In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Nikhil Abuvala, owner and executive chef of Roux 30A and Nanbu Noodle Bar in Santa Rosa Beach, FL.
Nikhil developed his passion for cooking before he could even reach a kitchen countertop. Helping his grandmother roll out fresh Indian flatbread was one of his early motivations for pursuing culinary arts. With experience cooking in more than 30 countries over twenty years, Nikhil aims to create unique dining experiences leveraging global ingredients, food, culture, and entertainment. His restaurant culture and ambiance is built on the idea that the most intimate thing that you can do is break bread with your family.
Listen as Nikhil talks about the influence of his grandmother’s cooking, starting his culinary career at age 13, and the joy of “breaking bread” at one big table.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Chef Nikhil Abuvala, owner and Executive Chef of Roux 30a and Nanbu Noodle Bar in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.
Roux 30a is the recipient of numerous awards, including “Best [New] Restaurant.” It was built on the idea that the most intimate thing that you can do is break bread with your family.
Chef recognized his fierce passion for cooking before he could even reach a kitchen countertop. Helping his grandmother roll out fresh Indian flatbread was one of the early motivations for him to pursue culinary arts, a career that started at the age of 13. Over his 20-year career, he has cooked in kitchens of nearly 30 countries, developed a meaningful understanding of global ingredients, food, culture, and culinary entertainment.
Join me as I chat Chef Abuvala about community and cultivating relationships through shared traditions and immersive culinary experiences.
And there he is! Good morning, Chef. How are you?
Nikhil Abuvala: Good morning. I’m good. I’m good. Wonderful. How are you?
Kirk Bachmann: I’m drained! There’s a lot up there in that intro. It kind of exhausted me a little bit there. Man, it is so good to see you. We haven’t met yet, but I’ve done a lot of research. Fascinating, fascinating career.
Let’s set the stage a little bit so everybody knows where you are. I talked about it a little bit. You are in the panhandle of Florida, so you are closer to Louisiana and all that. Tell me a little bit about the area where you live?
Nikhil Abuvala: We’re in the panhandle. We’re in a place called Santa Rosa Beach. Santa Rosa Beach is right in the middle. People might be familiar with Destin or Panama City. We’re almost smack-dab right in the middle of those two cities. It’s just a really cool community. It’s a beach town. We’re right on the beach. There’s about 18 different very unique developments that are kind of their own towns along this stretch of beach. We’re very, very small. We recognize ourselves as A-1-A, as in South Florida. We have our 30A. You might see that blue sticker. Even all the way up in Boulder, Colorado, you might see a blue sticker that has a 30A on the back of it. It’s from us.
Kirk Bachmann: Okay. I love that. Hence the restaurant. Very cool.
Nikhil Abuvala: It was originally a play on words there. R-U-E rue means street. We were just picking the culinary aspect of it, Roux 30a. That’s how it’s started.
Kirk Bachmann: I just got a chill hearing that. That is so brilliant. I figured it had something to do with the culinary term. That’s brilliant.
What else is brilliant is your staging here. What’s the book on top here? “Food and Life?”
Nikhil Abuvala: “Food and Life.” Yes, of course. That’s a fantastic book. It talks about using fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, each ingredient and how it pertains to your life. I’m a big fan of it.
We’re in my office here. I’m actually at home right now. My original office in one of my restaurants has turned into more of a storage unit for the restaurant than anything else. So I had to turn one of my bedrooms into an office in order to work.
Kirk Bachmann: For sure. When you turned, I thought I saw some Escoffier stuff going on down there.
Nikhil Abuvala: Yep. They’re down there on the bottom.
Kirk Bachmann: Look at that.
Nikhil Abuvala: I’ve got Escoffier. I got the Rouxs. You’ve got to get back to the classics, too. We all started there. That’s super important.
Kirk Bachmann: You do. I absolutely love that. This is going to be so much fun.
What I love more than anything – and I want to jump right into it – is on your website. This idea, and I think it is the idea for the restaurant – of breaking bread with your family. Let’s start there. It’s part of how you market the restaurant. It’s part of the vision that you share on your website. I’m quoting from the website. This is phenomenal. “From the moment you enter intimate space to the time you leave, that’s exactly how you’ll feel – like family. Between our community tables and open-kitchen concept, you’re invited to sit back and enjoy as food gets transformed to art, and strangers become friends.” That’s absolutely brilliant. Tell me about that. Is that all you? Was that the dream?
