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

The Service Bar chef appears on the 18th season of the televised cooking competition, which was filmed last year in Portland, Oregon, and begins airing Thursday, April 1, on Bravo

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Avishar Barua

Avishar Barua always anticipated his career would one day require him to wear a white coat.

But for most of his life, he envisioned working as a doctor rather than a chef, since as a child he was almost pathologically indifferent to food. Barua, who currently serves as the executive chef and general manager of Service Bar, recalled how he would draw the ire of his parents on those rare times the family went to McDonald’s, ordering the Happy Meal solely as a means to get the included toy and ignoring the burger and fries boxed alongside it.

Growing up in Delaware and later in Gahanna, Barua said he had to be “tricked” into eating the food cooked by his homemaker mother, who emigrated with his anesthesiologist father from Bangladesh to the United States, first landing in Detroit, Michigan, and later settling in Columbus, where Barua was born. 

“I didn’t really care for Bengali food,” said Barua, 34, who will appear as a contestant on the 18th season of “Top Chef,” which was filmed last year in Portland, Oregon, and begins airing at 8 p.m. tonight (Thursday, April 1) on Bravo. “So my mom would take the rice, and she would mix it with some ghee and with potatoes or meat to make these rice balls, and that was the only way to get me to eat, because I didn’t want to eat anything ever.”

Additionally, Barua had the attendant pressure that came with being raised by a father in the medical profession — a pressure that only increased when Barua’s older brother and lone sibling opted not to become a doctor.

“At that point, all eyes were on me, like, ‘Well, you’re gonna do it. You have to be a doctor,’” Barua said. “So when I went to Ohio State, I went pre-med, which isn’t something I chose. It was automatic. It was something I had to do.”

Midway through college, amid what he described as academic struggles, Barua added a second major in psychology, reasoning that if he flamed out of medical school he would have a fallback, and besides, he was a good listener and enjoyed hearing people’s problems. “I just thought I couldn’t learn,” said Barua, who stressed that he would have to read passages “20 or 30 times” to retain the knowledge that some classmates appeared to absorb on the first pass. (This particular bit of self-analysis falls far outside of the picture offered by everyone else interviewed for this story, with chef Silas Caeton describing Barua as “wicked smart” and chef Josh Dalton calling him “insanely intelligent,” adding, “When it comes to reading and learning, it’s almost like he’s in overdrive, and it didn’t matter if it was firearms, knives, modern cooking, Asian cooking. If he was into it, he’d go overboard and read and read and read.”)

Around this time, Barua, who was living off-campus with his best friend, decided on a lark to try his hand at cooking Chinese food, which was an inseparable part of his upbringing in a Bengali home. (“I’m not sure why it was culturally in, but getting [Chinese food] was the thing to do,” he said.) So Barua checked out Chinese Cooking for Dummies by Martin Yan from the library and started to experiment with recipes, almost burning his apartment down on two different occasions owing to his initial cluelessness in the kitchen. Gradually, though, Barua started to produce dishes that resembled the intended recipes, taking increased satisfaction in his ability to craft something from scratch on his own. “It was nice to see I could do something, and it resulted in something that people liked,” he said. “Because with everything else in my life, I was not doing that so well.”

This growing self-satisfaction did little to alleviate the parental pressures that first compelled Barua to enroll in pre-med, not to mention that within Bengali culture, according to Barua, kitchen work was less a career path than a job where one landed once all other options had fallen through. “Culturally speaking, it was the worst thing I could do,” Barua said. “Back then, cooking was not cool, and in our culture it was the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low. If you were going to cook it was like you might as well not do anything.”

For a time at Ohio State, Barua followed a dual career path, working toward a pair of bachelor degrees while also operating as a line cook at the long-defunct Short North restaurant 8, owned in part by his brother and located in what is now Bakersfield.

Following graduation from Ohio State, Barua took the MCAT, a standardized test for prospective med school students, which he described as a final breaking point with what had long been his predestined career path. “I was just so dispassionate about [medicine],” he said. “I couldn’t see spending every day of my life invested in this when it wasn’t something I wanted to do.’”

After some bargaining, Barua’s parents agreed to let him pursue a culinary path provided he enrolled in school. First, Barua applied for and was accepted into the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, but on trusted advice he opted to forgo that route. Instead, he enrolled at Columbus State Community College, which offered a Culinary Apprenticeship major in cooperation with the American Culinary Federation, meaning that a bulk of his education took place on the job in working kitchens.

Through this program, Barua started working for chef Josh Dalton at 1808 American Bistro, later helping him launch his acclaimed Delaware restaurant Veritas in 2012. (The restaurant has since moved to upgraded Downtown digs.)

“At Columbus State, you get the real world. You get the kitchen, which is not glamorous, and it’s not fun a lot of the time,” Dalton said. “There are a lot of hours on your feet, and it’s really hard, and some culinary schools give kids this false impression they’re going to come right out of school and be the next TV network star, and that’s not the case. You have to put in your time. And [Barua] put in his time.”

