For Chef Nikhil Abuvala, travel is the best cooking teacher

Chef Nikhil Abuvala’s love for cooking began in his grandmother’s kitchen, before he could even reach the kitchen counter. He would stand on a chair and help his grandmother roll out fresh Indian bread, admiring the way she moved around the kitchen gathering herbs and spices for various dishes. “I spent 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 signed him up for 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 majoring 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 that highlights 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 through his travels around the world, which have taken him to nearly 30 countries.

“When I opened Roux almost 10 years ago, I knew I still had a lot to learn, so I traveled,” Abuvala said. “Nobody would approve my resume because I couldn’t stay long enough in these restaurants, so I would knock on the back door of their kitchens and ask if they needed help. It worked pretty much every time.” Abuvala’s persistence took 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 their menus today.

Abuvala’s travels became the inspiration for his Around the World dinner series, which began about eight years ago and will return next month. The idea was for him to go to a country and bring back food. It started with Morocco, then India and from there it continued. 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 take place twice a month and reservations are required, as is Roux’s evening tasting menu experience.

The creation of the menu at Roux 30A, which changes weekly, starts with the ingredients. “We look at what’s in the season, then create a rough outline for the next few weeks,” Abuvala said. He estimates that they create 12 menus per season. “First we start with the vegetables and go from there. What’s great about being on the coast is that we have such easy access to all that fresh fish, so protein is pretty simple. We always want to have some kind of aperitif, seafood, 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 further refine the menu.

As one of the only tasting menu restaurants in the city, Roux 30A stands out. A reservation system only means they know exactly how many people are cooking for tonight, but the tasting menu format is not without its challenges. “We have to make sure that our quality and consistency is always there, no matter what,” Abuvala said. “As we grow and expand into new locations and restaurants, we have to make sure we maintain a level of quality, and if something goes wrong, we own up to it.” Upcoming projects include an expansion of Nanbu Noodle Bar, called Nanbu Too, set to open in late summer in the City Food Hall at 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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