Nikhil Abuvala: It’s funny. I don’t think that anything starts out as you originally planned it to be. When I opened up this restaurant here, I didn’t plan on opening a restaurant. I was working in Miami as part of a great restaurant group down there. I had to come up here. My family had moved up here. My mom needed a little bit of help, so I decided I would come help her. I was looking at these restaurants that were in Santa Rosa Beach, and none of them were really [appealing] to me. We had a couple of inns. No culinary destinations, per se. My whole career and mindset has been around brilliant food. So I thought, “Guess I’ll try to do my own thing.” With my mother’s help, we founded this tiny, originally 800-square-foot space called Rue 30a. It was based on the idea, “Let’s get by.”
I didn’t want to be a caterer. I didn’t want to do private events. I wanted to be a restaurant, but I also knew that I couldn’t afford to buy the food and then sell it. I had to sell the food first and then buy it. So I started with private events and designed the space around it. What I’m really about is that sense of community. Through my travels, that’s why I was able to travel, and that was because of the different communities that I was a part of in those times.
As we developed the concept and grew it, I realized that sense – in Europe – of sitting down in a restaurant and it’s just one big table. You go to Germany and you go to these restaurants, it is just one big table. You’re sitting next to all these strangers. You just become friends. Even if you don’t speak the language, by the end of the night, you feel like that’s your brother or your sister that you’ve always had. That kind of European approach is so amazing, and I really made it part of the driving aspect of our restaurant. Having community tables and having people forced to sit next to each other. At these big 12-person tables, unless you decide to sit 12 people, you’re going to be sitting next to someone. It’s just so cool.
And it is. We have people that have formed companies. The restaurant will be ten years this March. We have people that have started businesses together. We have people that have gotten married. It’s so cool to be a part of our little space there.
Kirk Bachmann: That is a great story. Congratulations, too, on all the success.
That was going to be my next question, and you led right into it. A very European approach. It all makes sense now. In Germany, they’re called Stammtisches. How was that received at first, when you first started doing that with your guests?
Nikhil Abuvala: Even to this day, we try to do our best to let people know at multiple steps, “Hey, by the way, you’re going to be sitting next to someone you don’t know.” In the beginning, it was a little rough. Ultimately, even though we’re in Florida, we’re more a part of the South than we are anything else. This is a tourist town. Our theater markets here are all major Southern cities. There is that Southern hospitality aspect. People are not necessarily unfamiliar with the idea of sitting next to a stranger. You might have gone to a dinner party and sat next to a stranger that way. I feel like we benefit from where we are located in that sense. It might have been harder if we were in the Northeast or somewhere else, where we’d have to get people used to being elbow-to-elbow with someone who you know nothing about.
Obviously, there are some people who wanted to come in and do a really intimate dining experience with their date. This wasn’t the spot for them. We try to still make that family aspect – Let’s welcome you to our family – we still do our best through our service to make them feel extra special. We tend to get rid of all those issues.
Kirk Bachmann: No, I love that. There’s a place here in Boulder called the Bohemian Beer Garden. It’s all Stammtisches, with the big bar in the middle. That exact thing occurred. My wife and I sat down for a late lunch, and there was another group on the table already. We weren’t trying to listen in on their conversation, but it’s kind of hard not to. They were talking about trying to find a place where they could do cooking lessons on the weekend. Ironically enough. Didn’t take long for me to slide the card over and say, “Hey, we should talk.” It’s a good feeling. It’s very natural. You’re there for the same reasons: good food, good company, good beverages, hopefully.
As I read, Chef, your story, it’s a rich story on how you came to love cooking. The a-ha moment when you realized that you could cook for a living. That happened to all of us. “I can do this for a living.” There is that one moment when we all decide it, “It’s okay. This is not just a thing I can do. This is a thing that I want to make my life.” Can you take us back to your grandmother and describe what it was like growing up in her kitchen?