This time included a year-plus stint in New York, where Barua cooked in trend-setting restaurants, one of which was Michelin-starred. Eventually Barua returned home, landing in 2017 at Service Bar, the deservedly lauded Short North gem that he has continued to shepherd from its compressed opening through this last pandemic-marred year, all while establishing himself as such a culinary force within the city that “Top Chef” producers took notice, inviting Barua to apply for a spot on the latest season of the long-running cooking competition, which filmed in Oregon amid COVID-19 restrictions in the fall of 2020. Barua said when he received the initial email from producers he laughed, believing it to be a joke.

The contestants on season 18 of "Top Chef"

While the spotlight might be considerably brighter, this will actually be Barua’s second appearance in front of a national television audience, with the chef having previously competed on an episode of “Guy’s Grocery Games.” On the episode, which aired in 2020, Barua lost in the final round when the judges, including “Top Chef” alum Richard Blais, were turned off by the bitterness in his dish, traced to Barua’s decision to deglaze the pan with gin and vermouth in an effort to capture the floral qualities of the drinks — a last-second addition that worked better in theory than it did in practice.

These types of well-reasoned, sometimes academic culinary experiments shaped the early stages of Barua’s career, particularly in the years he worked side by side with Silas Caeton at Veritas, where both chefs were given the creative leeway to fail.

“When I started working with him, he definitely took a very studious approach, almost analytical,” said Caeton, now managing partner at the Lox Bagel Shop. “He was almost like a scholar in how he looked at a dish, and sometimes that did not work out well. He would have a great idea, and the theory would be sound, but it wouldn’t transition well to something you could sell in an actual restaurant. But he was always trying something, and he could never settle with something that someone else had already done. … Working with Avishar, it was constant exploration, constant discovery.”

Barua recalled one kitchen experiment — intended as a play on shrimp scampi — where the initial idea was to puree the shrimp and then employ a bonding agent to make a sheet of “pasta” that could then be cut and used to compose the dish. In the end, though, Barua couldn’t get the shrimp sheets to wrap properly around the filling. “So I was like, ‘Screw it, let’s just call it shrimp cocktail and serve it in a square on a plate,’” he said, and laughed. To complete the accidental dish, the crew whipped up garnishes of homemade cocktail sauce and powdered lemon oil.

“Veritas was meant to be a playground for us. It was where we could really push our creativity, push ourselves,” Dalton said of the original Delaware location. “We just threw the equipment we could afford in there and, looking back, we had the shittiest oven in the world, this 1974 Blodgett that either got 500 degrees or nothing. We had a four-burner and a little, itty-bitty, 24-inch grill. But the food we were popping out of that kitchen and under those circumstances was, I thought, really good.”

“It was a lot of, ‘What the hell are we doing? Is this good or is this bad?’” said Barua, who still has photographs of every dish he created during his time at Veritas, which he described as a high school yearbook filled solely with photos of awkward first kisses. “I guess what I’m learning about being a chef is … it’s really about your experiences, right? And your failures.”

Just weeks after moving to New York City in a rare moment of spontaneity, Barua found himself in the basement of a trendy restaurant, positioned to experience one of the biggest failures in his career. Barua had relocated to take a stage (essentially an unpaid internship) at Danny Bowien’s lauded Mission Chinese, which eventually resulted in a full-time position and an accompanying sense of terror. 

These feelings only intensified when, during his first night on the job, he found himself seated in the aforementioned basement, tasked with folding dumplings but having no idea how to go about it. “I asked seven people, and they tried to show me, but, like I told you, I can’t learn things very fast, so I was just scrunching them together going, ‘Please, God, help me,’” Barua said. “And then the Department of Health came in and said, ‘You’re shut down,’ and it was such a relief, because I had no idea what I’m doing.”

The business would eventually reopen, and Barua worked off and on at Mission Chinese for around six weeks before the location closed for good, this time due to a structural issue with the building. “I was probably at the lowest point of my cooking career,” he said. “I was like, ‘I can’t make it here. I can’t keep a job. And I’m such bad luck that every place I walk into shuts down.’”

Not long after, walking on Clinton Street and down to the last $100 in his bank account, Barua spotted the small, unassuming sign for wd-50, a Michelin-starred landmark of modernist cooking founded by chef Wylie Dufresne in 2003.

Believing his time in New York was coming to an abrupt end, Barua decided to splurge on one last meal, taking a seat at the bar and ordering the tasting menu. At the end of the dinner, Barua asked the bar manager if he could venture to the kitchen to thank the chef for the meal, which in turn led to Barua asking if the restaurant offered a stage. Then, with little more than a month left on his apartment lease, Barua took on a month-long stage at wd-50, spending two weeks on savory and two weeks on pastry, a stint during which he said he learned more than he had in his entire career to that point. “It’s very, very difficult to even describe some of what we did,” he said. “Like turning an apple puree into a fluid gel, which you then turn into a clear tube that you fill with sorbet to make this apple swirl thing, which is all a part of this insane, five-day process.”

At the end of his month, Barua inquired about a full-time position and was told there were no openings. But days later, he was approached by Dufresne, who was in the middle of catering an off-site event for which he was wildly understaffed. “So he grabbed me, and we went to this random building where we were catering, and there weren’t any burners and it was very strange,” Barua said. “But I was in charge of people all of a sudden, which I had never done, and we got through the night even though I thought I was going to die. The ice cream freezer was broken, so it turned into sludge. It was like anything that could go wrong did.”

