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Foodie with Flair

Writer Margaret McCormick chats with Tom Kiernan, named Chef of the Year for his kitchen cuisine

For Tom Kiernan, 2015 has been a year of accomplishments, achievements and experiences to savor and remember and build on. And the year is still young.

In February, Kiernan was among the team of local chefs from the Syracuse chapter of the American Culinary Federation, led by chef Chance Bear, who traveled to New York City to prepare “An Empire State Feast’’ at the James Beard House. For their course, Kiernan and his wife Mary, a chef and culinary instructor in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University, prepared a gourmet twist on the classic Central New York fish fry.

“For any self-proclaimed ‘food geek,’ to be able to stand in the kitchen that James Beard and Julia Child wrote and tested their book recipes in is awe-inspiring,’’ Kiernan said at the time. “Now to be able to cook there… for me it is like going to Mecca.’’

In June, Kiernan and a corps of ACF members set up shop at downtown’s Taste of Syracuse festival to help build awareness of the organization. They offered Maple-Bacon Ice Cream Sandwiches and ventured into the crowd in their white jackets and tall white toques offering samples of Chef’s Trail Mix. “A lot of people didn’t know who we were as professional chefs,’’ Kiernan says. “I bet we spoke to 20,000 people.’’

And on June 29, Kiernan was honored as the Syracuse ACF’s “Chef of the Year,’’ a recognition of culinary skills, advancement and promotion of the profession and development of students and chefs in training. “I knew I was up for the award,’’ Kiernan says, “and I was thrilled to be honored. It was just a great night.’’

Kiernan, 54, grew up in the New York City area and got an early start in the food service industry: His first job was as a “pot washer” at a hospital. He worked in country club kitchens, eventually attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and worked in restaurants in Boston and Bermuda before coming back to Central New York to open a restaurant and raise a family. He and Mary owned and operated Elm Street Café and Catering in Cortland for more than a decade.

Chef of the Year Tom Kiernan. Michael Davis Photo | Syracuse New Times

Chef of the Year Tom Kiernan.
Michael Davis Photo | Syracuse New Times

After that, Kiernan worked as a chef at SUNY Cortland before joining Morrison Healthcare (Compass Group) and overseeing the food service at Upstate Medical University and eventually the food service operations at a network of hospitals in New York and Pennsylvania. He left his job with Compass Group about a year ago and has been working as a consultant. During that time, he also earned CEC (Certified Executive Chef) certification from the ACF. At this time, Kiernan is consulting with Core, a healthy lifestyle, “greens, grains and bone broth’’ restaurant in North Syracuse.

Chance Bear says Kiernan’s experience with food, hospitality and kitchen management makes for a chef that is calm, collected and confident, yet also inspired to be creative.

“Tom comes to the table with some really good ideas,’’ says Bear, who serves as executive chef at the Lincklaen House in Cazenovia. “And he’s one of those guys you can count on to ‘wrangle the cat,’ if you will. He’s a cooling factor, that guy that’s kind of a nice calm in the kitchen, that level-headed person who keeps everyone in check when things get kind of crazy.’’

As for the “Chef of the Year’’ honor, Bear notes Kiernan has previously won all or most of the other chapter honors, “so this is another feather in his cap.’’

How did you become interested in food and cooking?

TK: I was always in the food service industry in one aspect or another. Even when I was in college for electrical engineering, I was still working in food all the time.

How did you know you wanted to be a chef?

TK: Long before chefs were treated with a degree of celebrity, I realized that I had an ability to cook well, but also to see the bigger picture of what it entails to run a large-scale operation.

Who are your major culinary “influencers”?

TK: In my younger days, Julia Child and Auguste Escoffier. These days, I still look to the work of Marcus Samuelsson and Michael Symon as great examples of taking cuisine in a positive direction.

What is your signature dish (or dishes)?

TK: I don’t really think I have a signature dish, but I would say that I constantly try to work within whatever is fresh locally.

Is it possible for two chefs to share a home kitchen?

TK: Absolutely — as long as they keep their distance! Not so much physically… Many times when Mary and I work in the kitchen together we will divide up courses, so that we are actually doing separate dishes to bring together at the end. This way we don’t find ourselves butting heads over our own interpretations of what a final product should look and taste like.

Where do you do your food shopping?

TK: We do a lot of shopping at the smaller ethnic markets throughout the city, as well as some wonderful farmers markets down toward Homer. And the Regional Market on Saturday is always a blast!

What are your favorite local ingredients to use in your cooking?

TK: At this time of year, it is whatever shows up in my CSA (community-supported agriculture) box (from Early Morning Farm in Genoa) every Thursday! Ramps, chard, mizuna, asparagus, early carrots… having that box is like Christmas once a week for chefs!

When you’re not cooking, where and what do you like to eat?

TK: I think most people who spend their lives cooking love diners and diner-style food. Growing up around New York City, there was a great “draw/appeal” to a diner and it hasn’t changed for me. A few years ago while working with a team of about 12 chefs on a project in Pennsylvania, we got talking one evening and realized we all felt the same love of diner food — and that many of us judged a diner by how well they could do two items: the perfect tuna melt and a meatloaf sandwich.

What six people, living or dead, would you invite to a dinner party? (You would cook, of course!)

TK: If I had my druthers I would mix culinary masters and literary masters to keep it interesting. From the literary side, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hunter S. Thompson. From the culinary side, Julia Child and Marcus Samuelsson. And to keep the party moving: Jon Stewart from The Daily Show.

What’s your best advice for someone considering a culinary career?

TK: I speak to a lot of students about this each year and I let them know that what they see on TV is not the reality of the kitchens. There is an extreme amount of work involved in making a name for yourself in our industry. I’ve been in food for 40 years this month, and I would truly say that I have only really been a chef — in all aspects of the definition — for the last 12 years! For anyone considering this as a career, go into it with your eyes wide open. Work until someone makes you stop and go home. And never stop reading and learning.

For more information on the Syracuse chapter of the American Culinary Federation, visit acfsyracuse.com.

Margaret McCormick is a freelance writer and editor in Syracuse. She blogs about food at eatfirst.typepad.com. Follow her on Twitter, connect on Facebook or email her at mmccormicksnt@gmail.com.

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