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Golden Bear gets its 15 minutes

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Sacramentans will be forgiven for not expecting to find fried green tomato sandwiches, house-made kettle chips and prosciutto and peach paninis at The Golden Bear.

Those who haven’t yet discovered the neighborhood bar’s new kitchen and chef, Billy Zoellin, may get their first "taste" on the Food Network’s national television show "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" this fall.

Earlier this month, a camera crew spent a day capturing footage of Zoellin in action at The Golden Bear, located in a converted old house at 2326 K St. A camera crew will soon return with the show’s host, Guy Fieri, for the second day of filming. The place will be closed for production.

Zoellin joined The Golden Bear in March at a grand reopening, following a major renovation by owners Kimio Bazett and Jon Modrow that doubled the size of the kitchen to about 230 square feet. Zoellin and his kitchen staff developed a new seasonal menu using ingredients that are as local as possible — such as the pizza dough made fresh each day at a local bakery.

"Part of our theory is farm to table at an affordable price and in a comfortable atmosphere," Zoellin said. "We sell $2 (Miller) High Life, and yet you can get a duck confit club to enjoy."

The 26-year-old red-haired Irish-American trained with locally renown chefs including Patrick Mulvaney, Roxanne O’Brien, Randall Selland and Noah Zonka. To get his first job in the industry — as a 19-year-old busboy — he shucked fava beans for free at Biba, Bazett said. He later studied culinary arts at American River College.

"He’s had some of the best mentors anyone could have in this town," Bazett said.

Two to three months ago, a local food blogger told the Food Network about The Golden Bear. Once a producer contacted them, they sent in photos of The Golden Bear, the kitchen, the food and Zoellin. He also interviewed over the phone for four hours to win one of four spots on the hour-long show.

Fieri, who’s from Santa Rosa, chose three menu items for the show: sausage and smoked slaw pizzetta, a French Vietnamese sandwich called a pork bahn mi, and "THE Taco." During the interviews, he discussed every step he takes to make those dishes, down to roasting and grinding dry California chili peppers to make a chili powder rub for the taco.

The Golden Bear had always been known for its tacos and especially its $5 deal for a glass of Miller beer and two tacos. Zoellin caused a minor ruckus with some regulars when he replaced the simple chicken taco with a new one featuring marinated chicken rubbed with the chili powder and pasilla créme made from roasted peppers, green onions, garlic, fresh herbs, lime and sour cream. The grumbling soon stopped, he said.

“It’s hard to beat a good taco that’s made right,” Zoellin said.

The biggest challenge encountered on the first day of filming was fitting a four-person production crew and their equipment — lights, camera, microphones — in the kitchen while Zoellin cooked. When Fieri arrives, the second day of filming will capture the two of them cooking together and the host sampling the food.

Zoellin said he’s not nervous working in front of a camera or celebrities. He’s appeared on TV a bunch of times, demonstrating cooking for local news shows and KVIE’s California Heartland. He’s also worked in front of crowds as the cook for an American Le Mans race car team and at the California State Fair, where he did an hour-long cooking demo.

Other interests include gardening and competitive sports like baseball, which built up his confidence — along with his culinary accomplishments and experience as a young father, Bazett said.

"You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more confident and more determined and able to back it all up," he said.

Bazett said Zoellin deserves all the credit for winning a spot on the show.

"It’s bigtime," Bazett said. "It’s validation for our food and our kitchen."

Zoellin said his biggest rewards are how proud his mom and 5-year-old son are of him. But he can’t tell anyone except his mom the date of the second day of filming – for security reasons. The show will air this fall, but has not yet been scheduled.

More people than in the past seem to be coming to The Golden Bear just for the food. Building up regular clients can take chefs and new restaurants one to two years. Getting on the show is likely to bring them what may seem like “instant success,” said Zoellin, who said it feels like going "from 0 to 60 at about 100 miles per hour."

He and the owners know appearing on a national Food Network show is going to change the business and their clientele. Expecting the number of customers will boom, they more than doubled the kitchen staff from five to 11 the day they found out The Golden Bear would be on TV.

They just want to make sure they hit the ground running.

"There are a lot of people who want it to be just a bar," Zoellin said. "But we’re more than that."


Photos by Suzanne Hurt, a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.

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