When the night ended, Dufresne joined Barua and several others for food, wine and conversation, during which he asked Barua about his plans for the future. “And I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to figure something else out or go home,’” Barua said. “And [Dufresne] said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re going to work for us.’” 

A week later, wd-50 offered Barua a full-time position.

“He started in the basement, working in the prep kitchen, and then once I realized he had an academic approach that would work, we put him on a lot of [research and development] projects, and he was very helpful in terms of taking charge of some of those,” Dufresne said recently by phone. “We were unusual in that sense at wd-50, because while we were working on feeding customers, we were also always working on developing new techniques, new ideas.”

Avishar Barua creating at Service Bar

When Barua returned to Columbus, eventually helping to open Service Bar in October 2017, he arrived armed with these techniques, further honed by his work experiences, but also with a developing sensibility that played more on the idea of memory, including whimsical riffs on college-era fast food favorites (the Cheesy Brisket Crunch), dishes inspired by his various travels (Not Pad Thai) and numerous nods to his Bengali heritage, particularly present in offerings such as the Whole Chicken Family Meal.

“I think I’ve seen him evolve as a chef and a person,” said Kate Djupe, who until recently worked alongside Barua as the baker at Service Bar, a job she started prior to the restaurant’s 2017 opening. “As a chef, he is able to tap into a lot more of his memories, but he’s also surrounded himself with people who are willing to play with that idea. … I see how he’s trying to take them along the same path, encouraging them and giving them room to grow and to play and to fail and succeed, which isn’t easy to do when your name is on the menu.”

This isn’t to say that Barua simplified anything about his process, however. The restaurant famously employs a labor-intensive, three-day process to make its french fries, and a recent Filet of Fish special, which riffs on the McDonald’s classic, is created, in part, by pureeing sea bass, mixing in a bonding agent and shaping the fish into perfect squares. These squares are then chamber sealed and cooked sous vide for 30 minutes, or just long enough for the fish to set, after which the patties are panko breaded in a three-stage process (fine, medium and coarse) before being deep fried and offered up on a bun with iceberg lettuce and a slice of American cheese.

The melding of various cuisines, as well as the techniques in play, can make it a challenge to summarize Barua’s cuisine in a few pithy sentences. Djupe, for one, recalled the time shortly after Service Bar opened, when Experience Columbus brought in food writers from around the country to dine at the restaurant and to speak with Barua, who at some point in the conversation would inevitably ask the writer how they would define his food. “We’ve joked about it and had manager meetings where all we did was talk about what we could call it,” she said. “One of my favorites was ‘a culinary roller coaster ride through Flavortown.’ But the amount of energy that’s been spent trying to describe his style is ridiculous. It’s playful. It’s fully accessible. It has a wild amount of flavor. And it’s absolutely a pain in the ass to make, even though you shouldn’t feel any of that while you’re eating it.”

“People ask what kind of food I make, and it’s like, ‘I couldn’t tell you,’” Barua said. “Honestly, I’ve never been very confident saying, ‘Hey, this is what I make.’ I just try to do the best I can, and hopefully that, combined with some of the experiences in my life, contributes to the voice we’re developing collectively, because part of it is also who you work with and your staff.”

It’s this caring, attentive, less-publicized side of Barua that those interviewed hailed as much as his food, with Djupe saying that she was convinced she was done working in kitchens prior to meeting Barua. 

“When I left the last kitchen I worked in [prior to Service Bar], I stayed away for a long time because kitchens can be incredibly toxic places. … Kitchens can be wild and fun, but they can also be hedonistic and wild and crazy-authoritarian,” she said. “But he helped create this environment where it was safe, where it was comfortable, and where it didn’t encourage our vices, and where we got to be the people we wanted to be without losing ourselves, which I didn’t think was possible.”

Djupe’s experiences working alongside Barua confirmed the initial impression she received upon first meeting him during a pop-up the chef hosted at her former business, the Commissary, a now-closed commercial kitchen and small-business incubator. At the time, Djupe said she was struck by the familiarity with which Barua moved through the kitchen, but more than that, she recalled being impressed by how, when the dinner ended, Barua retreated to the back to begin doing dishes rather than making the audience rounds. 

“I’ve never seen him take a victory lap. He would much rather be the person making it happen behind the scenes, without being seen, and I connected with that,” Djupe said before pivoting to Barua’s more recent televised turn. “When he first told me he was appearing on ‘Guy’s Grocery Games,’ I could not stop laughing. The idea of him being a TV personality just seemed so different from the guy I worked with on a daily basis. But maybe it shouldn’t have been that crazy, because I saw the way he lit up teaching classes at the Commissary, and the way he connects with people and hears their questions, and how he has the answers.

“Still, it makes me laugh, the idea of someone who prides themselves on finding not only the best way of making something, but perhaps the most complicated, pain-in-the-ass way of doing it, being on ‘Top Chef,’ where you might get 10 minutes or 30 minutes to cook.”

And his time starts... now.