Nikhil Abuvala: Yeah. When I was growing up, I’m half-Indian, so my father is from Mumbai in India. He’s got three sisters who are all from there. All of his sisters and my father moved to America. They created their own life and their own fortune. My father had met my mother. They were doing the wholesale gift industry and decided to start their own business. When they went to start their own business, they didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t really take care of me, per se, by themselves. They couldn’t afford a nanny, so they just brought my grandmother over from India. She came, and for the first four or five years of my life, she was there with me every day while my parents were working. I’m very fortunate. She’s still alive today. She just had her 95th birthday.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, that’s amazing.
Nikhil Abuvala: Ten days ago. She’s absolutely the greatest little woman. She was 5-foot, she’s now 4-foot, ten, I think. She’s shrinking with age.
Kirk Bachmann: She better not hear you say that.
Nikhil Abuvala: Oh no. We make fun of her all the time. It’s so hilarious.
The beginning part of my life, I spent so much time with her. Her passion has always been cooking. My mother is a white woman from Long Island, New York. When she joined the family – my mother is a great cook in her own right – but she had to learn to make Indian food, because it was like a requirement to join our family.
My grandmother raised me. She was always cooking. It was just me and her. I joined her, and she directed me around the kitchen to tell me what to do, whether it was standing on this little chair and rolling flatbreads, or grabbing spices, or stirring something. My first memories I ever really had was with her and cooking and doing all that. Just so wonderful.
Although the very first memory I have is in that same house we were. There was a screen door that had a lock on it. She went outside to smoke, and I pushed the door and it locked. She was locked out. I remember her screaming at me, trying to get her in, and I didn’t understand. So my very first memory is locking my grandmother out of the house just for a couple hours – or it felt like a couple hours. And then the second memory would be cooking with her.
Kirk Bachmann: How proud of you is she?
Nikhil Abuvala: She’s immensely proud. It took her a while to figure it out. We’ll get into that a little later. She’s immensely proud. She’s such a wonderful woman. She has so many grandkids and great-grandkids now with my other cousins. She’s really the matriarch of our family.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Was it your grandmother or your parents that enrolled you in sushi-making classes?
Nikhil Abuvala: It was actually my mother. One of the big things with my family was we wouldn’t get big gifts, but we would go travel. Traveling was always a big part of it. One of my first forays into strange food – for me, Indian food was normal, and American food was normal – but when I was 8 years old, I first got into sushi.
My dad was playing a joke on me about this sushi restaurant. He told me I would eat sushi if I would eat anything that was put in front of me no matter what. This big black cauldron comes out. They open the lid, and there are four little octopus swimming around. He said, “You have to eat that.” So my first time ever experiencing sushi I had baby, live octopus. As an 8-year-old boy, I was grossed out and also very excited at the same time. I never really looked back.
This passion for sushi and Asian cuisine and Japanese culture and Chinese culture grew immensely in that moment. I would bug my parents all the time: “I want to learn how to make sushi. I want to do this.” When I was 13, my mom said, two weeks before my 13th birthday. She said, “There’s this little cooking class in our town. Let’s go.” So I went. It was me and a bunch of 35-year-old women learning how to make sushi. It was so much fun.
Kirk Bachmann: Do those techniques find their way into Roux 30a?
Nikhil Abuvala: Yeah. There’s a lot of things. Asian cleanliness. That’s a big thing for us. Clean flavors. The appreciation for each ingredient on its own before you try to dilute it with other things and try to transform it. First we try to appreciate one ingredient, and then we can either layer it – layer that ingredient multiple ways and make it more complex. But some of the best food? A carrot can just be a carrot.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit. I can relate to this in my own life. Let’s talk about education. You went to business school first. What was the goal? Was the goal to go to business school, but then you were going to go to culinary school? Or was it something that came to you after you were done with traditional university?
Nikhil Abuvala: Because of my family – earlier you asked about my grandmother, if she was very proud of me, and she is – but in the beginning you don’t become a cook. Indians don’t believe that. That’s not a good thing. I had always cooked, and it was always a passion. Ever since I was 13, working 20 hours a week when I was 13 until I hit 15, and then I was working 40. Then we hit summer, and I could work 60. It was always just a job. It was never supposed to be a career.
