In the kitchen with Bhumin Desai: From Taco Bell worker to Jean Robert's Table chef-de-cuisine

CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our weekly column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.   

Bhumin Desai

“Some folks say a dish has got to have this, that, or the other. Food doesn’t have to be anything. It’s yours. If it tastes good, what does it matter? That’s what I’m here for; to make it taste good.”

Bhumin Desai has come a long way since the time he climbed onto the table to eat his birthday cake. He was young--very young--and was simply showing his love for food. 

"There's a picture of me, when I was two or three, eating cake on the table on my birthday," Desai said. "You can see this spread of food behind me."

It's no wonder Desai chose to be in the food industry. 

"Growing up, I was around food all the time. I loved eating food, so why not make it?" he said.

Make food, he did. Today the Gujarat, India native is the chef-de-cuisine at the iconic Jean-Robert's Table . When Desai and his family migrated to New Jersey in 1997, he brought the love and respect for old world cuisine with him.

Far from fine dining, his first gig was quite modest. 

"My first restaurant job was at Taco Bell," Desai said. "I was 16 or 17, and it was right around the corner from the house, so I just walked there after school."

Desai attended Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., for a time, before moving to Oxford, Ohio. His parents had relocated to pursue a business venture, and Desai joined them.

Desai dug hard into restaurant work, not even minding the time when he didn't have a day off for six months. 

"That’s when I decided this is what I want to do.  I just can't see myself behind a desk," he said. 

Next, Desai set his sights on Cincinnati; more specifically, on Jean-Robert de Cavel. 

"When I came to Cincinnati, my goal was to work for Chef (Jean-Robert)," Desai said. 

He had worked at Hugo, and was working at Iron Horse when that moment came. 

"When I saw that Chef (Jean-Robert) was opening Jean-Robert's Table, I said 'sign me up.' I didn't care what I got paid, I didn't care what I had to do, I just wanted to work there," Desai said. (Pictured below: The dining room at Jean-Robert's Table)

Desai was part of the original team that helped open Jean-Robert's Table in 2010. A year later, Desai took the job of chef-de-cuisine at Bouquet. For the next two-and-a-half years, he said he "worked with really great people, doing awesome things."

When the chef-de-cuisine at Jean-Robert's Table moved on, Desai returned to fill the position. It was a sweet homecoming for a talented chef who once asked simply, "I loved eating food, so why not make it?"

Food and cooking philosophy

"I go for crunch, acid, fat and sweetness; that to me, is a balanced dish," Desai said.

He uses ingredients like nuts, carrots, and fried leeks to get the effect he seeks.

As for the acid, he turns to his favorite: apple cider vinegar and sometimes lemon or orange juice. As for sweetness?

“I try not to use a whole lot of sugar because it’s an easy way out, he said. 

Instead, he leans on other techniques and ingredients.

“You can get sugar from fruit, reductions (of fruit juices), dried fruit, or even caramelized onion,” Desai said. It’s no wonder he’s a big fan of gastriques.

“Treat food with respect. Growing up, we weren’t the wealthiest family. What you got was what you got, and you show respect for everything you have. Respect what you do,” Desai said. 

He cringes when he sees cooks clean the counter by brushing the debris onto the floor. 

"Somebody has to sweep that.”

Desai believes in working efficiently, not just quickly. 

“You could be moving a hundred miles an hour, but if you’re not getting anything done, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re moving,” he said. He prefers the finer art of “moving fast without moving fast.”

Essential ingredients & tools

Desai’s kitchen must-haves include:
  • Three good knives: A chef knife (Desai uses the Misono UX  10 8.5 inch version), paring knife and boning knife  
  • Fish spatula (turner). Desai has a huge pet peeve with cooks picking up fish with a pair of tongs, risking damage to the fish.
  • Plating spoons
  • A steel (to hone a knife)
  • Hot cast iron for searing meat, and developing a nice crust.  “If you have seasoned cast iron, you can even cook an egg on it,” Desai said.
  • Shiitake mushrooms. Desai said he appreciates the measured earthy flavor of shiitake mushrooms, unlike the stronger flavor of morel mushrooms.
  • A short list of spices: cumin, coriander, turmeric, garlic and ginger. “There was a running joke at Bouquet that I put cumin in everything,” Desai said.
  • Honeycrisp apples. Desai uses them in a variety of ways, from baking, to
    • searing, or simply raw, in a salad.
    • Potatoes
    • Pork. Desai has a soft spot for this ingredient.
    Inspirations

    Desai doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. His mother forever changed his life simply by cooking. 

    “My mom is a great cook, way better than I will ever be,” he said. “She just understands flavor profiles.” 

    Desai’s father showed him what hard work meant. 

    “He is the hardest working man I know.  I get my work ethic from him,” Desai said.

    "The Flavor Bible," inspires Desai to create out-of-the-ordinary flavors. 

    “You find winning flavor combinations that you wouldn’t think would go together,” he said.

    Desai admires the work of Michael Ruhlman, Anthony Bourdain, and Thomas Keller. 

    “I’m not big into cookbooks for the sake of looking up recipes,” Desai said. Instead, he prefers to go for ideas and information, to feed and inspire his creativity.

    Desai’s girlfriend, Taylor Cull, inspires him through her candor. 

    “Apart from me, she is my biggest critic,” he said. According to Desai, if she doesn’t like something he cooked, she’ll let him know. Sometimes for Desai, finding inspiration is as simple as sitting on his couch with Cull and his dogs. 

    Favorite meal to cook for family: Braised Chicken Tacos

    By the time Desai finishes at the restaurant, he's often too tired to cook anything. When he does cook at home, he likes to keep it simple and easy.

    Ingredients

    • 2 lbs of chicken legs
    • 1 onion diced
    • 2 stalks of celery diced
    • 4 tomatillos quartered
    • 2 red bell peppers
    • 2 yellow bell peppers
    • 1 tbsp of cumin
    • 1 tbsp of minced garlic
    • 2 tsp of curry powder
    • 1 tbsp of paprika
    • 1 tbsp of ras el hanout
    • 2 qt of stout beer

    Directions

    1. Combine all of the ingredients with beer in a roasting pan covered with foil
    2. Braise for 4 hrs at 200 degrees  
    3. After the chicken is cooked take the bones out and shred it with the vegetables
    4. Serve with tortilla of your choice with sour cream and shredded cheese (Desai's preference is Chihuahua cheese)

    (All photos by G. Yek)

    Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek .

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