribute something. It was no longer about being the best. It was, ‘What can we do?’” he said. “And people showed up for us, and that’s something I’ll never forget, and that’s the city of Columbus.”

This communal vibe is at the core of a new company Barua is launching, a still-developing venture that will necessitate his leaving day-to-day operations at Service Bar, which he helmed from its 2017 opening through June of 2021, when the business paused to undergo cosmetic updates and needed maintenance. In the coming months, for starters, much of Barua’s energy will be focused on Joya’s, intended for Worthington and described in filings as a “Bengali-American cafe” — the first in what will likely be a series of new businesses linked to the chef.

“There was always going to be a point where Avishar was going to move along to the next thing. His talents obviously speak for themselves,” said Lang, who confirmed that Service Bar would reopen for dining sometime in 2022, though he couldn’t offer a more specific timetable, with construction in the space still ongoing and omicron-driven COVID rates creating lingering uncertainty throughout the restaurant and bar industries.

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Though Barua will no longer have a daily presence at Service Bar, his relationship with the restaurant will continue, with the chef assisting in everything from the development of the menu, which will relaunch with many familiar favorites (Cheesy Brisket Crunch, Smoked Wings, Cheese and Poof), to training the kitchen staff so the crew can “execute at a high level,” Daily said. 

“Avishar is not going to be back there, but we’ll have a staff that is there making those creations, so it will have the same look, touch and feel, and the things you know and love about Service Bar are still going to be there,” said Lang, adding that Middle West would not have a financial stake in Barua’s new company. “We’ll never stop working together. But that’s not for us anymore; that’s for him to do.”

Barua, for his part, said the leadership at Middle West pushed him toward the new venture — “They’re the ones who have been saying, ‘Avishar, you can’t just be in the kitchen,’” he said — comparing the process of starting his own business with a child growing into adulthood and purchasing their first home. “I want to make a difference,” he said, “and I have to build a company to do it, and they’re [advising] me.”

More:Avishar Barua’s unlikely journey from Ohio State pre-med student to ‘Top Chef’

Interest around Barua’s future in Columbus would have been high prior to his appearance on “Top Chef,” and has only spiked since his seven-episode run in the cooking competition, which included a couple of wins and one memorable (if not entirely graceful) cartwheel out the door upon his elimination. Barua, though, has little interest in trying to capitalize on his television stint, saying he’d prefer to be identified by the body of work he assembled in his time at Service Bar than for how a TV audience viewed a dozen-odd dishes he prepared under constraints for a panel of judges.

At the same time, Barua credited the show with forcing him from his comfort zone, and for helping to reveal a level of support in Columbus that has made these coming steps possible.

“When you go on television … the entire world sees you. And it’s kind of scary sometimes, because when you make a bad dish on [‘Top Chef’], and it’s something I think I know how to make very, very well, and then you get told by some judges who have a lot of acclaim that it sucks, how does that feel?” Barua said. “Coming back [to Columbus], it was surprising, because people reached out and said, ‘Hey, Chef, we liked you. You were awesome.’ What?! When the Buckeyes lose no one says that. But it was nice to see. And having that support has empowered me to make some of these decisions, because everything I’m doing now is kind of scary.”

The scale of what Barua hopes to accomplish is massive and could be potentially transformative for the local dining scene. It also makes the concept difficult for him to boil down easily since it encompasses not just a single restaurant, but an ever-expanding series of potential ventures. "It's based on my ambitions," Barua said. "My vision is, number one, to make the best food possible. Number two is that I want more people to have the opportunity to contribute to Columbus' culinary scene, and that could be something as simple as a restaurant or a food truck. I'm not sure where it will end up."

Some of these possible concepts and collaborations exist as little more than the germ of an idea. Others, like Joya’s, plans for which are currently under review by the Worthington Architectural Review Board, have started to make the slow transition into reality. 

Barua’s application for the planned daytime cafe, located in the former Sassafras Bakery at 657 High St. in Worthington, describes an ambitious coffee program and a food menu centered on street-style eats that could range from bodega-style bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches to breakfast pho. 

To understand what Barua hopes to build, however, it’s also useful to know what he intends to avoid, information the newly minted businessman included in his application for Joya’s, and which reads like a mission statement for all future launches.

Barua described what the space won’t be: "A full-service restaurant and bar to appeal to hipsters and fashionable tik-tok trends. A club, a bar, or some kind of gastropub where the only thing that is good is the Miller High-Life. Some kind of ‘high-end concept.’ A place that I decided to open because I got bored of my old job and ‘liked the idea’ of opening my own cool coffee shop.”

“Why am I doing this?” he continued. “I was born and raised in Columbus; I love the things that are around here, but I feel like we as a city are at a critical point where we could stale into slightly above Mega Chain level dining franchises or start-ups that seek to replicate the same concept in different neighborhoods with big time developments. I enjoy the history and personality of neighborhoods and would love to bring people into areas that have stood the test of time.”

In gearing up to announce his new company, Barua drafted a lengthy social media post in which he recounted the struggle of operating a restaurant in the pandemic, linking the experience to his decision to finally venture off on his own. “These last few years have certainly taken their toll on us as an industry and made us question what we do and why we do it,” he wrote.

The post then goes on to present more questions, which gradually morph into a series of inquiries Barua terms “what ifs?” “What if we could make those delicious, crispy, spicy parathas for anyone who wanted to enjoy?” he wrote, in part. “What if we could serve those tasty little buckeyes at a Buckeyes game? How about packaging my mom's Apple Chutney for those who were as obsessed as I am with it?” 

“Are these all good ideas?” Barua continued, then landing on a question central to his new venture and everything he’s been building toward over the last year. “If we don’t explore them and give it an honest try, how will we know?”