I went the traditional path. I actually got a music scholarship. Went to music school for a few months in Boston until I realized that Boston gets very cold. Also, the type of music I played was bass clarinet, so the only thing I could do with that career would be a concert clarinetist in a philharmonic. That’s like eight hours a day of sitting alone in a room. I never really thought about that until that moment. I thought, “This isn’t for me.”
Then, obviously, since that’s what I originally thought I was going to do, everybody who isn’t necessarily sure what they want to do goes to school for business. So then I was doing that. I just remember, I was working night times at a restaurant called Fire, and in the morning I was working at Abercrombie & Fitch. I remember, Abercrombie & Fitch said that they wanted to bring me on as a manager, and they were going to offer me a scholarship through Abercrombie & Fitch to pay for my business degree. It was a great program.
I remember going to my chef at the restaurant called Fire, his name was Carl Schubert, who has since passed away a few years ago from stomach cancer. I said, “Hey, I need to put in my notice. I’m going to be going to work for them full time. They’re offering to pay for my school.”
I remember him saying, “Let’s talk again tonight.” He sat me down on these big milk crates. We stacked up the milk crates and sat down. He just basically hit me on the side of the head and said, “You’re an idiot. You’re going to go work middle management for a clothing company? You’re an incredible cook. If you repeat this to anyone, I’ll beat you again, but you’re the best cook here. This is what you need to do for a living.”
That was a driving factor for me to say, “Shoot, this is what I need to do.” All this happened in a very short amount of time. I didn’t graduate from any of those schools. All of a sudden, I was working at this restaurant and decided, “Hey, I’m going to go to culinary school now.” In Florida, Florida has this great program called “Bright Futures.” They will pay for your school up to a point. “Well, I have to stay in Florida. Let’s look at culinary schools here.” I did a tour and found in South Florida, in Fort Lauderdale, there was a place called the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. I picked them over all the other schools that I went to because they had a really good international program. That was the initial reason for picking that school.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s awesome. I want to back up a little bit. I love talking to chefs. It’s either they’re in a rock band, or they play an instrument, or they ride a motorcycle, or it’s all of the above. I love the clarinet story. I was going to ask you: anyone who goes to music school and studies music and gets a degree in music, the worst question you can ask them is, “What instrument do you play?” Because typically, they can play them all.
Nikhil Abuvala: I’ve got two saxophones, four clarinets. I’ve got a guitar. I’ve got a keyboard. I’ve definitely declined in my music ability because I haven’t played a lot. It’s a big part of your life, regardless. Even with my restaurants, my experience for dining isn’t just the food; it’s the whole package, so music plays a really big part in each one of my locations.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I’m going to totally catch you off guard. This wasn’t planned at all. Whenever we get into a conversation around music – my son plays the sax, and I play the guitar. Music is just a big part of our life. My daughter plays the piano. If I just said, “Chef, Hey. Top three bands of all time. Go.”
Nikhil Abuvala: Ooh. That’s hard. I listen to a lot of different things. I would say Red Hot Chili Peppers is the first concert I ever went to as a kid. I was, again, 13. First concert. Apprentice sushi chef rocking his life in a kitchen with a bunch of grungy cooks. These are late-90s, early 2000s cooks, grungy people.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it, I love it, I love it.
Nikhil Abuvala: A lot of that. So Red Hot Chili Peppers is definitely my first concert. I like them. I’m really on a big Tedeschi Trucks Band kick as well. Switching total gears here. I’ve been listening to them a lot lately.
I’m a big jazz guy. Love jazz music. Eight or nine years ago, when David Brubeck died, his son continued his quartet. One of my favorite memories is that he did a tour of this area and I catered their brunch. I just remember sitting there. The brunch is after their concert. It’s now Chris Brubeck with the Dave Brubeck quartet and bringing all these musicians from France and all over. It was around six guys.
At this brunch, they’re all eating and getting in the groove. I talked with them about how I was a musician. They said, “Oh, we should play.” The one guy had his sax with him. The drummer flipped a couple of pots and pans over; he was playing on the pots and pans. I just had coffee beans or lentils in a mason jar, so I was shaking them. We were all just playing.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my God! I’m getting chills!
Nikhil Abuvala: Random jazz, it was so fun!
Kirk Bachmann: That is so cool.
