By Kevin Edwards
BC Staff Writer
Local chef Cole Ellis will showcase his talents with a menu called Southern Meets Italian in New York City on Feb. 22 at the James Beard House.
The James Beard House is an extension of the James Beard Foundation, a non-profit organization that educates the public and supports and features chefs of all backgrounds.
The owner and operator of Delta Meat Market and Bar Fontaine, Ellis has established himself as a star chef in the Delta.
A Cleveland native, Ellis moved away at 18 to attend Mississippi State University but decided those pursuits weren’t for him.
Before Ellis returned to his hometown, he collected experiences that prepared him for this moment.
“I decided that sitting behind a desk wasn’t going to be the thing for me and wound up deciding I wanted to go to culinary school because I’d been cooking in high school and I’d been cooking in college, kind of working my way through. I decided to take it a little more serious and moved to Charleston, SC.”
Ellis attended the Culinary Institute of Charleston, earning a bachelor’s of Culinary Arts in Baking and Pastry and a bachelor’s of Restaurant and Hotel Management.
Working in Charleston restaurants to establish him self, Ellis met his wife Mary and the two moved to Nashville where Ellis worked at the Hermitage Hotel, eventually working his way up to the position of chef de cuisine.
“Throughout my tenure there we did things like a full farm-to-table approach where we had our own garden and farm,” Ellis said. “By the time we’d left, we’d expanded that into 250-acre cattle farm, 66-acre produce garden, and truly had a relationship with the food from start to finish.”
Thinking about his next move, Ellis and his wife pitched ideas of where to settle down.
“We were thinking about Dyersburg, TN, originally which is where her family is from,” Ellis said. “We were going to take over the family farm and kind of do a little bed-and-breakfast there and get the cattle thing up there.”
A visit to Cleveland convinced the pair that it was the best place to raise a family, having just had their first daughter.
The Ellis family moved to Cleveland in June 2013 and opened Delta Meat Market later that year.
Delta Meat Market opened as a butcher shop and grocery that began to serve a more diverse set of tastes over time.
“It’s our interpretation of Southern classics but also some fun and edgy kind of food that is both delicious and interesting.”
After years of operation, Ellis was presented with a growth opportunity with the opening of The Cotton House.
“We were approached a couple of years back about potentially doing another restaurant and expansion into the hotel,” Ellis said. “We weighed our options and started thinking about it and decided it might be the next step for Delta Meat Market. Started working on it and what you see now is what we’ve been working on for the past six years, seven years. It’s been exciting.”
Delta Meat Market moved across the street to the first floor of Cotton House in 2019.
Ellis also opened Bar Fontaine on the roof of The Cotton House, which serves as a different kind of restaurant.
“We basically took a Southern/European approach to the menu,” Ellis said. “Kind of dressed up, but yet still a Delta kind of place.”
But it was while working at Delta Meat Market’s original location that Ellis got his first opportunity to cook at the James Beard House at an event called Taste of the Delta.
“A few years back I was asked to cook with a group of folks at the James Beard House, but it was as a group,” Ellis said. “We kind of did a Delta group.”
Ellis joined with Delta chefs including Hugh Balthrop of Clarksdale, Taylor Bowen Ricketts of Greenwood and Stevens Flagg of Greenwood among others.
“When the dinner kicked off, it was a huge success,” Ellis said. “I feel like it was a great representation of who we are as Mississippians, or Tennesseans, or Deltans. That hodgepodge, melting pot of different cultures came together really well and I guess it made a lasting impression.
Cooking at James Beard House is a rare opportunity that not all chefs get. It is by invitation through an extensive selection process.
Ellis’s theme, “Southern Meets Italian,” is “an Italian-style menu that kind of promotes a little bit of our heritage here in the Delta and that relationship with a lot of the Italians that moved here to teach us cultivation of rice and other farming trades.
“(We’re) trying to show them a bit of what we are and what we do,” said Ellis.
The menu is designed to make a strong impression.
Ellis said the experience of cooking at James Beard House once before is beneficial to him.
“I think the first time there was a lot of pressure, but now it seems like it’s going to be one of those things that we can probably have a more laid back and fun approach to and just do what we do and let it ride, let it have a good time.”
There are still a couple of things that Ellis must practice and plan for, and he’ll be using the remaining few weeks to feature some of the dishes planned for Southern Meets Italian on menus here.
“The approach has always been how can we represent ourselves well and serve an amazing quality product.”
Ellis said he is excited for the opportunity and hopes to leave an impression.