Bear Restaurant wins Best New Restaurant in Best of Food 2009

A Fire in the Bear's den: since opening last November, chef Ray Bear’s eponymous restaurant Bear has become Halifax’s favourite shiny new plaything. Photos by Scott Munn

[Editor’s note: This story is one of a package of three of Andy Murdoch's articles selected for Honourable Mention in the Food Writing category of the Association of Alternative Newsweekies' 2010 awards. See all three here.]

3:30pm An hour and a half before Halifax's Best New Restaurant opens, server Sarah Guthman walks in. She and server Paul Driscoll are eating strawberries from a Tim Hortons cup and checking bookings. Tonight looks slow, with just 24 reservations.

The kitchen is bright and brash. Lupe Fiasco's cool beats pound out loudly from the kitchen. Shiny new steel gleams under the lights. The KitchenAid whirrs, the stove is crammed with roiling pots and dishes pile up in the pit.

Chef Ray Bear is out, but he's got his young guns digging into their work.

On point at the sushi station is Zaque Johnsen. Johnsen trained at the only sushi bar on the island of Saint John in the US Virgin Islands. He's laid-back, with high-end influences, like Morimoto and Nobu. Johnsen began his day making rice. Now, he's pulling meat from a tray of king crab.

Next to him on the cold-food station is the new kid, Aaron Allen, a fresh-faced 19-year-old on loan from the Nova Scotia Culinary College. He's cutting up beets for salads, then he'll move onto slicing scallops for ceviche and keeping the Malpeque oysters on fresh ice.

Adam Todd, an apprentice under Bear, picks through a tray of lamb short ribs that will go into ravioli for tonight. "I do the vegetable and the starch area. So I work on the main-course stuff."

Todd works to the right of chef Bear. He's kind of a "Sarge" type figure, with a pretty good kitchen radar despite being just ripe. Todd finished culinary school at NSCC last year and started at Bear in January. He will become a full-fledged chef in a year and a half: Only 3,000 more hours to go.

4:00pm Pastry chef Julia Mahoney stirs a French butter cream at the stove. She's only been out of school for a year. She worked as a dishwasher at Gio under Ray Bear. She takes the hot mixture off the stove, pours it into the KitchenAid mixer in the corner, then adds butter. You don't want to know how much butter. She's got bread rolls proofing and tea biscuits in the oven.

"We don't have a [bread] mixer. They are all made here, by hand, by me," she says, proudly. "It's my 13th straight shift without a day off," she adds, moving a blob of melted chocolate around on a slab of marble to cool it off.

Allen and Todd do dishes. Johnsen makes hollandaise sauce. Servers Driscoll and Guthman have swept, set tables and check the bar. They head to the change room as chef Ray Bear walks in.

5:00pm Ray Bear's Saturday went like this: Shopping at the Farmers' Market; back to the kitchen to start stocks; out to Pete's Frootique in Bedford to set up a cook to demo his line of barbeque sauces---recently picked up by the White House, as in Barack Obama's new home---then back to brine meat; out to shop; back to prep; out to Bedford to reel his cook in; open the kitchen and out to shop again.

5:15pm The lights in the kitchen go down. Lupe Fiasco stops playing and the house music starts. The restaurant opens, but no customers have arrived. Bear moves to his station and looks at what's on the stove. Todd gives him a report: lamb stock, more lamb stock, beef stock.

Everyone calls him Chef. Wait staff don't talk to cooks, they talk to Chef. Everything goes through Chef. Bear tastes some short rib, tells Todd to salt it. Mahoney removes chocolate shells from a mould, banging them on the counter. Bear tells her to keep it down.

5:30pm A trick Bear learned from a Jamaican cook at Canoe in Toronto: He ties string to the brass rail of the oven. Then, he takes the lamb racks he's cut French-style, exposing the rib bones. He ties the other end of the string to the base of the exposed rib and pulls it as if he were starting a lawn mower. The bone is clean and ready to serve.

6:00pm The first customers arrive. A table of two. Allen finishes his pork dumplings. Johnsen rolls out long sheets of pasta for ravioli.