Nikhil Abuvala: It was so cool. Big jazz guy as well.
Kirk Bachmann: Perfect response. Boy, did you handle that well. Probably the best ever.
Hey, Chef, looking back, how important do you believe it was for you to attend culinary school? It sounds like it was important to you. Versus going from kitchen to kitchen or traveling. Having that formal education in front of you.
Nikhil Abuvala: I think that they’re both pretty important in different ways. For me, culinary school was great. When you are traveling and you’re going to all these different cultures, and you’re going to these different cuisines, you kind of miss out on the history aspect of why food exists. The basics behind how cuisine came to where we are in the world, and what drove that original idea. It’s really important to understand the history, understand the roots, to cook those French classical dishes that really give you that foundation that you need to move forward.
For me, I didn’t finish culinary school. Once we started getting outside of those foundational courses and started getting into regionals and things like that, I felt like I already had that knowledge that we were going into. That base foundation.
My favorite classes were actually baking and pastry because you either have to work in an apprenticeship under someone for an extended period of time, whether it’s one or two years, or you actually need to have someone who is going to be patient with you and walk you through the processes of making those things. That laid really important foundations. I think baking and pastry is a really important foundation nowadays, especially as we get, not fully molecular, but a lot more technical aspects of cooking and a lot more precision with recipes. That foundation has to be laid from those classes and from that original cooking school.
Kirk Bachmann: Totally agree. Do you find that the French influence of Louisiana and that part of the country finds its way to where you are in Florida?
Nikhil Abuvala: For sure. My wife, herself, is from Louisiana. There’s a lot of Louisiana influence in what we’ve got going on. Our original people that travel here were from Louisiana. We have a lot of these Southern-style foods that are just iterations of Louisiana. We have a lot of crawfish here, a lot of shrimp boils, po-boys, all along the coast. Emeril Lagasse moved here. We’ve got Emeril here.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, really. He’s in your town.
Nikhil Abuvala: He’s in our town.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s awesome. Let’s talk about travel a little bit. You’ve traveled a lot, upwards of 30 countries. I don’t know that most people can name 30 countries. That’s pretty amazing. I would say, as a cook, that it truly is a chef’s dream to be able to taste flavors around the globe and to be able to understand how different cultures approach food, to come to the table. The fellowship that exists around the kitchen table.
What was your motivating factor for traveling and cooking around the world? Was it specifically around learning, or did you just have that bug? “I’ve just got to do this while I’m young.”
Nikhil Abuvala: Chef, I think, definitely just a bug. The whole idea was that there is so much in this world. Obviously, with my parents, travel was a big part of our life when I was young. Going to India to see my grandmother, traveling. That was part of a French program at an elementary school that had French pen pals. We even did a school trip to France. This was a Georgia public school. It just so happened to have a French program. It was that bug that was instilled in me with my family. We had a very unique culture living in a very white world. I wanted more of that culture. That bug stayed with me, and I wanted to see it all. I did a lot of travel. We had upwards of 30 cultures.
I will say, though, it’s kind of cheating to say that it’s upward of 30 countries, because some of those countries I was in for maybe 48 hours.
Kirk Bachmann: But you were still there. The tougher question, Chef, is whether you’re there for 48 hours or 48 days, you still experience it. I’m really curious, as you look back and you look forward, how did all of that aggregate time or specific moments that you remember, did it define you as a chef? Did it help you evolve as a chef? Did it give you guidance as you write menus today?
Nikhil Abuvala: It’s a huge part of it. I think one of the most important factors with that travel was understanding food’s journey on its own. When you define a culture, one of the most defining aspects of a culture is their food. Any culture. What is this culture – insert country here? What is this culture? Food is one of the top ingredients there. As you travel, understanding how food traveled. The spice route.
How different recipes and ingredients traveled to different countries, and how they transformed and were bastardized and created something new and beautiful. I think one of the greatest references for that is Japanese and Portuguese. Portugal basically colonized Japan. People would see Japan, and they brought tea and things from Japan and India and everything to Europe. The Portuguese word for tea is “chai.” The Indian word for tea is “chai.” The British word for tea is “tea.” Tea is T-E-A and it’s called that because on the Portuguese chai bags, it said, “The Transport Exchange Authority – TEA.” It was on that bag, and the British were like, “Oh. It’s a bag of tea.”
