In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Cole Ellis—semifinalist for the James Beard Award “Best Chef South” and Executive Chef at Delta Meat Market.
Cole is nothing short of an innovative chef, with over 13 years experience cooking in Charleston’s most acclaimed kitchens such as Magnolia’s, Hominy Grill, and Carolina’s. He now spends time on collaborative passion projects—hosting off-premise events with like-minded chefs.
Listen as Cole talks about the origin story behind Delta Meat Market, the decision between office and kitchen life, designing innovative menus, and how to make food feel welcoming.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Cole Ellis, owner and executive chef at Delta Meat Market, a butcher shop and boutique grocer of fine Southern foods in Cleveland, Mississippi. Cole was nominated as a semi-finalist in the 2017 James Beard Award “Best Chef South,” and the Delta Meat Market has been recognized for its butchery program in “Bon Appetit,” “Delta Magazine,” “Garden & Gun,” “Southern Living,’ and more.
Cole Ellis spent 13 years in Charleston and Nashville under the tutelage of Tom Colicchio and Sean Brock. He worked in some of Charleston’s most acclaimed kitchens, such as Magnolia’s, Hominy Grill, and Carolina’s, as well as Voysey’s Pub and the Tides.
Join me today as I chat with Chef Ellis about collaborating with like-minded chefs, hosting off-premises events, and his passion projects.
And there he is. Good morning, Chef. How are you, Buddy?
Cole Ellis: I’m great. Great. Thanks for having me on, Kirk. I appreciate it.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. I told you I’d be out of breath. You’ve got a lot to unpack there. That’s been one heck of a ride so far.
Cole Ellis: It has. You can’t really do these sorts of things without surrounding yourself with great individuals, and I’m super thankful for the staff that I have and the opportunities that diligence and hard work have created in our industry.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Well said. I mentioned in the intro, though, passion project. I’m looking over your right shoulder. I see a ladder, so I’m thinking there’s a passion project going on back there. Are we doing some building?
Cole Ellis: Yeah. I’m dabbling in a little bit of carpentry. I’ve been building some bookcases on either side of my fireplace.
Kirk Bachmann: I can see that. That looks beautiful. Really nice.
Cole Ellis: Thank you. Appreciate it.
Kirk Bachmann: Very cool. Before we get going, and there’s a lot to chat about, you’re down there in Mississippi. We know that area of the country was pretty well impacted over the last couple of weeks with Hurricane Ian. I trust and I hope and I pray that everything’s good with you, your family, the employees, and the area that you’re in there in Mississippi.
Cole Ellis: We’re great. Thanks for the concern. We were actually pretty fortunate that it took that dog leg to the right and kept us dry. Pretty fortunate there.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Absolutely. At last count, we have a good amount of employees, close to 75 employees that are remote in the state of Florida. 500 students in the state of Florida alone. Add another 1000 if you include Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, some of the Carolinas. It’s a very important part of the country, not just for them but for us as well. We’ve been keeping a close eye. Glad to hear that things are good.
Speaking of that region, I have to say this right off the bat, it’s such a small world. You went to culinary school at the Institute of Charleston. I’ve been friends with the director there, Chef Michael Carmel for over 20 years. I can’t even believe through all my travels and my love of food and different restaurants, I have never been to Charleston. My wife and my friends tell me it’s absolutely spectacular. Is that pretty true?
Cole Ellis: Absolutely. Speaking of a lot to unpack, I can’t believe that you haven’t had the opportunity. And when you get there, trust me, you’ll have to do it. When you get there, make sure you reserve plenty of time. Great restaurants. Tons of history. The culture and the people swallow you up. It reminds me of most of the delta, the characteristics and fellowship and all the things attached to it. The food and beverage industry has blossomed there over the past few years.
Honestly, had I not met my wife in one of the restaurants, I would still be there.
