Q&A with Top Chef Contestant Avishar Barua of Service Bar
The second episode of Top Chef: Portland airs Thursday night at 8 p.m.
Filmed in Portland, Oregon, last fall amid the pandemic, Top Chef's 18th season brings together 15 cheftestants from all over the country in a battle for the title of Top Chef, a feature in Food & Wine and a grand prize of $250,000. One day after the season premiere last Thursday, we caught up with Service Bar executive chef Avishar Barua, who is the first Columbus-based chef ever to compete on the series. Warning: If you haven't watched the first episode of Top Chef: Portland, stop reading now. Lots of spoilers below.
In the first episode, Barua narrowly escaped being the first chef to pack his knives, with that fate landing on Roscoe Hall, a Birmingham chef whose resume includes a recent position as culinary director for famed Rodney Scott’s BBQ. You can catch episode 2 of Top Chef: Portland on Thursday, April 8, at 8 p.m. EDT on Bravo. (Please note this interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Avishar, has it been a goal of yours to be on Top Chef? And can you tell me about how the opportunity came about?
When I started cooking, I used to watch it on TV, and I really never thought I could qualify for Top Chef. So, in that regard, I never really tried out for it. ... It's really great chefs that you look up to all the time, and I never thought of myself as a really great chef that I could look up to.
I was approached by a casting agent. ... When the pandemic had started, I received an email saying that "I have this application, we want you to try out for Top Chef." I thought it was a bad joke. I was like there's no reason that someone would be reaching out to me regarding Top Chef. That doesn't make any sense. But I didn't know any better, so I filled it out. Then, I went through a few more steps and before I knew it, I was in Portland.
Before filming Top Chef last fall, you had gone through the challenging experience of adapting Service Bar for pandemic survival, shifting the restaurant to takeout only. Do you think that helped prepare you for the competition or did it leave you feeling more unprepared?
Normally you're getting chefs at their peak when they have a restaurant open, and everyone's going for it. This year, it was a little bit different because I didn't really get to interact with guests. I didn't really get to interact with other chefs, and I really didn't get to interact with staff. And then when you show up to Top Chef, you're doing all this stuff that they want to see. They want to see your food; they want to see the stuff that you were doing when you were plating food. We haven't plated food since, what, March of last year? So, it was a bit of a challenge because you have to shake the rust off and go for it. You should be practicing and doing stuff, but it's really hard to process that when you don't have guests in the dining room.
Can you describe what it was like walking into the Top Chef kitchen for the first time?
There's no actual words that can describe how it feels. You see it from one side, but when you're in it, it feels completely different. You're like, wait a second. That's when it officially hit me. I was like, holy ****, this is the Top Chef kitchen, and I'm in here. … And interestingly enough, all that stays in your head until that clock goes. And when the clock goes, your mind just goes blank and you're just focused on the challenges.
Did you do anything beforehand to prepare for the Quickfires, which are hectic, fast challenges?
I had thought about it for a while. ... I was trying to figure out something that I can do to get ready for this thing. … My [Service Bar] staff was thinking about like, you know, maybe we'll give him a [mystery] basket or something. [Laughing] I just decided that I'm just going to go in blind, because the more I thought about it, the more I planned, the more stressed out I got. ... I watched a little bit of season 17. Then it gave me so much anxiety because I saw how high caliber the chefs were that I panicked. And I said, I'm just going to go in blind. Let's just see what happens.
In the first episode you mentioned your mom, Jaya Sree, several times. Her apple chutney was featured in the first Quickfire. Why did you pick her apple chutney to bring to the competition as the ingredient that you “can’t live without”?
I think the theme of Top Chef is they're always trying to make chefs be themselves. If they pick you for Top Chef, it's for a good reason. I think it's because you have something to offer that is uniquely you. I thought of something that I've had my entire life that can be used in lots of ways. Objectively, apple chutney is great because you can use it as a vinaigrette, you can use it as a sauce, you can use it as a marinade. You can use it as sweet or savory. … But also, it's not so familiar. So, I thought they were going to give it to a competitor to use. ... I just thought of the best possible situation and that's going to be an ingredient that I was familiar with but maybe not everyone was. Plus, it's also representative of my mom. I had to bring mom into it somehow.
