Much like the a movie star who has maybe dipped from the public eye and battled a few demons, chef Ray Bear has circled back around to a lot of buzz since his hayday in the 2000s, and more recently, to a resurgence in the East Coast food scene.
Studio East, who he runs with his partner Saronn Pov, focuses on Cambodian cuisine (Pov's family roots) and other contemporary Asian creations. The result is food that is big on flavour, heat and lingers deliciously in your mind long after it's faded from your palate.
Bear talks about his time as a younger chef in Nova Scotia, how he's excited to be back in Halifax to watch the city's food scene grow exponentially, how Pov keeps him in line and why making sure your restaurant is full is more important than trying to be "the best".
You’re a born-and-raised Nova Scotian, but have worked in places like Vancouver and Calgary. What brought you back to Halifax?
We came back here about three years ago now. We were here visiting and I could kind of see the change happening. I got excited about it and I said to Saronn that we really needed to head back home.
And that was it. Back to the East Coast you went?
Well, it took a little convincing for her initially, but once we came back, it was like, “Yeah. This is it.”
[This city] reminds me a lot of how Calgary was six or eight years ago. It’s the start of the big bubble. You can see what’s happening here now, even with all of the construction that’s going on. The city hasn’t seen anything like this for 50 years.
What was the industry dynamic like, say, ten years ago for you in Halifax as opposed to now?
Years ago, I was one of the big fish in a little pond and now I don’t really comment on much. I just keep my head down and stay focused with what I have going on. As a young cook back then, I was all about the competitions and all of those sorts of things. The enRoute magazine list used to be a big thing for me too. These days, I’m just making sure our restaurant is full every night and that the guests are raving about what they ate.
When Studio East is highlighted in articles or lists, do you see an influx in business?
Actually, we were featured in an article in the Porter Airlines magazine recently and we had a ton of people come in and mention it. That was cool to see, but the lists and whatnot that I care more about are the local ones. Last year, we were voted restaurant of the year in The Chronicle Herald. Those kinds of things matter to me because those are the people coming in to my restaurant and supporting us all of the time. When you're flying in for the day, of course I'd love to have your business, but it's great to have local support.
There have been plenty of new restaurants in the city, and in Dartmouth too, over the past couple of years. Who is doing an exceptionally good job?
Edna is always great. In my mind, Edna has a menu that can serve the masses, in a good way. No one is intimidated by their menu and it is always executed well. It has a beautiful dining room and great service. It’s definitely set the bar that everyone strives for in the city.
Is there a restaurant concept that you think is missing from the East Coast food scene?
I still believe the big thing is going to be that gastropub sort of concept. Similar to Stillwell or Stubborn Goat, but with more of an [international spin]. At Studio East, we have local beers on tap, it’s a casual, fun room...I’d love to see something [in a similar vein] like a tandoori tavern, taking that gastropub idea and working Indian food into it. I think Halifax could handle something cool like that now.
Studio East gets a fair number of great reviews. That must be a pretty good feeling for you.
It’s an interesting city because you can’t get too high on yourself here. People knock you down pretty fast. I try to keep it pretty simple. Saronn and I definitely share the credit with what goes on with the food, though she can walk in the kitchen at any minute. She’ll walk in and say, “This doesn’t taste right. Fix it.”
It sounds like her reviews are the ones you’ve got to pay attention to the most!
She’s my biggest critic. I love that. I need that in my life. Ha, ha, ha. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you’re never as bad as they say you are, but you’re never as good as they say you are either. I need that balance and she’s that balance.