From pizza biz to kitchen whiz

From pizza biz to kitchen whiz

The Caroline’s head chef serves up sophisticated American fare

By Sarah Sidlow

Photo: Head Chef Damian Bumgarner puts the finishing touches on The Caroline’s Pan-seared Sea Scallops

Walk into The Caroline off the square in downtown Troy, and you’ll immediately feel welcome. The space, like the menu, is upscale casual. Steaks, seafood, hamburgers and a wide selection of appetizers make this understated, sophisticated place a cool summer must.

The Caroline has been recognized as a culinary force in the Miami Valley, picking up multiple awards at the Taste of Troy and Taste of Miami Valley competitions. Head Chef Damian Bumgarner even snagged a solo win at the 2009 Chef’s Quest Challenge. 

He’s been with the operation since the very beginning – before the doors opened in 2008.

“Basically, I started coming down here to help clean and get it ready for a restaurant to move in,” Bumgarner said. “So I was here from the ground up; from ordering the salt and pepper shakers.”

But the captain of the Caroline never had aspirations to spend his life in the kitchen.

“I didn’t have any idea I would do this for a living,” he said. “I wasn’t one of these guys who grew up at grandma’s [apron] strings.”

Bumgarner has no formal culinary training, but he’s been in the biz since he was a teenager.

“My first job was at Little Caesars Pizza,” Bumgarner said, smiling.

From there, a friend got him a job at a local country club, where Bumgarner washed dishes, occasionally cooking as a fill-in for an absent kitchen staff member. It was also here where he met Steve Smith, who would later open The Caroline.

“The first thing I cooked, Delmonico onion rings – here we call them tangled onion rings; thinly sliced onions, dusted in flour and deep-fried – I put them in corn starch, dropped them in the deep fryer and they burned,” Bumgarner remembered. “The first thing I ever cooked, I burned.”

That wasn’t enough to get Bumgarner booted from the country club kitchen. His culinary trial-by-fryer meant he learned quickly – by observing and asking lots of questions.

“I had to ask the sous chef to touch every steak I cooked,” Bumgarner said. “The first couple hundred of them, [I’d ask] ‘is this medium, is this medium rare?’”

Now, after six years of running the show at The Caroline, Bumgarner speaks fluent steak: “Rare is a cold rare center,” he said. “Medium rare is a cool rare center. Medium is pink, warm. Medium-well is hot, you can have a little pink. Well done is hot, no pink. And that’s just how it is.”

And the best way to order a steak? 

“Medium rare is the way to go,” he said. “My mom, even after all these years I’ve been cooking, I can’t get her to eat her filet any less than well done, and it drives me nuts.”

The steaks, made from Certified Angus Beef, are what has put The Caroline on the map. It’s all a part of The Caroline’s style of “classic American fare.”

“I like to eat comfort food,” Bumgarner said. “I feel like American food is a fusion of world cuisine, and that’s what I like to do.”

Bumgarner has recently begun offering a Seasonal Specials menu, which changes every month. It offers slightly smaller portions and lower prices, and allows Bumgarner the flexibility to play with new flavors.

I sampled three of this month’s seasonal options. Here’s how they stacked up:

Flatbread Appetizer: A crispy flatbread pizza featuring marinated beets, red onion, spinach and spiced walnuts, lightly topped with a Parmesan peppercorn dressing. Do yourself a favor and order this appetizer, even if you immediately box it for later. It will take your late-night snacking to the next level. With patio season upon us, this is the sort of treat I can imagine sharing with a friend, pairing with a chardonnay and good conversation.

Seared Rare Ahi Tuna: This generous piece of fish – seared by sauté-man Gordon Burt – presented a mild, smoky char surrounding a cool, pink center. It was served on a bed of Asian slaw, which was soy-sauce based, rather than the orange and ginger gummy-ness that sometimes plagues an Asian slaw. Accompanied by lemon and a few dabs of wasabi, this playful take on Japanese sashimi is outstanding. It’s even good the next day!

Pan-seared Sea Scallops: Four plump, melt-in-your-mouth scallops sit atop a rice pilaf so creamy it almost screams risotto. The richness of the rice and scallops was anchored with a kale salad, served with a Caesar/Italian blend dressing and radishes marinated in vinegar. The radish – not usually one of my favorite salad accessories – cut the middle ground between the creamy dressing and the bitter greens, and gave dimension to the delicate scallops. I could easily see myself hunkering down with a big bowl of the salad solo, but if Chef Bumgarner wants to throw some more scallops my way, I won’t complain.

Bumgarner controls almost every cog in the Caroline machine. He orders everything from tuna steaks to to-go boxes and toilet paper. And while he may not have a proper pedigree, he sure knows how to plate a good meal. 

“Today, I really believe God’s given me a gift to cook, because I didn’t go to school,” Bumgarner said. “I’m grateful so many people like the food I like to cook.”

The Caroline is located at 5 S. Market St. in Troy. For more information, please call 937.552.7676 or visit thecarolineonthesquare.com

Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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