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Bent’s restaurant expected to open in spring 2020 in downtown Medina

Photos by Ginny Kropf: Chef Lionel Heydel and sous chef Jose Ocasio stand in the elaborate kitchen of the Big Barn, where they prepare meals for tasting dinners in an attempt to gain input for developing menus which will be served at Harvest, the new restaurant planned for Bent’s Hall.

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 18 September 2019 at 11:26 am

Chef at ‘Harvest’ experimenting with locally grown produce

MEDINA – Medina’s newest eatery – a farm-to-table restaurant – is scheduled to open next spring on the ground floor of Bent’s Hall.

The historic building at the corner of Main and West Center Street has been undergoing restoration for three years, and two culinary experts have already been hired as chefs in the restaurant which will be called “Harvest.”

Chef Lionel Heydel plates the main course of beef bourguignon at a private tasting dinner for 12 guests at the Big Barn, a 1905 barn in Middleport restored by Roger Hungerford into a club/guest house. Heydel and sous chef Jose Ocasio are experimenting with dishes using locally grown foods and looking for input in planning their menus for the new restaurant scheduled to open in the spring at Bent’s Hall.

Lionel Heydel of France and Jose Ocasio of Puerto Rico met the building’s owner, Roger Hungerford, in Florida. Hungerford was impressed with each of their credentials.

Heydel, 44, grew up in Strasbourg, near the Rhine River, and studied at culinary school in France. He came to the United States at the age of 22.

He is a third-generation chef, although he did not want to be a chef, he said.

“I wanted to be a mechanic,” Heydel said. “I was also big in soccer and was drafted to be part of the city team, but I always loved cars and motorcycles.”

But his father kept hounding him that he was going to get hurt and the job was so dirty.

“He asked me why I didn’t go to culinary school, so I finally enrolled,” Heydel said.

After World War II, his grandfather took an American flag and waved it in the street, Heydel said.

“That was a hint for me and my future,” Heydel said.

His grandfather owned a brewery, which the family converted into a bistro. His father served in the Algerian War, and when he came back he entered hospitality and management school in Switzerland. Then he told Heydel’s grandfather if he didn’t pass the family business down to him, he’d leave town and start one somewhere else. Being an only child, the grandfather didn’t want to see his only son leave, so he agreed.

Heydel’s father built on a 26-room hotel and fine dining restaurant with a lounge and small bistro in back. At 13, Heydel was working in the restaurant, helping in the baking section.

“I also washed dishes and worked wherever they needed me, as long as it was away from the stove,” Heydel said.

Photo by Tom Rivers: Chef Lionel Heydel joined other chefs and food service workers from Medina restaurants for the Aug. 8 Farm to Table dinner on Main Street, where about 225 six-course, gourmet meals were served.

After he finished culinary school, he worked as chef at Michelin Star Restaurant, but it was mandatory he serve in the military, so he joined the Gendarmerie (SWAT team) for 18 months.

Then he decided to come to the United States and arrived in Orlando, Fla. in April 1998. He got a contract with Hilton, which sponsored him for 18 months. He returned to France for a year, but returned to Orlando in 2000 with an investor’s visa and opened a restaurant in Winterpark.

In 2017, he was approached by Hungerford, who asked him to come to Medina and work on his restoration project.

“He didn’t realize he would fall in love with the project,” said Tessa Hartway, director of marketing with Hungerford’s company, Talis Equity.

Lisa Tombari, director of historic restoration for Talis Equity, said Heydel fell in love with the town because it felt like back home.

Heydel said here in the United States is very similar to where he grew up – the same seasons, grapes and farm crops.

While Heydel said although he was trained in classic French cuisine, he is open to dishes from all cuisines.

He has already spent months searching out recipes and identifying local farmers who can supply produce for his recipes. The menu will change with the seasons, and he will utilize what is in season, Heydel said.

“We will always stress quality over quantity,” Heydel said. “I have done that in everything in my life.”

Photos by Ginny Kropf: Scaffolding can be seen on the front and upper stories of Bent’s Hall at the corner of Main and West Center Streets, as restoration work on the historic building continues. A new restaurant called Harvest will be located in the lower left corner.

Ocasio was born and raised in Puerto Rico, a child of a military family. His dad was in the Navy and an uncle served in the Navy. His grandfather was in World War II and had a coffee farm, where Ocasio grew up. His grandma had a small business, running a bar and cooking for construction people.

“I fell in love with the kitchen,” he said.

He was working in the kitchen at 14. He knew he would some day enter the military or culinary school.  When he entered technical school, the class he wanted was full and the professor said he had to choose a second course. Culinary class was available and he entered it.

“I loved it,” Ocasio said. “The instructor at school was a chef at the Marriott and said I had talent. He also had a private catering business and asked me to come and help him. When the Culinary School of Puerto Rico had a culinary competition, I joined his team representing our country. We won, then flew to Chicago in July 2010 to represent Puerto Rico in the international competition. We won a silver medal.”

Chef Lionel Heydel, left, and assistant chef Jose Ocasio pose in the street across from Bent’s Opera House, the sandstone building at the corner of Main Street and West Center, in which a farm-to-table restaurant is scheduled to open in the spring.

In the competition they had to prepare a pork chop, apples, potatoes, salad, appetizer and dessert in one hour and 20 minutes. Ocasio made braised pork chop with applesauce, potato hash, fruit tart and a salad of mixed greens with berries and champagne vinaigrette.

Back in Puerto Rico, Ocasio finished culinary college. His dad had retired and Ocasio decided to relocate to the United States. He arrived in Orlando seven years ago and entered Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School, where he met Heydel, who was a professor there.

“I recognized Lionel’s talent and wanted to learn from him,” Ocasio said. “He was willing to teach everybody and share what he knew. I graduated and told Lionel the day he opened his own restaurant, I was going to work for him. I didn’t care if it was washing dishes. Six years later, I got the call.”

Ocasio in the meantime worked for a farm-to-table restaurant in Orlando as a line cook. In less than a year he was promoted to sous chef, then to executive chef. He was there three years when the restaurant was sold and he went to DFRG Steak House. A year and a half later, he was promoted to corporate chef and sent to open new restaurants in Texas, Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., and Chicago.

He prides himself on his ability to cook everything and whatever is available. At one restaurant, a farmer would come to the back door with whatever he had that day, such as a bucket of green beans, and Ocasio would have them on the menu that night.

When the call came from Heydel about opening a restaurant in New York, Ocasio, 26, asked, “New York City?”

Heydel replied, “No, Medina,” and Ocasio went online to find Medina.

“It was always my dream to work for Lionel,” Ocasio said.

Ocasio is thrilled with the small-town atmosphere.

“The first morning in the area we had breakfast at Darrell’s and I saw how people treat each other,” Ocasio said. “I immediately fell in love with the area. After a tour of Bent’s, I realized what a great opportunity we have. I am anxious to see what we can do with food to bring people to Medina.”

(Editor’s Note: This is part three of a series on the restoration projects in downtown Medina spearheaded by Roger Hungerford and Talis Equity.)

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