For chef Nikhil Abuvala, traveling is the best cooking teacher

For chef Nikhil Abuvala, traveling is the best cooking teacher

Chef Nikhil Abuvala’s love of cooking began in his grandmother’s kitchen before he could even reach a kitchen countertop. Standing on a chair, he helped his grandmother roll out fresh Indian flatbread and admired how she moved around the kitchen gathering herbs and spices for various dishes. “I used to spend a lot of time with my grandmother when I was very 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 class for his 13th birthday. “I was the youngest there,” he says. The chef leading the class was thrilled to have such a young, passionate student in her class and asked Abuvala if he wanted a job. A few weeks later he started working there. “I started working in restaurants when I was 13 and I’ve never stopped,” he said. He studied music in college and eventually earned a degree in business administration, and it wasn’t until he started working for a chef that he realized he could make a career out of cooking. He went to culinary school and has never looked back.

Abuvala is the owner and executive chef of Roux 30A, a tasting menu restaurant, and Nanbu Noodle Bar, a Japanese restaurant with a focus on Southern ingredients, both in Grayton Beach, Florida off scenic Highway 30A. Both restaurant concepts highlight the diverse cuisines and cooking styles that Abuvala has encountered during his travels around the world, which have taken him to almost 30 countries.

“When I first opened Roux almost 10 years ago, I knew I had a lot to learn, so I traveled,” said Abuvala. “Nobody approved my resume because I couldn’t stay in these restaurants long enough, so I knocked on the back door of their kitchens and asked if they needed any help. It’s worked almost every time.” Abuvala’s persistence has landed him in restaurant kitchens around the world—Peru, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Argentina and the Philippines, to name a few—and provided valuable insights that shape his menus today.

Abuvala’s travels became the inspiration for his Around the World dinner series, which started some eight years ago and returns next month. The idea was that he goes to a country and brings back the food. He started with Morocco, then India and went on from there. This fall, Roux 30A’s ‘Around the World’ dinner series will make three stops: India, France and Greece. The intimate five-course menus only run twice a month and reservations are required — just like the nightly tasting menu at Roux.

The preparation of the weekly changing menu at Roux 30A begins with the ingredients. “We look at what’s in season and then create a rough overview for the coming weeks,” Abuvala said. He estimates they create 12 menus per season. “We start with the vegetables first and go from there. The great thing about being on the coast is that we have such easy access to all this fresh fish, so proteins are pretty easy. We always want some kind of starter, shellfish, fresh pasta, something from the sea, something from the land and of course a dessert.” Once receiving the list of available ingredients from local farmers, fishermen and meat suppliers, Abuvala and his team continue to refine the menu .

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

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