Kirk Bachmann: Would you? I love it. We had the good fortune of being in Nashville as a company last year, and dined with Sean Brock. We’ll get to Sean in a minute. Same thing here. We stayed at a really cool place in Nashville. We toured Nashville like everybody does. It’s like a giant hug walking around, with lots of fun, music, drink, and food every step of the way.
Cole Ellis: And that’s certainly one of the reasons why we chose it on our next landing through this tour of life. Nashville was great to us. Also miss it. We get back as many times as possible since it’s relatively close.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. That’s great.
Let’s talk a little bit about you and where you’re from, Cleveland, Mississippi. I can’t even make this stuff up, Chef. This is a true story. I get to work this morning and I run into an individual who is doing what we call a shadow. Many students before they start school, they’ll come to the school and they’ll just hang out. They’ll hang out in the kitchen, get to know some people, get to know the staff, and just make sure it’s a good fit. That sort of thing.
I run into a gentleman today, his name is Kevin. He caught my attention because he’s got this T-shirt on that says, “Heard, Chef.” It’s a knife and it says, “Heard, Chef.” I’m like, “Do you work in the industry? I love your T-shirt.”
He said, “Yeah, I’m doing a shadow.”
“Where are you from?” I could tell immediately he had a southern drawl. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Cleveland, Mississippi.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Somebody’s punking me. This can’t be happening.” We had a great chat this morning. He goes back quite often. He’s living a little further down the road right now, but he knew about your place. We had a really nice chat. It just goes to show you that it’s a super small world.
What about you?! Tell me about Cleveland, Mississippi and why you landed there with just an amazing concept? And how’s the community treating you?
Cole Ellis: It’s great. One of the things that put us here – I said before, I met my wife in Charleston. She had this need and want to get closer to home. She being from Jackson, Tennessee, we started looking around for places. I was biting my lip the entire time, wondering why we were giving up this amazing place that we already currently lived.
It came together as a tour at first. We started going around and checking out Birmingham, because Frank Sitt had always been someone I’d idolized for years. We had also checked out north Florida a few places, to try and get that resort kind of job. But I’d had enough of the country club life, and I wanted to get my first real management position. I had been sous chef at Magnolias, but to get management under my belt.
I staged at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. Those of you don’t know, the Hermitage Hotel is already soaked in history. I fell in love with the staff, and met Tyler Brown. Tyler Brown and Sean Brock had been working together for years and years at Peninsula in Charleston. Sean was actually previously the chef at the Hermitage Hotel before he had moved to Charleston and opened McCrady’s and the conglomerate of other businesses there that were once under his umbrella.
Falling in love with Nashville was pretty easy at the time. We’re talking about late 2005-2006. It hadn’t bustled and grown into what it is now. I make the joke that I’m tired of these culinary marvels following me everywhere I go, because it’s kind of the same situation in Charleston.
Johnson & Wales was there, and I always had the need and want to try to pursue that after going to school at Mississippi State. I got there, established residency and then realized I had found a home with Culinary Institute of Charleston and Michael Carmel. It was kind of a no-brainer for me. School was paid for through the state as long as I maintained the right grade point average. I should be a doctor, as many degrees as I obtained. But they don’t really do that.
Kirk Bachmann: What did you study at Mississippi State?
Cole Ellis: I studied accounting at Mississippi State. I had that moment, “I don’t think I can sit behind the desk the rest of my life.” I wanted to make that change. I had been cooking my way through restaurants in high school and there. It kind of grew to a passion.
After I was faced with an ultimatum – I won’t put it that harshly, let’s be real – I landed on Nashville and just found a home there. It was great. It was amazing, and an opportunity to have a limitless growth at this hotel. It was unsurpassed. We had the opportunity to open a 66-acre garden on a historic land trust property. Later, we opened a 250-acre cattle farm. It gave me that opportunity to have a different relationship with my food, and it spoke to me.
In the beginning, I didn’t mind getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning, working in the garden, harvesting, getting ready for my evening shift. It was everything I wanted for the beginning of my culinary career.
