Columbus, Ohio, chef Avishar Barua chats about pandemic pivots and his upcoming appearance on the new season of Top Chef.
Avishar Barua
Avishar Barua
| Credit: Courtesy of Middle West Spirits

Avishar Barua, 33, is the executive chef and general manager of Service Bar, Middle West Spirits' eclectic restaurant inside its distillery in Columbus, Ohio. Here, he serves the most thoughtfully prepared smashed burgers, fries and roast beef sandwiches in town, along with dishes like a Taco Bell-inspired crunchy taco on Bengali fry bread, kati rolls and curry bowls that merge his Bangladeshi heritage and Midwestern upbringing. Catch Barua April 1 when he represents Columbus on Bravo's Top Chef: Portland.

How has the menu at Service Bar changed over this past year?

Before this, we refused to do any carryout or delivery. So we had to do a complete 180.  I remember it was on my birthday – March 14 – when we found out that restaurants were going to shut down.

We took a big piece of butcher paper and wrote a brand new menu. Our kati roll is a new favorite. It's a big parata with a lamb kabob, basically a Bengali longburger. Every roll is fried to order and it takes up the entire fryer because it's enormous. I had it in the streets of Calcutta a lot but before the pandemic, I hadn't had the opportunity to make it at Service Bar. It has my mom's apple chutney, maple yogurt, fresh cilantro, lime and pickled onions. You can eat it on the go, even in your car.

We wanted to build our to-go meals like Happy Meals, so with our sandwiches you can choose a side and you get a fun-sized candy bar for dessert.

Tell us about your Instagram menu – it's a brilliant idea!

We made an Instagram page called @SecretKitchenMenu a few months before the pandemic to showcase our specials, and now you can see our whole menu on Instagram. That was a happy accident. It's our way of communicating with our guests, especially if we only have five or 10 of an item. We're short-staffed so it's much easier for us to update. You don't have to worry about any miscommunication and you know what it looks like and how many people it serves. I'm a visual person and I like to see things before I get them, so I'll take a picture, write a description and put it up as it's available. Then we take it down once it runs out.

Have there been any pandemic silver linings personally or professionally?

This is the toughest curve ball we've ever received, but I think the pandemic taught us to reevaluate our philosophy. In the restaurant life, you can get so caught up that you forget your main goal is to provide guests with an awesome experience.

First we need to take care of ourselves, second to take care of furloughed staff, and third to take care of the community. Every Thursday we provide meals to a local homeless shelter and we have been feeding doctors and their staff too, at Ohio Health, Children's Hospital and Ohio State Wexner Center. My dad is a physician, and compounding COVID with regular illness that was going on at the same time, many doctors didn't even have time to eat lunch. We knew we wanted to be more active in the community. We are making a difference now and we can't imagine not doing that anymore, even beyond the pandemic.

Avishar Barua
Avishar Barua
| Credit: Courtesy of Middle West Spirits

Why did you decide to apply for Top Chef? Was it something you always wanted to do?

When I started cooking in Delaware, Ohio, my chef and I would watch every single episode of Top Chef almost religiously every week. Top Chef was really inspirational to us. I never once thought that I would be on Top Chef. Not going to lie. I received a message from a casting agency and I was just like, this is not real, there's no way this is going on. It's 2020 though, so I thought, let's see how far this goes. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Portland and I was there. I still don't know how it happened but I get excited just thinking about it. It's crazy.

How did your team at Service Bar step up when you were gone?

That was the thing that scared me the most. In my entire time working in restaurants, I'd never taken off this much time. When this was all going on, we were short-staffed already, so I really had to lean on my team. That was a growing moment for me.

I was really humbled to know that nobody really noticed that I was gone. It kind of hurt me a little – just kidding! To hear that everything went smoothly and nobody noticed that I was gone for a couple of months, I was very impressed. I set up a little emergency fund for the employees and they didn't even touch the cash.

Was it a lot of pressure to represent Columbus on a national stage?

It still is. Ohio is interesting in some ways. We have Ohio State and then we have Cleveland Browns fans. I'm Brown so I've always tried to be a Browns fans. When you're doing well, they're rooting for you but if you're not they'll come down on you.

I'm the first Bengali-American chef to appear on Top Chef, and only the second Ohioan, but I don't want to think about that. I was so interested in doing this because when I started cooking, I never thought I'd have this opportunity. As a young person, sometimes you think you need to move to LA, or New York or Chicago to make an impact on the food scene. But if I can do it, you can too. I've jinxed myself a lot with medical school tests and standardized tests., but I do really well procrastinating. I thought, let me pull the Buddhist in me out, live for the moment and adapt. The more you do that, the more you can rely on your actual skillset.

What did you learn from your Top Chef experience?

All my life, I was taught to expect nothing. Nobody had any idea what to expect this season. It felt comforting to know that this season we're all part of something big. You can't make a season like this one ever again.

It's never been my goal to be on TV and for me to do this was a big, big step outside of my comfort zone. I'm more comfortable staying in the background. But this year I felt like I was part of something huge and new to me. This is a competition, so my mindset was not to make any friends, but I feel like I've gained a new family so I'm really grateful for that. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Barua is one of 15 chefs from around the country competing on the newest season of Top Chef.

Amber Gibson is a freelance journalist specializing in travel, food, wine and wellness. Her work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Robb Report, Departures, Saveur and Bon Appétit. Follow her on Instagram @amberyv.