Bear Ullman shapes a bowl turning on a lathe with steady pressure on the gouge he guides with his left hand.
Upended bowls air-dry on shelves in Ullman's workshop for about a year before they're ready for the application of walnut oil, which brings out the grain.
The smooth bowls contrast with the dusty equipment Ullman uses to create them.
BUCKHANNON, W.Va. -- "Chef Bear" Ullman credits his not particularly great powers of concentration for the handcrafted wooden bowls he turns when he isn't running the kitchen at C.J. Maggie's in Buckhannon."I'm ADD. I don't sleep a lot," he said. "I have young children, so after I work all day, I read them a story, my wife puts them to bed, I spend some time with her, and then leave. From 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. is my time to play when I go turn bowls."In the day's waning hours, he heads to his sawdust-covered workshop, housed in an old warehouse, where he turns logs of wood into gorgeous bowls and platters. The wood's unique grains mark each of the warmly toned bowls as a one-of-a-kind piece.He's up at 7 a.m. to prepare lunches for the children before they head to school and to resume his duties as director of operations at the restaurant.
His restaurant and hotel career of more than 30 years has stretched from Hawaii, where he was born and raised, to all over the country, most recently Washington and Colorado, where he began turning bowls."In the hospitality industry, hobbies are a good thing to have. They keep you out of trouble," he said. "I bought a lathe on a whim and loved it, especially the instant gratification you get when you turn a bowl."The practicality of bowls and platters appeals to Ullman, who likes to use the graceful pieces to stage the food he creates. In his Walla Walla, Wash., restaurant, he regularly served meals family-style in his own large bowls to patrons at his chef's table.
Their beauty appealed to the customers, who often purchased the bowls or bartered coffee or wine for them."I never worried about bowl sales. I'd use it as a centerpiece on the chef's table. Six bottles of wine later, a bowl is sold," he said of the bartering process. "I never had to buy a bottle of wine."Ullman makes his bowls from cherry, walnut and maple logs. Sizes range from small, suitable for mise en place
use, to 30-inch bowls and platters. Most are in the 15- to 20-inch range. Prices vary from $150 to $800.
"Each piece of wood is different. I'm helping wood to be what it needs to be instead of what I want it to be," he said. He sees his role as reclaiming the life of the tree in a useful way.Although the diversity in wood grain and knots give each bowl a different look, Ullman does produce multiple versions of the same piece. Jason Wilson, a James Beard Award-winning chef, recently ordered 50 charcuterie platters for his restaurant in Seattle.Many of Ullman's orders come from people who saw his work in his restaurants in the Northwest and continue to request them. "Some people order them every time they need a wedding gift," he said.Curling bits of wood fly as Ullman applies a gouge, a chisel-like tool, to pieces of wood turning on the lathe. He subtly shifts the gouge as a bowl begins to take shape. Even though he's right-handed, he uses his left hand to guide the tool because he learned the technique from many viewings of a video of master bowl maker Mike Mahoney."When my daughter wouldn't sleep, we'd watch that video and she'd fall asleep. I started left-handed because he does," Ullman said.
After he roughs out a bowl, he removes it from the lathe and coats it in wax. The bowls rest on shelves for a year to air-dry. The process can't be rushed or the wood will split when the bowl is finished.About 120 bowls line the workshop shelves awaiting the final step when Ullman returns them to the lathe for slight reshaping. As the bowls dry, they "go out of round," expanding more in one direction or another.He rubs the finished bowls with walnut oil because it penetrates the wood, dries hard and won't go rancid. The bowls are then ready for vigorous use, requiring only a wipe with walnut oil when they look or feel dry. Ullman includes a card with each bowl purchased that reads in part:"I want things sturdy in function, gorgeous in form, and perfectly executed. I emulate this in my art. I make the bowl you love, the one you reach for every day. I am Chef Bear, and I made your bowl."Ullman's bowls are sold at Main Street Gallery in Buckhannon, Bridgeport Farmers Market and online at www.chefbear.com
. He was recently juried at Tamarack, where he has had items for sale this month. Email Ullman at chefbearullman@gmail.Robinson is a former staff writer for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.