For chef Nikhil Abuvala, travel is the best cooking teacher

For chef Nikhil Abuvala, travel is the best cooking teacher

Chef Nikhil Abuvala’s love for cooking began in his grandmother’s kitchen before it even reached the kitchen counter. He was sitting on a chair helping his grandmother roll out fresh Indian bread, admiring the way she moved around the kitchen gathering herbs and spices for various dishes. “I got to spend a lot of time with my grandmother when I was really young,” Abuvala said. “Cooking with her in the kitchen was so much fun and so special.”

A few years later, Abuvala’s parents enrolled him in a sushi-making class for his 13th birthday. “I was the youngest person there,” he said. The chef leading the class was delighted to have such a young and passionate student in her class and asked Abuvala if she wanted a job. He started working there a few weeks later. “I started working in restaurants when I was 13 and never stopped,” he said. In college, he studied music and ended up with a degree in business, and it wasn’t until he worked for a chef that he realized he could make cooking a career. He went to culinary school and never looked back.

Abuvala is the owner and executive chef of Roux 30A, a tasting menu restaurant, and Nanbu Noodle Bar, a Japanese restaurant highlighting southern ingredients, both in Grayton Beach, Florida, along scenic Highway 30A. Both restaurant concepts highlight the diverse cuisines and cooking styles that Abuvala has learned about through his world travels, which have taken him to nearly 30 countries.

“When I first opened Roux almost 10 years ago, I knew I had a lot to learn, so I traveled,” said Abuvala. “No one would approve my CV because I couldn’t hang around these restaurants long enough, so I would knock on the back door of their kitchens and ask if they needed help. It worked almost every time.” Abuvala’s persistence has brought him to restaurant kitchens around the world—Peru, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Argentina, and the Philippines, to name a few—and provided valuable insights that inform his menus today.

Abuvala’s travels became the inspiration for his Around the World dinner series, which began about eight years ago and returns next month. The idea was for him to go to a country and bring back food. It started with Morocco, then India and continued from there. This fall, Roux 30A’s Around the World dinner series will make three stops: India, France and Greece. The intimate five-course dinners will only be held twice a month and reservations are required, as is the Roux menu evening tasting experience.

Creating the menu at Roux 30A, which changes weekly, starts with the ingredients. “We look at what’s in season, then create a rough draft for the coming weeks,” Abuvala said. He estimates he creates 12 menus a season. “We start with the vegetables first and go from there. What’s great about being on the coast is that we have such easy access to all this fresh fish, so protein is pretty simple. We always want to have some kind of appetizer, shellfish, fresh pasta, something from the sea, something from the land and of course dessert.” Once they get the list of available ingredients from local farmers, fishermen and meat purveyors, Abuvala and his team refine the menu.

As one of the only tasting menu restaurants in town, Roux 30A stands out. A reservation-only system means I know exactly how many people are cooking for that night, but the tasting menu format is not without its challenges. “We have to make sure our quality and consistency is always there no matter what,” Abuvala said. “As we grow and expand into new locations and restaurants, we need to make sure we maintain a level of quality, and if something goes wrong, we take full ownership.” Upcoming projects include an expansion of Nanbu Noodle Bar, called Nanbu Too, which will open later this summer at City Food Hall in Destin Commons. Abuvala’s fourth venture will be a tiki concept in Seaside, one of 30A’s most famous neighborhoods and a pioneer in the New Urbanism movement. The unnamed concept is expected to open in December 2022.

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