With Downtown Cleveland Restaurant Week coming up, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in doing a chef interview for them. Of course I said yes, and a few days later they set up a meeting with the chef at Wonder Bar, Joe Bemer. Wonder Bar normally opens at 5pm, but Joe was gracious enough to have me come in at 1:30pm. When I arrived, Joe was the only person there, and he was already hand prepping the food for dinner that evening (making fresh hand made pizza dough). I asked Joe where his help was and he said you are looking at it. Joe is a one man show in the kitchen, who prepares the entire menu without a a grill or stove top burners! The kitchen in fact is about the size of my home kitchen! Right away I was impressed that he could whip up the menu that I saw with the space he was given. Joe explained that he loved this kitchen because he had access to everything he needed to make great food at arms length. Here is our conversation:
CFB-What got you interested in cooking?
Joe-Joe became interested in cooking at a very young age. He and four other siblings were raised by a single mother. Most of the time his older sisters prepared meals for the family and dinner was on the table by the time their mother arrived home from work. Of course, being the little brother Joe wanted to get in on the cooking action that he saw his older sisters taking so much pride in. Joe clearly spoke highly of his mother and sisters and they clearly were a major influence on his passion for food and cooking.
CFB-When did you decide to become a chef?
Joe-In high school Joe didn't picture himself as a chef. He took his high school cooking classes and later on a catering class and really enjoyed it. Joe then worked his way up from the bottom in pursuing his career. He started the grind at Peir W Restaurant and working hard every single day. Steve Paris was someone who put a lot of faith in Joe and he is very grateful for that. Joe doesn't have any formal training, but has the passion and determination for experimenting and learning every single day.
CFB-Who in your life has influenced your cooking the most?
Joe-Joe's mother and sisters played a major role in Joe's passion for food. Joe also found out he was going to be a father at the age of 19 and that really set him on his path to follow his passion and make a career out of it.
Fun Chef Questions
CFB-Cleveland has received some great national press as an up and coming culinary “go to” city. How would you describe the culinary scene as a chef and what do you see happening down the road?
Joe-Joe has been a Clevelander all his life and his enthusiasm for this city goes without question. He believes that the people of Cleveland always have known and appreciated good food. He applauds and thanks some of the Cleveland chefs who have helped to bring Cleveland to the national spotlight. Joe hopes that he can turn Wonder Bar into one of those places that is talked about on a national level!
CFB-How would you describe your cooking style?
Joe-Instead of focusing on one or two styles, Joe likes to focus on using as many local and fresh ingredients as possible. He loves being adaptive in the kitchen and experimenting with using different flavors. What makes cooking so fun is the artistic and creative side that always allows you to create new things. Joe believes in having an open menu that is always open to change.
CFB-If you were to cook for me today a signature dish that really shows me what type of chef you are, what would you cook for me and why?
Joe-Joe described a dish that sounded amazing. He would make me a Lamb Pave. He would take the lamb shoulder or leg and braise it until it falls apart. He would then take the stock and toss the braised lamb back in and lightly saute it with mushrooms and herbs. Then he would press and form into a "meat loaf" like form and wrap the entire thing in a very thin layer of fat and bake it. Talk about FLAVOR! When describing this dish Joe had a smile on his face the entire time. You could tell this was one of his personal favorite dishes!
CFB-What is your favorite food to eat?
Joe- "What ever my son wants to eat!" Joe explained that he usually will let his son pick out the protein and then he will take the meal from there and just get creative with it. Joe talked about how he loves all things food and couldn't just pin one thing he loves the most.
CFB-When you go out to eat what are you looking for in a restaurant? What do you expect from the chef?
Joe-Joe listed several qualities that he looks for when dining out. Quality ingredients, flavors that pop, consistency, freshness, and thoughtfulness. Joe explained that when he sees a dish he likes to try to figure out the chef's game plan. He likes an artistic looking dish, but that clearly taste trumps appearance. As far as the kitchen is concerned Joe just wants to see a well functioning kitchen that stays on top of the tickets and produces a high quality dish each and every time.
CFB-If you could have a meal prepared for you by any chef in America, who would you choose and why?
Joe-Joe named two chefs--Marco Pierre White and Iron Chef Morimoto. Joe picked these two because they make amazing food and they both have great kitchen command and presence.
CFB-What is the strangest ingredient you ever cooked with, and what did you make with it?
Joe-Joe has cooked with alligator where he has made an alligator mousse and even prepared seared tail and an alligator stew. He has also used skate and rattlesnake in dishes before. Joe is not afraid to use proteins that our outside of the box because these proteins are very versatile!
CFB- What was your worst kitchen disaster?
Joe- Joe told me about his time working at Melange. It wasn't really a disaster, but there would be nights when the kitchen was just crazy and he would end up sleeping in the office because they had to be up early to prepare to make brunch the next day. He also told me about a time when equipment blew up when he was using it and he was shocked by a cooler!
CFB--Where do you see yourself a year from now.
Joe-Joe is very passionate about starting a seed to plate concept. There is a small space behind Wonder Bar that Joe hopes to start a small potted vegetable garden in the summer. Joe eventually hopes to have business expand to the point that he will add another chef. He would also like to have a permanent indoor greenhouse plot so he can have his own personal fresh ingredients all year long. Joe is serious about making Wonder Bar an amazing culinary restaurant and he looks forward to the opportunity to teach and share his passion with others.
CFB-Best cooking tip for a novice who has a passion for food and cooking?
Joe-Pick aflavor, explore the flavor, and research the flavor. He stressed that everyone should dive in and try new things with food and that we shouldn't be afraid to make a mistake.
Thank you to Downtown Cleveland Alliance for giving me the chance to talk with Chef Bemer. Thank you to Joe Bemer for taking the time out of your busy day to sit down and talk with me. What you do in that kitchen is commendable!!