From dishes to handburgers, speaking easy with Speakeasy’s chef de cuisine, Ernest Cornelius
photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
THE DEVIL STRIP: You’re now working at two of the nicest places to get a meal in Akron — D.B.A. and Speakeasy — but your start in the culinary industry wasn’t so glamorous. How did you begin your career?
ERNEST CORNELIUS: It’s funny you say that because I always tell my cooks that starting at the bottom and working your way up allows you to see if working in a professional kitchen is what you actually want to do as a career. I personally started working in a kitchen at the young age of 14 because I wanted to go to concerts with my friends, and my mother cut me off financially because the idea of her mohawk-adorning son being out late in Cleveland at some dive bar was less than appealing, and I’m sure didn’t allow her much sleep. I started at 14 as a dishwasher, something I now look back on and appreciate more than anything. The work was hard and the pace was very fast, but I developed a very good work ethic years before any of my friends even thought about finding jobs to make some extra money for themselves. I actually still remember the first food related job I had in the kitchen. It was a busy Friday and after I got all my dishes caught up from the lethargic and always drunk daytime guy, I was asked to portion sour cream. 2-oz portioning spoon, plastic ramekin and a lid. Seems simple right? I think I got more sour cream on the prep table than in the cups, but over the course of two 5-pound containers, I had effectively found a method that worked better, and by the last 30 or so cups I was running very efficiently. Trouble shooting and patience were learned in one shift, and I was hooked. I thought to myself, “If I can apply what I learned today to other tasks in the kitchen, I think I could be very good at this.” Now here I am, 15 years later, still learning every day. One sour cream cup at a time.
TDS: You’re also a writer and a photographer so you have a serious creative streak. Were you drawn to the kitchen as an outlet for your creativity, or is there something else about that kind of pressure cooker environment?
EC: I’ve always been a creative person. My father is a bird photographer, and I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid between hiking with him, my brother and the Boy Scout troop I was a part of. I found street art around the same time and always found graffiti culture fascinating. My love for literature came around the same time too. For whatever reason I have always had a very vivid imagination and reading allowed me to let it run. I could pick up a book and 5 hours later put it down, finished and ready for the next. I guess the kitchen allows me to express my love for all of these things in one outlet. The romanticism of cuisine captured on film and written about in books. It’s a perfect 360.
TDS: It seems obvious you bring a lot of your personality to your work and each of the restaurants where you are chef de cuisine have their own unique personalities. How do you bring those things into balance with the art of cooking itself?
EC: With being the Chef de Cuisine, I have freedom with the menu but I still have to remember that Chef Dante markets his restaurants and especially Restaurant DANTE and Dante Boccuzzi Akron as “Modern American fine dining with Japanese and Italian influence” I come from a different school with my family heritage being predominantly Swedish. I sneak in my influence where I can, whether its technique or ingredients but sticking to the mold is something I’ve had to learn.
TDS: As if you weren’t busy enough, you also started ECdiets earlier this year. What exactly is it and what possessed you to take on that challenge?
EC: Ahh, ECdiets. So a couple years ago I had the idea of getting healthier, prepare meals into the hands of people who are maybe less compelled, fortunate or able to do so for themselves. My business model is 100% based off convenience. I want to fit into the part of your day where you may make a decision that affects you selecting something healthy to eat. My meals consist of a lean protein, a low GI starch, fiber rich seasonal and green vegetables and a clean fat based sauce. My clients range from body builders, diabetics, business professionals and students. All in all, feeding people something they don’t have to feel guilty about is rewarding at the end of the day and something that I have also adapted into my day to day as well. You wouldn’t believe how much better you feel after removing some of the toxic dietary decisions you’ve made in the past from your life. Live well.
TDS: What’s the story with your “handburger” tattoo?
EC: The handburger tattoo doesn’t need a lot of explanation. I knew I wanted a food related tattoo on my hand and it boiled down to a burger or a roll of sushi because it would fit the space. I think when my tattoo artist Adam Oiler (Black Metal tattoo company, Strongsville) literally googled the word “cheeseburger” and just picked one that would translate well into a stencil. Viola! We have a handburger. I’m getting my palms done soon in tribute to my time spent at Blue Door so stay tuned for that. “Break Bread” my friend.
(Featured photo: DBA Chef Ernest Cornelius holds a plate of butter poached shrimp, heirloom carrots, sweet curry and ginger)