Kirk Bachmann: I love it.
Nikhil Abuvala: You see things like that. Even how countries thank you. (Portuguese) “Obrigada” is how you say, “thank you.” And “Arigato” is “thank you” in Japan. Things like that. You see so many different [connections]. Baklava is another one. Who created baklava? Nobody knows. There are about seven countries in the same region: Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon, Greece, they all say, “This is mine.” But nobody really knows, because they all transported it to each other. They were big nomadic cultures. Who’s to say who created it because everybody was bringing that with them everywhere they went.
That’s probably the coolest aspect of food, traveling with food and experiencing it. For me, street food is a big part of it. I think that’s the most unique part of a culture, their street food. Experiencing different street foods in different cultures is fun, just to go to a stand and see what they’re making.
Kirk Bachmann: I’ve had chills for like 45 minutes. This conversation is just absolutely fun. I don’t want to put you on the spot again, but I’m going to. It’s unfair to say, “What’s your favorite cuisine?” from all that travel, because it sounds like you’ve been influenced by much of it. But if you had to pick a podium, you’ve got an Asian-influenced restaurant? How would you define Roux 30a?
Nikhil Abuvala: Roux 30a, we call ourselves modern American, which is a term for whatever we feel like that day. Roux’s menu changes every week. It’s a new menu, six-course tasting menu. It evolves based on what we’ve got going on, what we’ve got [coming] in. A lot of it. I really hate that term, “farm to table,” because everyone just uses it loosely. We work with a farm collective called DV Foods. They have about 28 small producers, farms, small producers of vegetables, meats, and things like that. Most are only a few acre farms. They produce it and send it our way in these limited quantities. We base our menus off of that.
We’re here on the Gulf, so we have great fish. We use a lot of seafood – seafood heavy, just because we can get it every single day.
Kirk Bachmann: If you had to give some advice to a young culinarian, regardless of if they came up through culinary school or worked in your kitchen. Knowing what your history was, how you learned, how you traveled. What would your advice be to someone who inquires about a similar journey?
Nikhil Abuvala: I think the number one important thing I would say is bring a notepad and a pen. Write everything down. You can’t remember everything, and you can’t try to remember stuff. You never know what little thing you see, whether a recipe or something cool that inspired you in that moment, you need to write down that it inspired you. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget it and get overwhelmed with how much there is. The goal is to constantly keep on learning and keep on evolving yourself and try new things and try new recipes. I would say that having that to look back on allows you to be able to move forward without having to forget where you’ve been.
Kirk Bachmann: I absolutely love that, and I don’t know if it’s a chef thing. My entire life, it’s either been in my back pocket – sometimes they get a little bit bigger. My kids think I’m nuts. You have the internet, you have your phone, but there’s nothing like this to keep all your notes in, all your travels.
Let’s talk a little bit more about Roux 30a. Just a fascinating story. Ten years. Then you opened the noodle bar as well. I just love to hear you talk. In your words, if you were going to write a book about opening up your own restaurant and the experience that you and your team create every single night for your guests. What does that mean to you, and are you just getting started?
Nikhil Abuvala: I definitely would say I’m getting started. I’m opening another restaurant right now and joining a food hall. We’re opening up our noodle bar concept into a new food fall. Getting started, yeah.
But for Roux and what we try to create when we open that restaurant every night, our ultimate goal – and we say it a lot – it’s creating this experience of family and that experience of breaking bread. Even our service. Our level of service – we do a six-course tasting menu – but I wouldn’t consider us having posh service in any way. It’s very relaxed, a very comfortable environment. We don’t require people to wear a suit and tie to it. Please don’t wear a tank top; please don’t wear flip-flops, but come to dinner.
When you first walk in, you’ve got this great music playing. You’re handed a glass of sparkling wine as soon as you walk in. You sit down together. The chef, the kitchen is right there in front of you. You sit down next to strangers. Obviously, we make everybody cheery at the very beginning. That’s an initial form of breaking the ice.
