Every year, we hold our own version of the Oscars: the Local Hero Awards, wherein readers vote for their favorite local chefs/restaurants, farm/farmers, non-profits, culinary artisans, beverage producers and food or wine retailers, and the winners are awarded with a feature in our March/April print issue. Every weekday till the polling booths close on January 19* we’ll be looking back at last year’s winners. Today we’re highlighting the 2014 Local Hero for Chef/Restaurant: Scott Signori and Stonecat Café! The below story originally appeared as part of our Local Heroes feature in the March/April 2014 issue.
*There’s still time to make sure your voice is heard! Vote here for your 2015 local hero chefs, farmers, non-profits and artisans.
Scott Signori and Stonecat Café
By Peggy Haine • Photo by Doug Reilly
When Hector’s Stonecat Café re-opens for its sixteenth season this spring, a newly updated bar and carpet-softened Willow Room will be the latest upgrades to a bustling restaurant that began life as a humble farm stand. As clientele stopped by for produce and were lured in for lunch, word spread and the restaurant grew, adding a covered deck with vineyard, lake and sunset views, additional dining rooms, a bar and the labyrinthine gardens that supply produce and herbs to the kitchen.
The venue has grown into one of the Finger Lakes’ most popular restaurants, a favorite with locals, visitors and the wine industry’s assorted characters, including viticulturists, vintners, tasting-room divas and cellar rats.
In addition to chef/owner Signori’s creativity in the kitchen and his staff’s caring and competent service, customers are drawn by his legendary mastery of the smoker. Utilizing his 40 cubic feet of smoker-space, he can smoke four whole pigs at a time, dozens of pork butts, or 50 chickens. Peaches, apples, trout, cheese and salmon have intensified their flavor profiles in those smokers, as have tomatoes and chiles, many of which make their way into the bar’s Sunday brunch favorite smoky-spicy Bloody Marys and Scooter’s hot sauce, respectively. His trusty Hobart grinder makes quick work of maple juniper sausage before they head for the smoker and he contemplates pickling smoked shiitake mushrooms.
Signori’s long-term relationships with local producers have served him well, too. “Blue Heron has amazing produce; every time I get a box of theirs I want to parade it around on the deck.” Flower Power provides “the crème de la crème of edible flowers and mixed greens.” The Good Life Farm provides off-season greens from its greenhouse, fresh ginger and turmeric, and asparagus. A rotation of local cheeses includes Kenton’s Soft White, Jake’s Gouda, Lively Run Chevre and Seneca Blue Moon, and Keeley’s Cheese’s Across the Pond. “And,” Signori says, “we have an amazing vegetable and herb garden out back. Anything that’s really special we grow ourselves.”
According to Signori, last year was the restaurant’s best ever, attested to not only by his “Hero” status, but by his accountant. To what does he attribute the café’s success? “I need to be there,” he says. His role is to live and teach the restaurant’s core values and to make sure both customers and staff are supported and happy. “The crew is everything. It’s the personalities of everybody there that make the Stonecat what it is,” he says. Returning customers look forward to seeing friendly familiar faces each spring, eager for menu favorites like pulled pork, cornmeal-crusted catfish and those maple juniper sausages; new menu additions; daily specials; the café’s Finger Lakes-based wine list and cocktails; and Daphne Nolder’s yummy desserts.
“My best attribute as a chef is being nice,” Signori says. “I think the competitiveness that’s been propagated on the Food Network isn’t doing this industry any favors. I feel like our mission is to wake people up to life. I believe we should make food as it was made for us by our parents and grandparents: with love. The only competition should be who can best fill the room with nourishment, love and good times.”
5315 Route 414, Hector, 607.546.5000, stonecatcafe.comPeggy Haine is an adventurous cook and an ardent fan of fine Finger Lakes winemakers, farmers and chefs. She blogs about food and restaurants at peggyhaine.com.