A tattoo of a skeleton holding a frying pan graces J.R. Bearden's arm, but it has nothing to do with Bearden's culinary career. He got the tattoo at 18 because he liked the imagery.
Now Catherine & Mary's sous chef, Bearden, 26, also sports a tattoo of a radish. It's an homage to chef Frank Lee, whom he worked with at Slightly North of Broad in Charleston. "I think we talked for an hour about how cool the radish is — this vegetable that's not for everyone but just a small, burst of flavor," he says.
Working as garde manger under Kevin Rathbun at Rathbun's in his hometown of Atlanta was Bearden's first job in a fine dining restaurant. "That was when it started to click that I think I might be kind of okay at this. I was working with things that I've never seen or heard of. And I don't think I would have gotten that experience working in a more conventional or traditional restaurant. I think that was the first time I tasted fish sauce."
- J.R. Bearden, sous chef at Catherine & Mary’s.
Two years later, Bearden was in Charleston working with Lee. "He is the catalyst for that type of hyper-seasonal, low-country cooking, and his passion is just contagious."
Later, Bearden worked with chef Mike Lata at The Ordinary. "He is the epitome of the term 'chef.' The way he approaches his profession and flavors and every plate that we use in his kitchens at The Ordinary and FIG are on the next level standard that I hadn't been a part of up to that point."
Bearden then worked under executive chef Kyle Jacovino at The Florence, a Hugh Acheson restaurant in Savannah "dedicated to this kind of seasonal cooking with a sense of place ... and using honest and genuine techniques."
Bearden met his future wife, Kelly, who was pastry chef at The Grey, and they moved to New Orleans, where he got a job at Kenton's working under executive chef Kyle Knall. "I liked his approach to American cooking. Seeing him build plates confidently that were delicious was really inspiring to me."
While at Kenton's, Bearden learned to "try not to hide behind techniques. Just present food as it's best served. Just understand where the food was coming from and how best to present it as lovingly crafted as the person who's growing it."
Because of his "subliminal kind of quest to work for the best chefs possible," Bearden went to work at Josephine Estelle, a New Orleans restaurant owned by Memphis chefs/restaurateurs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. "The desire to create the best possible iteration of a raw product is something that really got me going there."
Ticer and Hudman asked Bearden to help open Catherine & Mary's. "You get to the point where you can kind of pick and choose your mentors as you get further along in your career as a chef. By that point, I made the decision that I'm choosing Andy and Michael to mentor me."
Bearden began creating his own style of cooking. "I just took a combination of all those experiences I had in these different cities and working with different chefs. I think I just started to figure out what I like. What I focus on most now is just very bright and clean flavors."
He loves the collaboration in the kitchen among himself, chef de cuisine Ryan Jenniges, and John Utley. "We brainstorm together. We kind of push each other in a direction of a dish, and then it's a culmination of effort. We take cues from the cooks and what they're interested in. If they don't like an ingredient, then we scale it back and we start over. We just want everyone engaged with every plate. And have a connection to every plate."
Catherine & Mary's is at 272 South Main in the Chisca; (901) 254-8600.