Kirk Bachmann: I’ve got a comment and a couple of questions. I’m going to back up a little bit. I, too, went to a state university before I went to culinary school and all that. I want to talk about that a little bit and how that set you up in a different way than perhaps others when you went to culinary. My Vice President of Academic Affairs here at Escoffier did exactly the same thing as you: went to school, got a degree in accounting, and then followed her passion into the culinary field. Were you a different student than you think you might have been in culinary school had you not gone to MSU?
Cole Ellis: Yeah. I’d already gotten the core curriculum out of the way so when I came-
Kirk Bachmann: You were cooking.
Cole Ellis: I was cooking. I was doing the labs. I was doing garde manger. I was doing baking and pastry, which is probably one of my favorite passions – don’t tell anyone that, because every time I turn around I’m asked to make a birthday cake or something. That was the point where I was collecting tools. I was collecting the things that I needed to expand the horizon.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that, collecting tools. I’m writing that down. What do you think it is – and a lot of this is off script because it’s just really pricking my interest. We got you on the show. We got to meet Sean. We got Erik Niel on the show a few months ago. All the stories are similar. It’s all about great cooking at home, great community, great friends. You mentioned the 66-acre farm. So much opportunity. Do you think that has a lot to do with opening a restaurant and just manifesting what you already know for the larger audience? Experiences that people might not have had themselves in their lives, this idea of country, home, simple cooking presented in an elegant, beautiful way with great staff that’s listening to your every need. Is that the recipe? I don’t want you to give me the whole recipe, but is that the recipe for success? Simplicity?
Cole Ellis: I certainly believe it is. I’ll speak for myself here, but I’m always chasing that dream or that experience of trying to recreate the things that were most memorable around the dinner table. I hate to say this, but a lot of times we show love with food. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes that’s a bad thing. But most of the time you create culture from it. That culture, it bleeds across the area that we live. Everywhere that I’ve followed and pursued has been the ultimatum. It’s what we were looking for from life and how we wanted to create it and share with others is beyond basic. It’s something special.
Kirk Bachmann: It really is. It’s in your DNA. Talk to us a little bit about your growing up. Was food super, super important to you and your family? Did you get inspired at a young age?
Cole Ellis: I did. My first experience with cooking was stirring cornbread with my grandmother. The conversation and opportunity to perfect that have been key implements for later in life for what I wanted to do in the kitchen.
Kirk Bachmann: Sure. Can you talk to us a little bit about Cleveland, Mississippi? What do people come to Cleveland, Mississippi for other than your establishment?
Cole Ellis: Certainly. We’re people that are rich in art. Maybe you could say that we have a little more time on our hands, so we’re filling that with painting, music, cooking, photography. My brother is a photographer in D.C. These are things that I guess have adapted us for the rest of the world or other things, to put us out there and set us apart. Southerners in general, I would be surprised if you don’t run across someone that has a hidden talent that pertains to the two, three, four different things that I just discussed. Or carpentry, or all these other things. We have a need and want to do things with our hands.
I don’t remember playing inside as a kid. I remember playing outside.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that.
Cole Ellis: It’s bred into us. It’s certainly part of our DNA, and we appreciate it and embrace it.
One of the biggest things people come here for, we are home of the blues. We’re the birthplace of America’s first music.
Kirk Bachmann: Music.
Cole Ellis: Same thing with. That’s kind of how I feel about food, too. Southern food is America’s oldest and traditional cuisine. Everything after that is adapted from Southern food, fusions of other cuisines that have been brought over the years.
Kirk Bachmann: So well said. Chef, I tend to love the stories that great chefs share about working with other great chefs. Mentors and that sort of thing. You’ve had this incredible fortune and now others have that fortune with you. Before that, you got to work with Tom Colicchio and Sean Brock. I’m not sure it gets much better than that. The mentorship, I imagine, was invaluable for you.
