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4 Culinary & Beverage Artists to Know in Columbus, Ohio in 2024: Avishar Barua - ‘Agni’ and ‘Joyas’

Joyful and motivated, that’s how I felt right after leaving Agni where I got to spend a couple hours talking to Avishar, one of the most creative,  interesting and wholesome guys I’ve met in Columbus, Ohio.


It all started as a young adult when he worked at a restaurant for the first time in his life while attending college to become a Doctor, then life took a turn which enabled him to pursue his love for hospitality and cooking. His goal? To make sure that anyone that visits his establishments feels heard and loved, all through a plate of food. Avishar is a 36 year old Ohioan, born and raised in Columbus, and currently runs two restaurants: Agni, a fine dining beautiful spot located in South High Street, and Joya's, a Cafe located in Old Worthington.

Avishar, tell us about your Restaurant journey from the beginning


My first restaurant job was not even one that was going to make me want to be a Chef. I was in college and like a lot of people that were in college, I needed some extra cash. My brother owned a restaurant on High Street called Eight where I worked as a server because he needed the help. Even though this was a small spot,  it was cool to see the kind of elevation of things they did in the kitchen back then. All these dishes kind of stuck in my head and I really wanted to learn how to make them, because I had gotten to the point in my life where my mom was not cooking for me anymore and I had to find a way to do it. I simply couldn’t afford to go to all these restaurants, so I told to myself: there's got to be a way I can learn.


After a lot of convincing, my brother let me into the kitchen, where I worked as a line cook and bartending.  I remember he said: “are you sure? you will get tired, AND you will burn yourself for sure”… within 24 hours in the kitchen, I was pretty much hooked, unexpectedly.


I was amazed with all my surroundings, I got to make something that makes somebody happy. There are so many strong personalities in this kitchen, there's a team working together. I'm not very good artist. I can't draw very well, I can't sing. So, for me, it was nice to see that something that is not just objective could make somebody feel that good.  


Sadly, this restaurant closed, and I got a job at Sur La Table at Easton and started buying the stuff that I wanted to buy. I bought cookware, knives, cookbooks, so many cookbooks. My roommates thought there was something wrong with me in college because they saw that there were cookbooks in the bathroom, cookbooks in my bed, there was a Dutch oven in the bathroom (I don’t know why but I thought  it was going to be useful).


After some family discussions, Avishar decided to go to New York City and go to Culinary School


I had a serious conversation with my family , I really wanted to do it, I really wanted to cook. Finally, after being reluctant to what I wanted to do, they said, ‘well, if you're going to throw away your life, you might as well choose the best school to go to’. So, you know, I applied to Culinary Institute of America in NYC, what a beautiful campus. I got in, but I decided not to enroll at the last moment because of both economic reasons and a re-evaluation state of mind of where I was in my life.


So, I went back, and I joined the Columbus State Chef program that allowed students to also do an apprenticeship where I got to work at a restaurant for three years while paying the tuition through my job and get the restaurant experience first instead of the classroom one. I did my third apprenticeship year at a restaurant called Veritas, with Josh Dalton.


I think I was 24 or five at the time, and I really wanted to keep working with be the best. So, I packed my bags and I moved to New York City. I got a job at Mission Chinese. That was the year that Danny Bowen was a rising star chef, and I couldn’t be more excited, I had his cookbook! And after that I kept packing my bags to move to all these places within the City,  I learned so much and made so many friends… I got to interact with so many amazing people.


Then you moved back to Columbus…


The reason I moved back to Columbus was simple, I wanted to bring all the knowledge I gained through the years in these kitchens in New York and see what I could do with it. At that time, I really had a decision to make, was I going to open my own thing or not? I was still under 30, I think I was 27 or 28. I decided to give it more time and so I got a job at Service Bar, I stayed with them for six and a half years.


When did Top Chef happened?


During the Pandemic, I was completely sure that I would plan to open my restaurant. I was then still working at Services Bar when Top Chef found me. I remember we had to close the restaurant because of COVID the day after my birthday on a March 15th, it was heartbreaking for all of us.


After a few days, when the Top Chef opportunity seemed very realistic to me, I was hesitant, but the people around me said that I was going to be an idiot if I didn’t do it, they said I needed to do it. I almost cried the day I decided to join the TV show because I was pushing myself maybe too far. I ended up only doing it to represent Columbus, Ohio in a way.  So, until the cameras rolled for the first time, and they said: ‘your time starts now’, as soon as they said it, then and just then it hit me, so hard. Everything was like… oh… I got… I’m actually here, got to move! You can see in the first episodes that I was so shocked because I didn't think that I was on the show. So that was how that happened.


How do you think the Top Chef experience changed the way you cook, did that happen?


I think it did, it certainly will bring out more of what you have. So, if you have any insecurities, they'll come out very, very strong. I happen to be somebody that has a lot of insecurities and self-doubt. But that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes people are, you know, we are always afraid to talk and do things because we just want to make good food to make somebody happy.


I had a few realization moments while I was there, one of them and the most important maybe was  that I was the first Bengali American chef to make it this far.


Avishar, hospitality is engrained in your blood, did you grow up in a family that usually hosted dinner parties?  What was your life like growing up?


I didn't cook at all. My dad is a doctor so, through being a doctor, he was able to bring a lot of the family from Bangladesh into America. After different conflicts in Bangladesh, including the Civil War, many people found their way to the US, many of them had some identity issues because of what they’ve been through all their lives. My family always tried to bring joy and familiarity to everybody around them, that’s for sure.


Either at your place or your parents, what do you like to eat?


