June 18, 2010
Mary Kiernan named Chef of the Year
Chef Mary Kiernan has catered, owned a restaurant, created a pasta line with her husband and has overseen special events at the Carrier Dome. Now she’s teaching students how to manage a restaurant — and how to cook while they’re at it — at Syracuse University.
The Homer woman has another notch in her culinary belt. Kiernan was named 2010 Chef of the Year by the Syracuse Chapter of the American Culinary Federation.
“I am absolutely honored and tickled,” said Kiernan, the food and beverage instructor at SU. “Because this award comes from my colleagues. I was nominated by somebody else in the chapter and it was voted on by the chapter.”
Kiernan agreed to be interviewed at her home but insisted on cooking for this reporter and photographer. She said: “Pick up two ingredients from a farmer’s market and I will cook something for you — It’ll be fun.”
We brought Swiss chard and red onions and watched Kiernan sauté the vegetables in olive oil, with a garlic pesto. She boiled pasta and added the vegetable sauté to the pasta with diced tomatoes. We sat down at a roomy table and enjoyed the delicious food. Dessert was a ginger biscuit topped with mixed berries and real whipped cream. Both were lovely.
The chef of the year honor goes to a person who has demonstrated the highest standard of culinary skills, advances the cuisine of America and has given back to the profession through the development of students and apprentices. Candidates must hold a sous chef title or higher, work in a full-service facility and be nominated by any ACF member.
“Mary is a very energetic professional who is always striving to put forth her best, for the chapter, her students, outside her professional life and in the community ... She’s very energetic and very personable,” said Gerald J. Bolton, president of the chapter and executive chef at the OnCenter Complex in Syracuse. The chapter has about 45 members, he said.
“It’s sincere,” said Bolton of the honor. “It’s all done on a voting process. The majority wins and the majority felt the same way.”
Other nominees looked at for the award were Chance Bear from Owasco Country Club, Brian Shore from the Century Club and Joelle Mollinger from Joelle’s French Bistro.
“We have serious talent in the region,” Kiernan said. “It’s a very serious profession. It’s a lot of fun. You will never go hungry. And the opportunities are wonderful.”
She said the popularity of food television from the mid-1990s to today has advanced the chef profession. “But I think a lot goes unnoticed with what it takes to get there,” she said. She wants her restaurant operations students to walk away with a respect for the industry, for what it takes in the kitchen, and out front in the restaurant, to get people to want to come back.
“You’ve got to make them come back. Good service will keep you open longer than bad food. People will tolerate mediocre food if the service is good.”
She encourages chefs and cooks to get certifications for various levels of the craft. “It tells the employer you are investing in yourself.”
Kiernan is certified chef de cuisine by the ACF, acknowledging her ability to be in charge of food production in a food service operation. She is also a certified hospitality educator, allowing her to teach in her profession. She is currently pursing a master’s in business at SU.
“It benefits me on a lot of levels,” she said.
Kiernan will be formally honored June 28 at Mohegan Manor, 58 Oswego St., Baldwinsville, by the federation at its 26th Annual Awards Dinner. There will be a 6 p.m. hors d’oeuvre reception, followed by a 7:30 p.m. dinner. Host chef will be Chance Bear. People are welcome to come to the dinner to honor Kiernan. Fee per person. RSVP by Saturday to 315-727-7200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kiernan is a mother of three and is married to Tom Kiernan, regional executive chef at Morrison Healthcare — SUNY Upstate. The couple owned Pasta di Perfetti, a pasta business, as well as the Elm Street Cafe in Cortland for a number of years before moving on to their current posts. A couple of years ago, the pair did a lasagna, bread and salad mass fundraiser for an injured teacher at the Homer Junior High, where their boys were students. The whole school was involved and the Kiernans headed up the effort.
Today, Mary Kiernan teaches restaurant operations, introduction to food service and cost control at SU to between 35 and 55 students a semester, as well as advising. She started her career at SU in 2000 at the Carrier Dome’s catering department as an event supervisor. In 2004, she became the manager. In 2007, she became a faculty member.
Kiernan has been cooking the last 25-30 years, starting at 15. The rule at home was: if you cook, you don’t have to clean up. “I started to cook to get out of cleanup.” She took on cooking for eight in her large family, with five kids and a nanny. The daughter of David and Margaret Perfetti, her father was the cooking enthusiast in the family.
“My father never, never had a bad word to say if you were cooking,” she said.
Both parents were supportive of Kiernan’s chef aspirations and she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
She said she likes all kinds of food. “I will cook anything. I just came home from an Asian cooking class. We did six countries in four days.”
If she leans anywhere it would be toward Mediterranean food, with a spin on Italian: “That’s what I am. That’s what I grew up with,” she said.
“Partly because I teach I am a sticker for fundamentals. I really believe if you understand the fundamentals, if you know the basic steps, basic cooking methods, then your next step to learning the next culture is not such a big step.”
Her students are not culinary students, but rather hospitality management and nutrition majors at SU.
“I am teaching them how to cook and how to run a restaurant at the same time.”
She emphasizes flavor profiles, as well. Her Restaurant Operations class serves the public for five weeks of the semester. SU has a dining room for 35 to 40 with a commercial kitchen.
She would rather students make a mistake, as long as they take initiative. One girl whined and moaned about having to cook in her class. Finally Kiernan had a word with her. “You have to have this class to go on in your major,” Kiernan said. “You can be miserable for 16 weeks or look at it as a chance to take something from the class.”
The girl thought about it. One day the manager in the kitchen didn’t show up on event day. “Does somebody have a plan?” Kiernan asked the students. “We have service, we have paying customers,” Kiernan told the class. “It was this kid who said, ‘I have an idea,’” she said.
The girl took over and did a fabulous job. That’s what it’s about for Kiernan.
“You are going to get out of this life exactly what you put into it. I feel like that for pretty much everything.”
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