Cole Ellis: Absolutely. And you pay a price there, too.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s where I was going. So many of the chefs and people that I have the honor of speaking with praise their mentors. Not necessarily always because they provided exclusive one-on-one time, but also because they allowed them to be part of the team to see how greatness is achieved. How excellence or perfection is achieved.
Two-part question: What was your experience, if you can speak to it, like with these icons? And then how does that translate into you and how you translate those lessons to people that you’re mentoring?
Cole Ellis: They certainly played a key role in my work ethic. You have to dedicate yourself and time and energy, and you have to make a lot of sacrifices in order to be able to do that and achieve your goals. If your goal is opening the best burger restaurant in the world, you might need to eat at some great burger restaurants and see what people talk about and what transpires there.
That same experience can be had on a line at a high-end restaurant. The same thing can be had at a meat-and-three. It’s just about your dedication, and what you put forth will define the end result.
Kirk Bachmann: I ask some of these questions because these are the questions that students ask a lot, is there anything that you would do differently? From an advice perspective. Or did you lay out your plan and pretty much stay disciplined? “That’s what I was going to do.” Or would you do anything different?
Cole Ellis: I stuck to it. Naturally, you always regret the amount of sacrifices that you make. I know I keep using that word, but you see your friends going out for the night, but you have to be up for breakfast shift. You want to go to a friend’s wedding, and six other people are off that day. You’re the last to request. There’s a lot of those things that in the industry will chew you up and spit you out. If you’re not willing to make those sacrifices, the setbacks can be a little bit greater.
Kirk Bachmann: Sure. I was reading up and doing a little bit of research before we chatted. I don’t know if it’s serendipitous or by design, but I love when I read about the Delta Meat Market that “butcher shop” is typically the headliner, followed by restaurant, bar, catering, off-premises, that sort of thing. You’ve been recognized for your food service as well, keyword “service.” I love that. Can you speak a little bit about the Delta Food Market, where that idea came out and where it’s going?
Cole Ellis: The name itself was to try to lure in the locals and the place had a meat market. “Okay, cool.” We’re in a period of resurgences of the butcher shop. I know it’s taken a really large online presence, which isn’t great for people like us, but it still carries the voice for what the end product is intended to be.
We wanted to try to open up a place that was welcoming for everybody and approachable for all. We wanted it to be great service and nice food, things that you wouldn’t normally see around here, with a dressed-down atmosphere and a really laid back, fun experience.
Kirk Bachmann: Has it changed the complexion of Cleveland a little bit? Have you seen other entrepreneurs trying to pop up with similar concepts?
Cole Ellis: I believe it has. We certainly aren’t original in any sense, but we try to put our interpretation or our spin on things that are familiar or recognizable. We’re playing another cog in the wheel, it’s just a different one. We wanted to set ourselves apart. The first thing we do is we never bought a fryer. We wanted to fry chicken, do things like that, we did it in a cast iron skillet. We did it traditionally or the way that we remember doing it as kids.
Kirk Bachmann: I absolutely love that. You mentioned the word recognizable. People like to be comfortable when they go anywhere, whether it’s the grocery store or sitting down having dinner with your folks.
Several months ago, someone on this show, I was asking him, “What’s the secret to success?” And he said something really simple, and I’m kind of getting that from you as well. He said, “The number one recipe, as simple as it is, is to like your customers. Just like your customers. If you like your customers, everything else will fall into place. Don’t create friction. Welcome them and make them part of the celebration.” Is that kind of how you feel as well?
Cole Ellis: Yes, certainly. I learned a good piece of that working at the Hermitage Hotel, a five-star, five-diamond property. You don’t use the word “no.” That’s what I try to explain to staff. Sure, even if we can’t do it, let’s explain reasonable expectations. Oh, you want French fries. We don’t have a fryer, but we can fill the skillet up with oil, we can cut potatoes. It will take this long to do. We didn’t tell them no, we just gave them a list of expectations to prepare themselves for. We can do it. It might take an hour to do, we’ll do it.
That’s what people want to hear. No one wants to hear, “I don’t know,” or “We can’t right now.” We try to manipulate that into the experience.
