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Bear necessities 

The newly renovated restaurant in the Prince George Hotel has been getting a lot of attention recently, and justifiably so. Gio is a feast for the senses; each plate a work of art, a perfect balance of style and substance. The decor is striking, the service superb, the menu full of unique offerings that Halifax diners have previously only glimpsed in glossy food magazines or in foodie meccas like Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

But make no mistake—gio may be in the Prince George Hotel, but gio is not a hotel restaurant. Gio is the first signature restaurant for culinary wunderkind Ray Bear, a chef who is just hitting his stride, and poised to become a household name—pretty good for a local kid whose very early career aspirations were “hot dog man.”

I knew Bear a decade or so ago, and remember visiting him in his old restaurant kitchen. He was throwing out what was to have been the next day’s soup, a green apple and green pepper combination. The soup was ill-fated, but it was an indication that even then, he was experimenting with flavour combinations.

“I did some pretty funky stuff,” he says, “then I went to the Prince George, and taught me that everything has to have a reason for being on a plate. So then I was conservative for a long time. I ate at Susur’s”—Susur Lee, Toronto star chef—”and that got me excited again.” That dinner at Susur’s showed him it was possible to push the envelope as well as have all the ingredients in a dish serve a purpose, and once again the creative side took over.

That creativity is evident in dishes such as his cheese plate, featuring microbrewed beer sorbet; a rack of lamb with coconut sauce and passion fruit syrup; in fact, all the plates on his new menu.

His training began through the culinary program at NSCC Akerley campus, where he competed successfully in apprenticeship competitions and later team competitions across Canada. He took courses at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, and did “stages” (voluntary short-term work) in kitchens across Canada and the States. This allowed him “to take the best every kitchen has to offer, and adapt it to my style.” Which is? “Scientific, modern, classic flavours.”

Asked about his influences, Bear cites chef Houston, and credits Unni Simensen and her son Geir—of Scanway, Bear’s longtime culinary home—as being the reason he is the way he is in the kitchen today. Locally, he admires Fid’s Dennis Johnson—“he has incredible knowledge.”

Along with his competitive success, Bear has been featured as the mentor to one of the apprentices on Global’s “Next Great Chef,” and was awarded Chef of the Year 2005 for Nova Scotia, among other accolades. You would think that so much success at such a young age (he’s 33) would be a bit much for a chef to handle. But despite the attention, Bear is remarkably grounded.

He’s quick to lay generous praise on his kitchen brigade, most of whom are “inexperienced, but willing to learn and with great attitudes.” He’s excited to have lured back his former pastry chef, Annaleisa Waito, who he says “has taken desserts to a whole new level.”

When speaking with Bear, it doesn’t take long to realize what sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. His love of food is genuine, he speaks about food and cooks straight from his heart. “It’s a sweet sickness,” he laughs. One from which we hope he is never cured, for never has a culinary flame burned so bright as in this home-grown talent.

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