“We never had a chef from Syracuse cook for us,” says Isabelle Wojack, director of programming for the James Beard Foundation. The mission of the foundation, and the chef it is named for, is to celebrate, nurture and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future.
Wojack checked the calendar and discovered that March 19 was open. “That’s wonderful,” she says. “It’s the Feast of St. Joseph, which will give him a menu of traditional dishes served on that day to prepare.”
Given that guideline, she instructed Bear to come up with a menu and send it to her for review. “She liked it a lot,” says the chef, happily.
Now that he had an official go-ahead, Bear immediately began researching the traditional foods eaten on the Feast of St. Joseph, and learned that Joseph, the husband of Mary and father of Christ, is regarded as the patron saint of Sicily. As the story goes, Sicily experienced a severe drought during the Middle Ages, and they prayed to San Giuseppe that if he brought them rain they would plan a great feast in his honor. The rain came, and the fava bean, the first vegetation to grow, saved them from starvation.
Today, the fava bean is a must on Sicilian menus on March 19. Breadcrumbs strewn over some foods are also traditional, to symbolize sawdust (sabbia in Italian), honoring Joseph’s work as a carpenter; remember, Christ was a carpenter’s son. March 19 tends to fall during Lent so seafood is a must. Dessert is always zeppole, deep-fried dough balls or fritters, honoring Joseph, who is also the patron saint of pastry chefs.
Armed with this information, Bear, 35, has created his menu combining traditional foods of the feast day with his modern approach and creativity, accompanied by Finger Lakes wines and beer from Cooperstown.
Bear will have many hands working with him in the James Beard kitchen, beginning with Dana Witchey, his wine consultant; Mike Brown, executive sous chef at the Bellevue Country Club; Dereck Becker and Scott Pealing, sous chefs at Francesca’s; and Jeff Mastrogiovanni, a student helper, from the Mohawk Valley Culinary Institute, in Rome.
Also doing kitchen duty are fellow members of the Syracuse chapter’s American Culinary Federation: John Reule, executive chef at Bistro 201 at the Wise Guys Comedy Club, and Katie Garofalo, pastry chef at the Century Club.
“We wanted to support Chance and will be driving to New York as diners for the occasion,” says Jerry Bolton, president of Syracuse’s ACF chapter and executive chef at the Oncenter complex. Bolton will be accompanied by his wife Susan, as well as Christopher Cesta, treasurer of the ACF, and executive chef and owner of the Inn Between in Camillus, and his wife Penny. A contingency from Francesca’s is also expected to be in on the festivities. The event wouldn’t be complete without Bear’s wife, Noelle, cheering him on.
Bear’s first memories of food began when he was about 5. The youngster, whose heritage includes many Native American tribes, grew up in Rome. He remembers the occasion of a cousin’s funeral. “It was a traditional, three-day ceremony, beginning with killing a steer,” he recalls. All the parts of the animal were consumed; some pieces cooked over a campfire and served with fried bread, others made into a soup. That was Bear’s initial exposure to cooking, and it stuck.
At age 16, Bear’s first job in the, ahem, culinary field was at Little Caesar’s Pizza in Rome, then on to loftier pursuits at the Beeches Inn and Conference Center, also in Rome. Other duties included a six-year stint at the Cavalry Club in Manlius. In between he received a certificate from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park.
Even with all the culinary experience under his belt, the aspiring chef began to question his career choice, and took a hiatus from cooking, working as a manager of a veterinary office. This change gave Bear the opportunity to re-evaluate his decision. He decided to become a member of the ACF, where he would be in contact with established chefs, especially then-president Brian Shore, now deceased, who was helpful in addressing his culinary pursuits. This led to a position as chef at the Lincklaen House in Cazenovia, executive chef at the Owasco Country Club in Auburn, and his current job.
Even while overseeing the kitchen at Francesca’s, Bear played an important part in planning the inaugural Syracuse Iron Chef competition, held Jan. 29. Somehow he has found time to fine-tune his James Beard Foundation menu, holding a number of local tasting events for a select group of friend chefs and foodies.
Bear’s day-to-day responsibility remains preparing fine Italian cuisine at Francesca’s. The restaurant is always packed with diners who not only choose from the Italian menu, but also check out his daily specials, which gives the chef an opportunity to experiment with new ideas, some of which are novel to Syracuse. For instance, Bear is intrigued by the ideas of Spanish chef Ferran Adria, purveyor of molecular gastronomy, the application of science to culinary practices and cooking phenomena.
One of the items on the James Beard menu is “spherification,” a complicated concoction of tomato and other ingredients, which are spread on acetate, and frozen into a jelly-like consistency, its resulting shapes somewhat akin to caviar. This is one of Ferran Adria’s many forward-thinking innovations.
Bear’s upcoming visit to the James Bear Foundation has propelled him into a revered fraternity of chefs, including Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud and Jacques Pepin. Interestingly, Joelle Mollinger, executive chef at Joelle’s in Skaneateles, also cooked at the James Beard Foundation in 1995 when she was chef at The Country Cafe in Manhattan.
Still, Bear’s primary goal in cooking there is to put Central New York on the culinary map. “I hope to represent the food and restaurants in the area,” he explains, “as well as to feature the local wines and beers.”
If you want to go: The 7 p.m. event is open to the public at the Beard House, 167 W. 12th St., New York City. Tickets cost $170 and can be reserved by calling (212) 627-2308.
This is the Feast of St. Joseph that Chance Bear has created
for his visit to the James Beard Foundation.
Tomato crostini with tomato jam and roasted garlic/onion spherification; Buffalo mozzarella-stuffed ricotta and fontina arancini with braised grape tomatoes; shrimp and clam ceviche with blood oranges and candied limes on grilled toasts; pan-seared Old World gnocchi with Chianti-leek marmalade; saffron-basil martinis; Francesca’s spumoni cocktails.
Harvest minestrone with locally grown vegetables in a garlic and cannellini bean broth; Ommegang Rare Voss beer.
Roasted garlic marinated hickory grilled swordfish steak, lime and ginger crème fraiche, with pickled micro beets and bulls blood (micro greens) salad; Fox Run Riesling 2010.
Pasta sabbia: hand-cut fresh linguini topped with breadcrumbs, served with pesto and basil-infused olive oil; Dr. Konstantin Frank Gewurztraminer 2009.
Fava beans, charred calamari and hickory smoked heirloom pomodoro sauce; Fox Run Vineyards Rose 2010.
Braised wild striped bass in Parmesan broth with soft polenta, fried pecans and walnuts, and crispy fish chips; Sheldrake Point Waterfall Chardonnay 2010.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe—fresh-made oversize zeppole stuffed with pistachio ricotta cream served
with sweet marsala sabayon; Fox Run Ruby Port.