As you read earlier, breaking bread is one of the most intimate things that you do, and it really is. To your point, you were sitting down next to those people in Boulder, and they weren’t talking about a cooking school, but you were already eating, doing the same thing, so it was easy to insert yourself into that conversation and create an opportunity for yourself for a new friendship. That is kind of what we do every day. We get these people to sit next to each other and get them to meet each other, and they find out that, Hey, the same best friend went to school here and there. It’s a six-course tasting menu, so it can be over about three hours that you’re sitting next to a total stranger after drinking. We typically offer wine pairings, so you may be on your third or fourth glass of wine by the time we get to it. You’ve loosened up and have become friends with these people.
That’s what we do, and that’s what Roux is all about: breaking the ice. As our world gets more digital and pulls us away from being in very – what’s the word I’m looking for?
Kirk Bachmann: Impersonal in many ways.
Nikhil Abuvala: Trying to break away from that and create this environment where you have to be exactly who you are and talk with these people. It’s just fun.
Kirk Bachmann: It feels really natural. When you mentioned that you’re handed a little bubbly when you walk in, that’s what you do in your home. Your guests arrive. Back in the day, we used to call it company. “Company’s coming over.” A very European thing.
I was thinking as you were speaking, the other day I watched – probably for the fifth time – Alain Ducasse’s documentary on Prime. It’s about his journey over the last 20-30 years and opening up a new restaurant. He repeated it many times. I don’t even know how many restaurants Ducasse has now, maybe 30. Maybe more. But he was really adamant about the fact that no two restaurants are the same. They do it different every single time. But the things that do remain the same are what you mentioned – great food, obviously, great team, impeccable service.
I’m curious, and now you’re on your third restaurant, but let’s go to Nanbu for a minute, the noodle restaurant. How was that different? Was that intentionally different? Because it is different. It’s not a tasting menu. It’s a little bit more fast-serve. It’s fun food. It’s got some of the Asian influences that you love. Talk a little bit about what it is like to open a second restaurant.
Nikhil Abuvala: Nerve-wracking, for one. I think one of the most important things to remember is that you eventually have to make a decision about what type of chef you want to be. There’s a business book that relates to cooking and chefs and restaurateuring [sic] more than anything else, which is the “E-myth,” – the Entrepreneurial Myth. It [asks], do you want to be an entrepreneur? Do you want to develop and build restaurants? Or do you want to be a technician? Do you want to be the chef?
If you want to be the chef of a restaurant, then you have to be the chef of a restaurant. You’re in there every day. You’re working. You’re developing the recipes. You’re creating beautiful food every single night. That’s you, and you’re doing that with your team.
But if you want to become a restaurateur, you have to give that up. You have to step away. You can still give, obviously, your guidance and your rules and your rule books, but you have to be able to step away and say, “I’m doing this next thing, and I’m growing and developing myself in this way. I know that I’m going to be losing out on some of this part that I love, but I can get it in other ways.” That was the first part of opening a second restaurant – realizing you have to leave the first.
In order for each restaurant to be successful, you have to build the team that wants to be there. In order to build the team that wants to be there, you have to give them a sense of ownership, which means that you can’t necessarily be so controlling and be on top of people about what food we’re developing. You have to give them the opportunities to develop their own ideas and develop their program, because that’ll keep people longer than if you just tell them what to do all the time.
That was the biggest thing to understand as I opened up my second restaurant. The person that I put in place in my first restaurant has to be someone who has the ability to be creative, has the ability to have that free-form within my loose box of how I want things and my rule set. Quality is always there, but you have to make sure that it’s still in the same style. That was the most important thing with opening a second restaurant.
Ducasse is a very smart man. Every restaurant is drastically different. Opening it up is very different. You do need to have the same kind of core beliefs for the company that has to stay the same across. Having quality of food, having quality of service, creating unique experiences. That’s one of ours.
Every restaurant that we open up, we want to create a unique experience. Roux is this very elaborate six-course tasting menu. It’s meant to be fun, and meant to be this really intimate experience that you’re having with your family.