If I'm going to eat somewhere that is not the restaurant, I'll go to my mom's home because I still think my mom is the best cook. I know most of us think our mothers are the best in the kitchen, but I really think my mom is outstanding. Her side of the family has a very strong cooking gene that is astonishing, I'm trying to get as much information out because like that's a story that I want to tell going forward. Family recipes must be maintained, preserved and just kept for as long as possible. I’m saying this specially about my family because in Bengali culture, there might be cookbooks now, but there’s a lot more to them, a page needs to be accompanied by the family story, that’s our culture.


Agni has a great team in the kitchen, some of them are from other countries including México. How do you ensure consistency is achieved at the restaurant being Bengali recipes so complex in terms of sentiment, how to do keep everyone on the same page? I can only think it is a hard job!


Yeah. It's, it's so hard that I can't do it. So, guess what I do? I take the task to my house. My mom shows <laugh> and my mom make sure it's right. All my team has been to my house and met her. I will also make sure she visits my restaurants and tell us how to do our jobs <laugh>, she would be like: ‘that's not how you make it’, she really audits our jobs.


My mom’s name is Jayasree but she uses her Bengali American spelling which is Joya.


Tell us about your menu thought process, how to do put together flavors every season? Do you make modifications to appeal a wide arrange of palates at all?


We don’t, oftentimes we'll underestimate what Columbus is, right? And I think the only way you can underestimate is if you don't try it first. We really try to give our customers flavors that are not fake, flavors that we know and flavors we want them to love as much as we do. Columbus has some of the smartest food populations in the country, because they come from so many cultures, different cities, we are as they say, a hub for everyone to come and stay.


Is there anything you like to cook repeatedly because you enjoy the process of making it? The reason being either technique or just the flavor?


I mean, I have to say a fried rice is something that we like to cook, it is just so much fun. Fried rice was one of the first things that I cooked for my roommate in college and is one of the main dishes at Joya’s too. I love a

combination of seven different fried rice’s, some Indonesian, some Chinese and other influences. And the thing about fried rice is like, ‘what is fried rice?’ If you think about all the countries that have some form of this dish, of all the ingredients that go into it, it's really the original melting pot. Things and facts like this really excite me because everybody will eat fried rice, everybody will give it a change, an opportunity, isn’t it beautiful?


I take it you’re a texture person…


Texture I think is what distinguishes a lot of food. Because at the end of the day, you can only have so many  flavors, right? But with texture, when you modify texture, you get to have a full experience and it connects with your hearing and the rest of your senses. In Bangladesh, we also eat with our hands, which potentializes the perception of texture. I think that's one of my goals, one day we're going to take away all silverware, and eat with our hands.


Is there something that you try to avoid cooking just because you don’t like its flavor?


What I try to do is to avoid perhaps the stereotypes that might come along with something. For example, Agni is a fine dining restaurant based on its price point, right? You'll see that we don't use a lot of foie gras or other ingredients, but it is not because we have a problem with them. If we were to use them, I really want to understand why specific ingredients would make our dishes better. I guess what I’m trying to say is no, we don’t avoid cooking with specific ingredients but try to understand them instead.


There are a couple or a few restaurants currently changing their business model and turning their cuisines into something radically different nowadays, we have 11 Madison in NYC for example, going completely vegan. Do you see yourself doing something similar anytime soon?


I don't, but I'm not opposed to any of those things currently. I think we are the only restaurant that I know here in Columbus, that accommodates any restriction. Let me tell you that it takes a lot of planning to be able to adapt a 12-course menu into every dietary restriction there is but we do it, we do it because we want every person walking our door to be happy and have a good time with friends and family, we always appreciate people making a conscious decision to spend time with us.


 Can you share with us a very memorable food experience you’ve had in your life?


The first time I visited our Village in Bangladesh with my parents I had this shrimp dish which I enjoyed but the context of that time is what stuck with me the most. I was a spoiled kid from the US, I had air conditioning, clean water and all these privileges, right? What stays in my heart the most is that local people wanted and did share whatever little food they had with us and wouldn’t take no for an answer. They went above and beyond to make us feel welcomed and comfortable.


What is a piece of advice you can give to all home cooks like me? What should we do or stop doing?


I think I would never tell you to stop doing anything, but I can say, do remember that you do not have a professional dishwasher at your home when you're making recipes <laugh>? Cleaning is the worst part. In restaurants, the reason we're able to do a lot of what we do is because we have an entire staff. So that's why we can execute repeatedly. I think the most important thing to remember for a home cook is to make what makes you happy. Now who's going to stop you? Who cares? It's your home.


Is there anyone, dead or alive, that you wish you could cook for?


My grandma because unfortunately my grandparents passed when I was a lot younger. My mom always say that she was the one that needed no recipes because of the giant skill she had. Mom says my grandma could  turn rotten fish into fresh <laughs>. I am not trying to say grandma would be proud of me or anything but I would be just curious to see what she things of my food as I know she’s the ultimate bullshit detector <laughts>.


That’s just lovely. My last question is, have you seen any change in the restaurant industry in the past few years?


There's been so many good changes and I think we all should be receptive to them. When I started cooking, I thought nothing could ever change. There were all these rules about what it would take for you to go to a restaurant or what it would take for you to work in a restaurant.


Now, in 2024, I think all the people that are new to this industry have the best perspective of us all. New and younger staff have more empathy towards their team and customers, their mind is more receptive to change and to new ideas and they do communicate better.


Avishar, is there anything else you want to share with my readers?


Yes, I was born in Columbus, Ohio, I've lived my entire life here. While what we do might seem from any other place in the world or it could appear intimidating, I would say that it is a hundred percent from Columbus. So, our job at either Agni or Joya’s is always going the be the same, to make your day better, and to accommodate you.


It was hard for me to summarize our conversation just into the lines you just read. All is left to say is that Avishar is a storyteller, he uses words, emotions and his own family to bring happiness into his dining rooms, just as a true Ohioan would do.


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