For chef Nikhil Abuwala, travel is the best cooking teacher

Chef Nikhil Abuwala’s love for cooking began in his grandmother’s kitchen before he even set foot on a kitchen counter. He stood on the chair and helped his grandmother roll out fresh Indian flat 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,” Abuwala said. “Cooking with her in the kitchen was so much fun and so special.”

A few years later, Abuwala’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 thrilled to have such a young, passionate student in his class and asked Abuwala if he wanted a job. He started work 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 eventually earned a degree in business, and it wasn’t until he worked as a chef that he realized he could make cooking a career. He went to culinary school and never looked back.

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

“When I first opened Roux almost 10 years ago, I knew I still had a lot to learn, so I traveled,” Abuwala said. “Nobody would approve my CV because I couldn’t stay in these restaurants long enough, so I would knock on the back door of their kitchens and ask them if they needed help. It worked almost every time.” Abuwala’s tenacity has taken him into restaurant kitchens around the world—Peru, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Argentina, and the Philippines, to name a few—and offered valuable insights that inform his menus today.

Abuwala’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 the food. He started with Morocco, then India and went from there. This fall, Roux 30A’s round-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 – just like for Roux’s evening tasting menu.

Crafting 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 coming weeks,” Abuwala 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 simple. We always want to have some appetizer, shellfish, fresh pasta, something from the sea, something from the land and of course dessert. After obtaining the list of available ingredients from local farmers, fishermen and meat purveyors, Abuwala and his team further refine the menu.

As one of the only tasting menu restaurants in town, Roux 30A stands out. The reservation-only system means they know exactly how many people they’ll be cooking for tonight, but the tasting menu format isn’t without its challenges. “We have to make sure that our quality and consistency is always there, no matter what,” Abuwala 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 take full ownership of it.” Upcoming projects include expanding Nanbu Noodle Bar, called Nanbu Too, which will open later this summer at City Food Hall in the Destin Commons. Abuwala’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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