Bob Sferra runs his Culinary Occasions catering business out of his Better Occasions pastry shop in South Euclid.
He’s been cooking for more than 25 years, has always loved baking best of all, and never runs out of sweet and sometimes wild ideas.
We find him chopping up a block of chocolate. He prefers the dark variety "especially for this, because we’re going savory for this, even though most people think of chocolate as a dessert item.”
He’s thinking shellfish.
“We’re going to do a pan-seared sea scallop with a savory chocolate fondue or a savory chocolate sauce to go with it.
He’s suggested the dish to clients and had mixed reactions.
“Normally they do think it’s crazy ... until you taste it. Scallop to me is a little bit like dessert to be honest with you. So I think it does work.”
Taught well on the job
Sferra grew up in Youngstown in a big Italian food-loving family. He’s worked at the Inn at Turners Mill in Hudson, The Harp in Ohio City, and the Foundation House of the Cleveland Clinic as an executive chef.
He credits Parker Bosley of Cleveland’s fabled Parker’s New American Bistro for getting him started in his 20s.
“He was a very good teacher. It was a very good foundation and probably the reason why I did not go to culinary school. I truly learned from the ground up to the point that: On day one, we threw flour on the table, and I learned how to turn that into pasta dough; on day two, we turned it into bread; and on day three we turned it into pain sucre, which is a French pastry dough, and just kind of built from there. So, a rounded vision of everything in the kitchen.”
Sferra worked at Parkers for seven years before it closed in 2006.
For the last eight years, he’s done weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate gatherings, and soirees all over Northeast Ohio, sometimes in difficult locations such as "the observation deck of the Terminal Tower. And there’s no kitchen; there’s no anything, so you have to bring everything up there. So it’s intimate; it’s challenging.”
He does that once a year as a fundraiser for the Cleveland Food Bank.
Usually his biggest headache is having to cook outdoors.
“The minute it gets hot in Cleveland or the sun starts to shine, we do get the challenge of folks who want to have grand events outside.”
Like a private party for 300 guests last summer.
“It was so out there. The client wanted naan made in a Tandoor oven in his backyard. The fact that it poured down rain and then was 100 degrees, 100 percent humidity, was not easy.”
The customer’s always right
But caterers must cater, and clients are allowed to be picky.
“If I gave them 20 menus they say, ‘OK, we were thinking of doing Indian food on a spit out in the backyard.’ But I think that’s one of our hallmarks is that we do have great flexibility. We nine times out of ten end up creating something that is a vision that this client had.”
Sometimes the party’s big and grand, sometimes quiet and intimate, like one Valentine’s Day.
“For a husband and wife celebrating their first anniversary, it was just the two of them and me. So it was fun and interesting and challenging and uncomfortable. I’m not going to lie.”
Of course there was chocolate for Valentine’s Day, and there’s always lots of it at his cooking classes, like a recent sell-out at Gervasi Vineyard’s Cucina.
“When I look on my recipe packet file on my computer I must have at least 10 packets that are classes that have a variation of the name ‘chocolate for dinner.’ People just love it.”
Preparing the scallops for their chocolate treat
It’s what for dinner now, along with some plump scallops he’s taking out of the fridge. He lets them get to room temperature, pats them dry, and snips off their little feet.
“The foot is what actually is the little muscle that attaches the scallop to the larger shell.”
A scallop is really just a giant clam. It’s sweet, but gets even sweeter when it browns in a saute pan.
“The trick behind this idea of a caramelization is that the pan is hot. Once the pan is hot, we want the fat to be hot. Once the fat is hot, we want the perfectly prepared scallop -- dry, seasoned -- to go in the pan. And then we want to make sure we have everything else ready to go as well.”
Like wine, rice wine vinegar, cocoa powder, diced shallots, heavy cream, and a French chocolate with 63 percent cacao content.
"The much higher cacao content, the more bittersweet, the more natural the chocolate’s going to be.”
Once browned right into the oven
First into the saute pan goes a teaspoon of canola oil; then butter with the milk solids strained out so it won’t burn.
“A teaspoon of clarified butter, and then right after the clarified butter hits the pan we’re going to hit the pan with our scallops. We want to hear an instant sear. We want it to have an instant caramelization.”
The scallops won’t be long in the saute pan.
“If we try to finish them on top of the stove, we’re going to have scallops that are finished so far on into the center that they’ll be like rubber. We’ve probably all eaten scallops that are just like that, and we don’t want that to happen.”
Only one side of the two-inch- tall scallops gets seared while the oven preheats to 300 degrees.
For the bed the scallops will rest, on he’s chosen spinach.
“Very, very simple. Wilting spinach, all we need is the spinach. Nothing else in it. I’m going to put a little bit of salt in there and that’s it.”
Making the sauce
While the spinach wilts he deglazes the saute pan that held the scallops, scraping up browned bits with a wooden fond spoon.
“So, I have Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m going to put some rice wine vinegar in there as well. I’m also going to add to that some chopped shallots. Shallots, rather than any other kind of onion. In my opinion, it’s the perfect amount of onion flavor. Probably a little bit of a sweeter flavor than just a Spanish onion, but a potent sweet flavor. OK, so we’re going to let that go. And I’m going to melt the chocolate in here.”
He’ll later adds to the chocolaty mixture the very essence of scallop.
“As the scallops are finishing slowly in the oven they’re letting off what we call their natural liqueur. So I want that and I’m going to incorporate that into the sauce.”
The final step is what cooks call “mounting” the sauce. For richness, it needs butter.
“You really want the butter to be right in the whisk, and you want to whisk that in to just kind of finish.”
Once the scallops emerge from the oven to rest on their bed of spinach, he ladles over the sauce and tops with a pinch of microgreens.
“Last week, we even topped this off with a little grapefruit marmalade that we made from scratch as well. So we had some savory, we had some citrus, we had the spinach. It’s kind of an odd combination of things but at the dinner we served, I think it was the favorite course.”
Still an athlete
Between teaching, running the bakery and the catering business, Sferra makes time for hobbies.
The former high school athlete competed in the Gay Games.
“I was in the triathalon. I finished. That’s all I’m going to say.”
He and his partner of 20 years, Matt Walsh, chairman of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, tend a plot in the Cleveland Heights Community Garden.
“He loves that, so we do arugula and beets and lettuce and we actually have blackberries and raspberries and some pumpkins and kale.”
Sferra’s proud to be part of Cleveland’s sizzling cuisine scene.
“I’m now one of the older statesmen, I think. But it’s very exciting. It’s great to see. There’s so much creativity, so many people trying things that are so far out of the box.”
But it hasn’t always been easy being out in the notoriously macho kitchen culture.
“You know you could see people like, ‘Oh my God, he’s gay? He’s the executive chef.’ You just could see the rumblings. Or people would confront you in a way with such a look of shock on their face, and it’s like, ‘What do you mean? It’s like anything else about me. I also have brown hair.’
“Within the past 15 years, I’ve seen it a couple of times. But times are definitely changing.”