If you’ve dined in Cleveland over the past decade there is a good chance you’ve shared a meal with Joe Bemer. More accurately, Joe Bemer has probably shared a meal with you.
A lifelong Clevelander, Bemer has cooked in some of Cleveland’s most revered kitchens, including the former Fulton Bar & Grill, Sinergy, Johnny’s, Fire, Great Lakes Brewing Company and Mélange. In January, Bemer was hand-picked to run the kitchen at the popular East 4th watering hole, Wonder Bar.
Armed only with an oven and an incredible feel for the gastronomy of this town (Wonder Bar has no grill or sauté burners), Bemer is ready for the challenge. While the menu may be petite by some standards, Bemer’s creativity and unique flavor profiles keep it fresh and interesting.
A self proclaimed “one man show,” Bemer believes that at its core Cleveland is still a “meat and potatoes society.” With this in mind, his offerings marry Cleveland sensibility with French and Italian cooking fundamentals. From his interpretation of the winter classic, Shepherd’s Pie, to his latest gourmet pizza creation, Bemer believes in giving Clevelanders what they want—comforting food at a fair price.
Under the direction of Bemer and General Manager Andrea Howell, Wonder Bar continues to evolve. With wine and beer pairings, a tasting event with Jim Beam and plans to design a small vegetable garden out back, Wonder Bar is ready for 2011 Restaurant Week and much more.
Q&A with Joe Bemer:
You’ve been a chef in quite a few restaurants around Cleveland. How long have you been at Wonder Bar?
Let’s see…two weeks. (laughter) I was coming off of a job where I stepped out of the kitchen to work as the front of the house manager at a restaurant. Normally, I work for independent owners. It’s good to be back.
When did you decide to become a chef?
I was young—in high school. I grew up in a family of five, so I’ve cooked my whole life. That’s what we did.
Did you formally study the culinary arts or have you honed your skills through on-the-job experiences?
I’ve just been fortunate enough to study a lot. A lot of self training, lots of reading. I had a great mentor in Steve Parris too. He’s the original—made it happen.
What is the best part about being a chef?
Being able to be creative. In life, it’s always good to have a job and a career that you want to have. Something that you have fun doing. It really makes a difference in the world.
The hours. (laughter) But the tradeoff is worth it in the long run.
What is your favorite dish to prepare at Wonder Bar?
Honestly, all of them. I don’t want to limit myself in any one dish. I like to play with as much as I can.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I don’t know if I have a style. Tasty, I guess. I play with a lot of different flavors. French techniques, Italian flavors…play with as much as possible. You know, I only have an oven here. No grill or sauté burners. So, it’s pretty cool. It’s a challenge and I make everything fresh.
It’s a cold, blustery day in Downtown Cleveland and you are badly in need of some “comfort food”. What are you preparing?
A bowl of soup. This is Cleveland! What warms you up better than a bowl of soup? You gotta remember that Cleveland is a meat and potatoes society. I have a shepherd’s pie on the menu. Beef tips, fresh mashed potatoes, sprouts. Give people what they want. That’s what we are doing. Sure, there is upscale presentation and technique and flavor profiles….but everything is made in-house.
The tables are turned and you are the diner. What are you looking for in a restaurant? What do you expect from the chef?
I suppose that I dine with a different eye. Obviously, being a chef I’m a little more critical. I want to be wowed. I want to say it was beautiful…amazing. Really, I hope to understand where the chef is coming from. It’s not just about presentation. Yeah—it hits your eyes first. But, I want to be wowed by the overall package. Service to desserts I’m looking for a memorable night. I need to remember why I went there. Oh, this place has a great burger. Oh, this place has killer steak tartar.
If you could have a meal prepared for you by any chef in America, who would you choose and why?
I think I’d say Morimoto. He’s a favorite of mine…his style, technique, flavor profile. The way he moves through a kitchen is amazing.
If someone comes to Wonder Bar for a job as a cook, what are you looking for and why?
Honestly, right now I’m not. (laughter) It’s a solo kitchen right now. Hopefully, I can build enough clientele to bring someone else in. I want eyes, ears and taste buds wide open. You have to be willing to learn, think things through, see it from every different angle. Get to the why. You need a young, trainable person. Especially here…people are willing to teach. That’s how I got where I am. Learning from the guys around me. Pick up what they put down. I’ve been around a lot of talent in this area. You can’t stop. You can’t rely on others. You need to do it on your own. Dive in. If it’s what you want—go full at it.
There are plenty of amateur cooks in our region. What is the best piece of advice you could give to someone who is just starting to fall in love with cooking?
Stick with it. Don’t get discouraged. If you are doing it in your house, you are doing it for the joy of it. Go back to the classics. Read Larousse Gastronomique or Julia Childs. Learn the fundamentals. The fundamentals help you make the best meals.
Downtown Cleveland has received national recognition as an emerging culinary scene. How would you describe the culinary scene Downtown? What is happening?
Thank God! We’ve doing it for a long time. Personally, I’d like to see it more bustling. The downtown I remember growing up was hustling and rapid. CLE is now getting recognition for its food—for great places to dine. But, food doesn’t come from an area, it comes from within. Or what you can work with. A lot of guys are doing it—going to farms, keeping it local. When you put your passion into it people see.
What’s on tap for the next few months?
I’m excited for the summer. You know, baseball season starts in 60 days. Isn’t that crazy? That’s not too far off. I’m ready for people to get out and about again. It’s going to be fun. We have plenty of tastings coming up—I’m working on one with Jim Beam right now—and I’m going to start a little garden out back. Nothing too big, just some tomatoes, cukes, herbs…mint for mojitos. That sort of thing.