6:10pm The amuse bouche is decided on the spot. "We're going to do the octopus ham," Bear says. This is one of many tiny confections he keeps on hand for his tasting menus. "We take an octopus," Bear says, "brine it, smoke it and simmer it in canola oil for four hours and it comes out tasting like ham."

The octopus is paired with papaya salsa, made of pickled red onion, cucumber and papaya. Bear chops it up quickly as Allen watches. "Do two rounds of the pepper mill," Bear says to Allen and walks off to trim the striploin steaks for the night.

6:20pm The first order comes in: calamari for two, striploin, confit duck. As Bear cleans the beef he says, despite his reputation for creating skilled molecular dishes, "People don't want to come in here and eat a fucked up steak. It needs to get left alone. Salt and pepper and on the grill."

That said, Bear has admitted to frequent urges to go over the top. He has a mad professor-style plan to serve a whole steak in tempura batter. Many ideas like this are in their developmental phase: scallops stitched into tenderloins; blueberry coconuts, octopus hams. Beside him, Todd pours a bottle of Dr. Pepper into a pan to reduce. One bottle gives a quarter cup of syrupy reduction, infused with smoke, for the duck.

6:30pm The first appetizer is plated. Todd pulls a large lamp a few inches above the plate, sitting like a patient on an operating table. Red pepper sauce is applied to the plate. Calamari goes on. Lemon is squeezed. Micro greens top it off. Every action is formal, timed, aspiring to science, but at this time of day, a kitchen is less a laboratory than it is a playing field. The plate leaves; a play is executed.

Cooking straddles science and art the way sport does. It's training and practice and teamwork. The restaurant runs on a skeleton rookie crew. It's a big gamble for Bear because it means ultimately, at crunch time, he has one person to rely on: himself. All Bear has are his skills, some young minds and collective sweat equity. All night long, Bear plays coach and quarterback, keeping a close eye on his rookies.

"Dragon roll is two, ravioli is one, envy is three and the barbeque is four," Bear tells his waiters.

Each number is a diner. As soon as they leave, Bear turns to Todd, "Two fishes, strip and a lamb." Work starts on the entrees.

When it gets busy there's a flow to the kitchen. The amuse bouches are started. Then the appetizers by Johnsen or Allen up front. Then the mains, assembled by Bear and Todd in back. Finally, it moves over to Mahoney against the wall.

"There's a method to each dish," Todd says. "You have to be anticipating what will have to be done."

Bear paces 15 minutes to eat appetizers; half an hour for mains. Desserts only take 10 minutes. You could eat here in an hour, Bear says, but a meal should take two hours, ideally.

Allen dresses the amuses. Johnsen gently places a tempura shrimp in the fryer, flicking batter on the oil's surface with his fingers. Todd blanches edamame, assembles lobster risotto with butter and cheese, puts vegetables into six-inch saucepans. A breaded, deep-fried sweet potato pavé is put into an oven.

Bear takes a steak's temp with a long pin. He sticks it in, feels the top of the steak, the sides. Then he takes the pin out and puts it to his wrist. "That's gonna feel a little different once it's rested," he says.

7:40pm One can feel the evening peaking now. The dining room is half full, but from within the open kitchen, the relationship between diner and cook feels like one of audience and performer. You vaguely hear them, you can see them, too, but they are more sensation than reality. The pace ratchets up. Heat lamps sway, casting a shipboard light. More orders come in.

"Two amuses, followed by an envy, calamari, lamb and a duck." Each station repeats aloud their part of the order as Bear calls it. "Two amuses, barbeque split, duck and a halibut. Gonna sell a lot of duck tonight."

"Duck, duck. You got more legs kickin'?" Todd asks.

The stove is full of pans. As piles of sushi and calamari go out to tables, Bear announces, "We're gonna start our pick up on table three in about four minutes."

The halibut is flipped. Three pieces of duck, four pieces of lamb and one striploin are taken out of the oven or from a spitting frying pan, ready to plate.

8:15pm One minute from plating, Bear calls.