When the show began did you have a certain strategy going in? Did you give yourself any ground rules to follow—like never try to cook risotto for Tom [Colicchio]?
I actually went in just thinking of one thing, and it was this is a pretty cool opportunity, and if they want me to be in this competition, they want me to be in this competition for me. And also, I'm from Columbus, and I'm from Ohio. ... A big thing with me cooking, though, is that I care about my staff, I care about the city, I care about people. So, I don't want to be a jerk either. I don't want to shove people around. Like, that's not me. So, I don't want to not be me.
Because of the pandemic, this season the chefs are doing their shopping online and not doing their traditional mad dash through Whole Foods to pick ingredients. How does that change the competition for you?
Yeah, to be honest, for a chef to not be able to see the ingredients, is very tough. It's one of those things, but you know, it's also the reality of life. It's not an excuse. It's just one of those things, because when we go shopping or when we go picking, you get to see the item. … If I use an onion for a recipe, I'm not sure I can count on an app to decide the size of the onion exactly. It's convenient, certainly. ... But as a chef you really want that tactile sensation. You want to know that, "Oh, I'll need three of these onions, not one. Or this onion is slightly rotten on the outside." I don't know any of those things until I see the ingredients.
The first Elimination Challenge was all about game birds found in Oregon—you pulled chukar, a kind of partridge. Tell me about your dish: chukar-fried chukar. I think you called it "mother chukar."
I did. And that was my immediate reaction. ... I was like, well, of course the only bird that I've never worked with is the one that I get. At that point I just figured it's a bird, but I've never tasted it before. Once I got it, I tried it raw. I took a little bit of a taste. Ultimately, I figured that there were some lean meats, that there were some dark meats. And so, I thought I would try and utilize both. My main thing was, I just wanted to utilize the entire bird because, you know, at Service Bar everything that we do we use the whole thing up, and I didn't want to go back on that. So, I tried to utilize the chukar breasts for the fried chukar. ... I was going to do a jhol with the other parts, with the dark meats. And then I used the bones to make a stock that I put the rice in.
Where do you think you went wrong?
Uh, everywhere. It's different when you're competing on Top Chef. Every plan you have, everything you think you know, all your instincts, they all just go out the window. The best you can do is adapt on the fly. And there's a lot going on around you, certainly. You're in a room with 14 other chefs that you've never seen in your entire life. You're sharing equipment, and you're not familiar with the kitchen. There's just stuff you have to look for. ... On top of that, you usually have sous chefs and you can ask them to taste things and make sure they're OK. ... So, at some point, you know, maybe I wasn't tasting as much. Maybe I wasn't trusting myself. ... I got in my own head. I don't really blame anyone. I don't blame anyone else but myself for my own mistakes. I think it's important to accept if I made a mistake ... no one else made that mistake for me.
Top Chef is a crucible that can really shine light on people's weaknesses. If you have one weakness that you're looking to corral on Top Chef, what is it?
I think it's definitely confidence, because typically it takes me a long time and a lot of repetition to build confidence when being [new] to something. And this is brand new to me. I don't really do this style of competition very often. If I can get over all that and trust that I deserve to be here, I think I will do better. I mean, that's what I kind of want to do, but I also have got to assert myself. ... This is a competition, and if I want to win, I've got to step up a little and be maybe a little more aggressive.
After one episode, who are you thinking of as your fiercest competition?
I think the biggest enemy of Top Chef this season is going to be ourselves because we're so focused and inclined to do our own thing that sometimes we might forget [it's a competition]. Right now, I'm afraid of everyone because I'm at the bottom. So clearly everyone is better than me. ... I feel like I narrowly avoided elimination. I feel like it could have been one thing—if I hadn't fried the chukar properly, I could have gone out. You know, Roscoe [Hall] is a good chef. Everyone's a great chef. So, I don't know. I think everyone's scary.
Are we going to see some Service Bar dishes possibly show up on Top Chef?
Uh, I guess you'll have to tune in to find out. [Laughs maniacally]