Off the Hook with Matt Cornelius
Now that restaurant week is behind us, we can begin working up an appetite for Rehoboth Restaurant Week 2015. So many different dishes and so many culinary points of view! Events like this always remind me that there are chefs - and then there are cooks. 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.” Wrong!
I do a lot of cooking. I even created the recipes and (occasionally, much to the horror of the kitchen staff) cooked at my restaurants, 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 working elbow to elbow with accomplished chefs, years of culinary school, 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. And one of those accomplished chefs is Matt Cornelius at Off the Hook in Bethany Beach.
When Matt was 13, his family came to Lewes from Albany, N.Y., to visit his grandfather. They never left. Cornelius’ first job was in front of 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 policeman.
During his time at RBCC, Matt finally 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 last year.
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. Jay Caputo was opening Porcini House at the time, and the responsibilities he gave Cornelius at Espuma “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 di Mare, 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’s been there ever since. “Steve gave me a stage for my food,” says Cornelius. “With his help, and that of Kevin Frey [Hagan’s business partner] and the entire staff, I get to put my plates in front of people. I simply could not do it without all of them.”
Hagan and Frey have since opened two other eateries. Though they are all good, I like the Bethany ambiance and Matt’s culinary know-how at Off the Hook. Give it a try!