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 a kitchen countertop. He’d stand on a chair and help his grandmother roll out fresh Indian flatbread, admiring the way she moved about the kitchen collecting herbs and spices for various dishes. “I got to spend a lot of time with my grandmother when I was really young,” Abuvala said. “Cooking with her in the kitchen was so fun, and so special.”

A few years down the road, 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 thrilled to have such a young, passionate student in her class and asked Abuvala if he wanted a job. He started working there a few weeks later. “I began working in restaurants when I was 13 and never stopped,” he said. In college, he studied music and ended up getting a degree in business, and it wasn’t until working for a chef that he realized he could make cooking a career. He went to culinary school and never looked back.

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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 Abuvala has learned about through his travels around the world, 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,” Abuvala said. “No one would approve my CV because I couldn’t stay long enough at 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 got him into restaurant kitchens all over the world—Peru, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Argentina and the Philippines, to name a few—and offered valuable insights that inform his menus today.

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Abuvala’s travels became the inspiration for his Around the World dinner series, which started around eight years ago and is returning next month. The idea was for him to go to a country and bring back the food. He started with Morocco, then India and continued 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 dinners will only take place twice a month, and reservations are required—just like they are for Roux’s nightly tasting menu experience.

Crafting the menu at Roux 30A, which changes weekly, starts with the ingredients. “We look at what’s in season, then we create a rough outline for the coming weeks,” Abuvala said. He estimates that they create 12 menus per season. “We start with the vegetables first and go from there. What’s great 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 sort of appetizer, shellfish, 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 hone the menu.

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As one of the only tasting menu restaurants in town, Roux 30A stands out. A reservation-only system means they know exactly how many people they’re cooking for that night, but the tasting menu format isn’t without challenges. “We have to make sure 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 that we maintain a level of quality and if something goes bad we take full ownership of it.” Upcoming projects include an expansion of Nanbu Noodle Bar, called Nanbu Too, which will be opening later this summer at City Food Hall in the 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 estimated to open December 2022.

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