Nanbu is this hip city club/restaurant in this tiny little beach town that plays ‘90s hip-hop all the time. I have a 26-foot octopus sculpture on the wall done by Andy Saczynksi who is this great local artist that does all-wood, wood-blocking sculptures. They’ve got these crazy, cool patterns. The color concept behind the restaurant was the bird of paradise plants. We have all these vibrant yellows, reds, and pinks. Everything plays throughout. I have this crazy-S couch in the front right when you walk in. It’s a very small space. The restaurant is 1200 square feet, so it’s a very small space. You’ve got this blasting music, and you’ve got this really cool, fun ramen.
It is ramen-centered, and I decided on ramen because I selfishly needed Japanese food in my life. The closest place that is really good is like 45 minutes. I wanted to do this, but I also don’t want to be the sushi chef, so I can’t start with sushi. So we started with ramen because I knew we could develop that and build that in a way that would allow it to be systematic and create this wonderful recipe.
Then Nanbu itself, the word, means southern, or having to do with the south in Japanese. So we started with the concept that it was a Southern-inspired Japanese restaurant, and that’s where Nanbu came from.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love this conversation. I‘m going to go back to my favorite quote inside of all of that. How do you open up your second restaurant? You’ve got to leave the first. A follow-up question to that: obviously you leave the first so that you can focus on other ventures. You leave it in the hands of someone that you’re very comfortable with that you know can do it. How hard is that part? How hard is leaving your best people there? Or taking your best people with you?
Nikhil Abuvala: I think it’s the hardest part. You have to find who that person is, and that’s always a challenge. And you also have to understand that people grow and develop in different ways. You could always lose that person. They could always have a great opportunity. What we try to do is we try to keep ourselves very easy to communicate with and very open with all of our employees. If someone has a great opportunity presented to them, we want them to tell us. We want to help them with that opportunity and grow into it. We found that we’ve found a lot more longevity by doing it that way with our employees and with our core team that we probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.
It’s hard, and it’s also hard realizing it’s not going to be perfect. Perfect is defined in your own head. You define what perfect is. What you think and what you focus on and what you look at when you’re in the restaurant isn’t necessarily what everyone else is going to be able to focus on or do. There’s a rule called 80/20 talking about how 80 percent of the population only goes for 20 percent of products. You need to focus on at least hitting that 80 percent mark. So that’s what we do.
We have a chef in there who is absolutely incredible. Can he give a speech like me? No. Our chefs always present at Roux with the food. They present each course, so the chef is presenting. It’s not a server; it’s the chef. He is an amazing chef. He’s an amazing cook. His name is John Engle, but he is an ex-marine, kind of a gruff guy. He still gives a great, powerful speech, but it’s this gruff, friendly thing. Our demographic in our restaurant is typically women 45-65. They all want to change him. They love him to death. They think he’s a big teddy bear. It works out great.
Understanding this is different. It’s not me, but the restaurant’s me, so it’s okay. That was kind of the hardest part in finding someone that could do that.
Kirk Bachmann: Makes total sense. Such a great conversation today.
Chef, before I let you go, the name of the podcast is the Ultimate Dish. This is probably the toughest question. In your mind, what is the ultimate dish?
Nikhil Abuvala: The ultimate dish is an experience. I think that you get your family, your closest family, your closest friends. Whether your friends or family is your family, I think just getting a small group of people and having dinner together in a really beautiful environment is the ultimate dish for me. Say you get together and try to travel. I say always try to travel. If you can’t afford travel by yourself, travel with a group of people you like to be around. If you can get yourself out and you go to Bali and you get yourself where you can overlook this beautiful sunset and sit at the table, I don’t really care if that dish is macaroni and cheese. Just the fact that you’re sitting there in that beautiful environment with the best people in your life, that’s the ultimate dish for me.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Perfect answer. Very emotional and absolutely lovely. Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Chef. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you. Now I want to get down to Florida and check out Roux.
Nikhil Abuvala: You need to check out Roux, and we’re opening up the Day Trader Tiki Bar & Restaurant that will open up in March. That’s going to be right on the beach here in Seaside, Florida, which is about ten minutes from Roux. Very excited to be here. Nanbu’s got its own little expansion into the food hall environment. We’re opening up Nanbu Too – T-O-O. A light derivative of what Nanbu is. We’ve got some cool stuff going on. We’d love for you to visit.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely cool. Thanks again, Chef. Appreciate it. Congratulations.
Nikhil Abuvala: Thank you. It was nice talking to you.
Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.