Somehow their hands manage to work around one other at great speeds without getting tangled. Todd plates the risotto, dashes fennel puree across the side, Bear crumbles on a dry bacon vinaigrette reduction, Todd shakes on edamame. Two halibut come out of a pan onto the plate. Done. Next plate. Rack of lamb is distanced from the sous vide leg. Sweet potato pavé slides out of the oven, plated by Todd. Done. Todd applies parsnip puree then Bear pushes a rake across it. Bear pours veal jus into the parsnip furrows as Todd leans grilled green scallions on roasted shallots. A line of Dr. Pepper squirts on the side. Duck legs balance on duck spring rolls and Bear puts a lean-to of sizzling foie gras as the last piece in a Jenga stack of duck. Done.

Slam! Heat lamps are flipped off and fly back up to the ceiling. Play moves to Guthman and Driscoll out the door.

8:30pm Bear leaves the kitchen to do a walkabout. Allen's wife sits in front of him at the bar. She's all dressed up. It's a sweet picture, so the crew teases them. The kitchen takes a few breaths. There is no dishwasher. No one minds doing them. Mahoney did them earlier and Johnsen does them now with a bored efficiency.

"The best cooks come from Sackville," Bear jokes. Yes, he's from Sackville.

The greatest underlying principle in the autocratic society of the kitchen is that it is a meritocracy. More than any other profession, even the lowest caste members can work their way to the top.

Chefs are Napoleon and Horatio Alger wrapped up in one. Todd worked at Boston Pizza. Mahoney was at the Superstore bakery. Allen works at a hospital. And Bear once worked at Red Lobster.

During the lulls of the evening, Bear tells me his story. He moved to Toronto when he was 15, using his sister's social insurance number to work in a Red Lobster. "I was fighting all the time. My parents had enough of me. Basically, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I wasn't doing anything in school so I just got up and went."

After a couple years drifting, he came back east. "I remember my interview with Unni at Scanway. She looked at me and she said, 'Have you ever been in trouble with the law?' and I put my head down and I told her a lie and I said, 'Nah.' She knew what the truth was, but she hired me and took me on and kept me out of trouble. Very strict. Long, long hours. Ninety-hour weeks back to back, but right on the other side of that table was Unni. I never questioned it."

It was his first real professional job. He worked for $4.50 an hour, living in a Fairview roach motel dreaming of $8.50 an hour. Bear spent the next 10 years travelling, networking his way into jobs at big name kitchens: August in New Orleans; Radius in Boston; Alinea in Chicago; Nobu in Miami.

Then there was Gio. "One year, we made 20 percent profit at the Prince George. That is almost unheard of," Bear told me. He took a 50 percent pay cut to start this restaurant. He claims a line cook at the Westin makes more than him now.

Bear is full of hungry cooks. Foremost among them is chef Ray Bear. His staff at Gio were paid well. Not here. He can't afford to. That's why he's hires young guns. It's a mutually beneficial enterprise: He gives them chops, they give him time.

"They know, if they stay a year with me, the amount of knowledge they're going to learn, anyone in this city will hire them after year with me. It's worth it."

9:00pm Chef looks over Mahoney's shoulder as she prepares desserts. The guys have to prepare four boxes of calamari for a buttermilk marinade. They take the long, needle-like pen---basically the spine---out with the guts and chop. The cleanup begins and prep for next week is underway. On a night like this, they'll be all ready to go home when the kitchen closes at 11pm.

10:00pm Driscoll was given a ticket to a concert as a tip. "Guess I did my job right tonight," he says smiling. He bugs out as fast as he can.

Ray Bear, winner of Best New Restaurant, shows all the stress, bravado and defiance involved in trying to nurture a high-end kitchen through its first year during a recession.

That's a challenge in a city where high-end is a niche market. "I was in New York talking to this guy from Vancouver and he was laughing at Halifax. I said, 'Bullshit, you wait and see. I am going to do it in Halifax.'"

"It" refers to a world-class restaurant. He admits he's not there yet. His staff aren't there yet. Hell, maybe the city isn't there yet, but he's unfazed.

10:15pm A late table arrives. Bear calls out their order and slaps some meat on the grill. The big kitchen seems empty, but Ray Bear's invested in the future. What else can new kids on the block do, but hope?

Andy Murdoch is food editor at the coast. He once made his own haggis, with surprisingly edible results.

About The Author

Andy Murdoch

Andy Murdoch is an awesome guy.

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