Peer between the kitchen doors of Ceres Bistro and you won’t find Executive Chef William Nemeroff barking orders at a frazzled crew.
To be sure, the 41-year-old chef who runs the Beechwood Hotel’s restaurant off Belmont Street in Worcester has a clear vision his staff must embrace. It’s a vision that’s found right there in the restaurant’s name: “Bistro.”
That comfort you find in Ceres’ dining room originates right in the kitchen. Unlike celebrity chefs you might see on TV, Nemeroff is more teacher than commanding general to his staff. The comfort and simplicity he strives for stems from the ingredients — and avoiding becoming too bogged down in food trends.
That doesn’t mean the dishes at Ceres lack pizzazz. From an almond tarragon tuna salad croissant for lunch to a spring pea and vegetable risotto for dinner there is nothing dull about the menus Nemeroff creates, which also include a robust gluten free section. You can get a burger anywhere, but Ceres’s burger is made from 50 percent short rib and 50 percent chuck with two-year aged cheddar (a combo Nemeroff worked to perfect). Simple ingredients, but expertly combined.
“I know our burger is better,” Nemeroff says. “And I have chefs with years and years of experience who are going to be grilling that burger.”
It’s not surprising Nemeroff comes across as a culinary teacher. He worked in a kitchen in high school and although he loved cooking from the time he was 12, it was a teaching career that he set out for. He studied geology education.
“My idea there was that I’d have my weekends off and my summers free so I could still work in kitchens,” he said. “After going to school for an entire year I realized this is kind of stupid, why don’t I just do it for real?”
After graduating in 1995 from Johnson & Wales University, Nemeroff managed a restaurant in Burnston, Mass., then worked in Virginia Beach before coming back to Mass. to open Cedar Street restaurant in Sturbridge until he sold it, wanting to work somewhere more metropolis. That’s when he called Mike Covino of Niche Hospitality Group, who had opened Block 5 Bistro about the same time Nemeroff had opened Cedar Street.
Covino said he was opening Ceres and also had a space downtown he wanted to hire Nemeroff for. That place was The People’s Kitchen on Commercial Street where Nemeroff worked until moving to Ceres.
With Shrewsbury Street’s legendary restaurant row just up the road, Nemeroff knows he’s got to stand out to get customers into a hotel restaurant. The quiet outdoor seating and live music on Thursday’s provide a luring setting. And Ceres has done a lot to let the public know that there’s a nice restaurant up at that hotel. But Nemeroff knows the food has just got to be unique — even if it’s a unique take on a familiar dish.
“I guess I’m an honest chef,” Nemeroff says. “Honest in the sense that trends certainly affect me and I want to keep up with the trends, but they’re not going to affect the way that I cook or my signature. I focus on an honest ingredient. A good quality ingredient. And I don’t care where it comes from. Look, I’ll do my best to keep ingredients local, organic, all of these things, but if I find a product that’s leaps and bounds above anything I can get locally, I’m going to give it to my guests.”
The grass-fed beef craze is a good example of how Nemeroff pays attention to trends, but still manages to do his own thing.
“We use a grass-fed beef here from Uruguay,” Nemeroff says. “And I’ve tried grass-fed beef from all over the place. It’s proven that 9 out of 10 people when given a choice between corn-fed or grass-fed in a blind tasting will choose the corn-fed every time. It finishes sweet. Who doesn’t like something that finishes sweet over something that finishes … barnyard or acidic or grassy?”
The grass-fed beef Nemeroff has found from Uruguay, however, is “tender, has no fat and it stays juicy,” he says. It also comes with a QR code he can scan with his phone and get a picture of the farm it came from, a picture of the farmer and the farmer’s email address.
“How crazy is that?” Nemeroff says. “So, if I have any questions I could even find out the cow’s nickname. These are people that have the same integrity as we do as chefs and they care about where their ingredients are going and how it’s being used. Is this happening locally? Yes. Could they keep my business supplied with grass-fed beef? No. I go through way too much product.”
But with summer here, Nemeroff says Ceres will be turning to local produce like tomatoes that he swears will never touch the inside of a refrigerator.
“There’s nothing better than a tomato that comes right off the vine that’s still warm from the sun. Just slice with a little olive oil and sea salt. There’s nothing better than that. When we can get excited about those things, it’s awesome.”
Nemeroff believes Worcester’s food scene is in “hyperdrive” but still has a long ways to go. And part of a chef’s job, he says, is to open the public’s minds. During wine tastings at Ceres, he uses the opportunity to introduce patrons to dishes they might not order — often because they’re just scared to order something unfamiliar, he says. After trying, they’re not scared anymore.
“I think the restaurants that are the best restaurants in Worcester, aren’t the busiest,” he says. “They’re hole in the wall places where the cooks just have a ton of integrity. Unfortunately, I think the people in Worcester still need that education.”
And if you’re ordering an old standby, that’s fine, says Nemeroff.
“I want people to say, ‘Yes, it was just chicken, but that was the best chicken I’ve ever had.’”
Editors Note: In February 2015, Chef Nemeroff took a position at Old Sturbridge Village where he acts as Director of Food and Beverage. In October 2015, Chef Nemeroff was the first chef to participate in the Chef’s Best dinner series.