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In the chef's kitchen with Matt Cornelius

May 18, 2018

There are chefs - and then there are cooks. And yes, despite the hype (which I admit to perpetrating, at least in part), there is a difference. A dictionary defines chef as, "the chief cook, especially in a restaurant or hotel, usually responsible for planning menus, ordering food, overseeing preparation and supervising staff." Sparse, but workable. But then the dictionary offers an additional meaning: "Any cook." Oops ... wrong!

I do a lot of cooking. At my last restaurant, I created the recipes and (much to the horror of my staff) occasionally cooked. But I am absolutely the farthest thing from a chef that there can be. There's a whole lot more to cheffing than throwing a steak in a broiler, cranking a pasta machine or searing a scallop. The sense - nay, the passion - for divining how flavors blend and how to balance dissimilar elements into a new taste experience can only be acquired from years of culinary school, working elbow to elbow with an accomplished chef, or as is often the case, both. The list of truly accomplished chefs here at the beach - some classically trained and others cultivated by long hours in quality kitchens - is a relatively short one. One of those accomplished chefs is Matt Cornelius at Our Harvest in Fenwick Island. 

When Matt was 13, his family came to Lewes from Albany, N.Y., to visit his grandfather. They never left. Cornelius' first job was tending the flattop grill at Wooding's Beach Deli in Lewes. "I had fun making cheesesteaks," he smiles. Emboldened by his success with sandwiches, Matt filled his spare time not only playing football for Cape Henlopen High School, but also cooking at Irish Eyes and Rehoboth Beach Country Club. Even then, he never thought of food service as a career, and in fact he went to school with the intention of becoming a law enforcement officer. 

During his time at RBCC, Matt began to think about culinary school. He credits his mother, Wendy Herbst, with encouraging him to follow his dream. Through an amazing stroke of "being in the right place at the right time," Matt landed a job in the kitchen at Le Bec-Fin while attending the culinary program at the Art Institute in Philadelphia. Chef/owner Georges Perrier challenged this young upstart to learn the entire menu of the decades-old French eatery in one week. Matt met the challenge and stayed there for a year. "It is the foundation of my food today. Perrier's philosophy of 'three simple flavors, three simple textures' in each dish still influences my cooking." It was the end of an era - and possibly a unique philosophy of dining - when Le Bec-Fin closed a few years ago. 

After graduating from school, Matt honed his skills under Christopher Lee at Striped Bass, at Bliss (one of Esquire's top 20 new restaurants) and Black Fish, where he joined a couple of comrades from Le Bec-Fin. But the call of the Delaware coast is a strong one, and around 2007 Matt began to cook at Espuma in downtown Rehoboth Beach. Matt says that cooking at the beach "finally clarified my passion and confidence. It all just came together, and I discovered my own style." 

After brief stints at The Brick Hotel and Lupo Italian Kitchen, Matt was introduced to Steve Hagan, who had just opened Off the Hook in Bethany Beach. Hagan handed Matt a red snapper and a pumpkin. "Make a special," he said. Matt spent several years at Hagan's Bethany mothership before moving on. "Steve gave me a stage for my food," says Cornelius. 

The performances on that stage continue at Our Harvest in Fenwick Island. After opening the consistently popular Liquid Assets at 94th Street in Ocean City, former Galaxy restaurant owner John Trader took notice when Claddagh restaurant in Fenwick gave up the ghost. Always the entrepreneur, the seasoned restaurateur decided to extend his brand into Delaware in the form of Our Harvest. 

Straight-ahead, uncomplicated food, an open kitchen and a woody, rustic interior make up the setting for Matt's creations. The menu offers a selection of "smalls" offering everything from a simple green salad (sporting peppadews, by the way) to charred fish collars and wood-fired king trumpet mushrooms. The small plates give way to shared "feasts" consisting of a daily steak or fish plate. Gastronomic acrobatics such as Arnold Palmer-brined whole Giannone chicken and a long list of flatbreads are testament to just how far this upstate New York upstart - more than just "any cook" - has progressed here on the Delaware coast.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.