Kirk Bachmann: No is a tough word. It makes it difficult to move on. I understand, too, that you’re a big fan of collaborating with like-minded chefs. For some chefs, maybe many chefs, they create their menus somewhat in solitude. The mind gets to working and they pull from their own experiences, their travels, local ingredients, social media, the environment, of course. And then they eventually share their curated menu with their team. Then the team pushes that out. What’s that experience of collaboration with like-minded chefs look like to you, particularly around menu design? Is that something everybody’s involved with, or is that kind of your focus?
Cole Ellis: That’s how the food side of it started at the meat market. We would huddle as a team and talk about the things we had available. When we first opened, we were only a whole animal butchery. You have a lot of utilization of off-cuts or ground beef, different things that you have to be aware of and know that coming down the pipeline we have to do X, Y, Z before it spoils. The worst thing in the world to me is shoving it in the freezer. That’s the last resort. That’s where everything goes to die, in my opinion.
When we started out, we were doing two or three items on our menu, and they would rotate constantly. Every week, sometimes in the middle of the week, we would change depending on the success of the dish. It gave us an opportunity to play with food and be excited and do a lot of research and educate ourselves, which is another big process in the culinary arts world. If you’re trying to pursue this as a career, a lot of this falls on you as the individual. I’d like to see that grow.
Kirk Bachmann: It sounds like everybody’s got a chance to be a part of the process which serendipitously and almost organically creates the buy-in. That’s excellent.
I’m prying here; are there any really cool collaborations that you’re particularly proud of that you can share?
Cole Ellis: For years and years, we used to do the Tamale Festival with the Stryjewski boys and Julia Reed before she passed, and that’s one of the things we always looked forward to every year. As a matter of fact, it was about this time of year we would start getting things together for it. Those opportunities, folks stepping into our kitchen, me having the opportunity to step into other people’s kitchens starts to lay down the groundwork for the ultimate thing that I’ve chased my entire life. That’s the process of breaking bread. That’s the experience that I like and I want to create, and that’s why I continue to do it a lot of times.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m stealing a lot of that. That’s so well said. I hear, too, or I read that you’re committed to hosting and/or participating in off-premises events outside of your establishment, which becomes difficult because the standard of quality has to stay the same. I read, “Summertime Sunday Supper” with Rob McDaniel. Is that correct?
Cole Ellis: That was great.
Kirk Bachmann: How is life outside of the kitchen that you’re familiar with? This is great advice for students. That level of expectation and quality can’t diminish because you’re outside your four walls, right?
Cole Ellis: Right. Sometimes, it’s a lot more effort. Sometimes you get into situations like when I was at Old Edwards Inn a few weeks back. They have a really great team, and it’s really awesome to see how they work and things come together. Again, like-minded individuals with diligence and effort and a passion to do the same thing.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Speaking of passion, you read stories about when you get to a point in your career, whether it’s in our industry or another industry, where you can focus on things that are really important to you, that you’re passionate about. The timing is right. I obviously alluded to it a little bit ago. When you’re running a restaurant, you often have to handle things that are not always the most fun. You miss out on some other life activities. But when you get to a point where business is good and you’ve got a great team that is just rocking it every day, are there some passion projects that you’re particularly interested in that you might be able to give us a sneak peek on?
Cole Ellis: Me and a local gentleman are actually in the works now of trying to create a pizza restaurant. Again, that baking and pastry side of me. I built a brick oven during the height of the pandemic. It was so much free time on my hands, it’s one of the things that I started doing, and I’ve just fallen in love with it. We want to do a pizza restaurant that’s approachable for families and fun with the intent to maybe franchise.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s a big project. That’s a lot going on.
Cole Ellis: I feel like the meat market and everything is going to segue to having fun and now we’re starting to be able to do that. We’re starting to get to the point where we can take the reins and trust the individuals that we’ve put in place and educated over the years to try to start expanding.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m curious. Going backwards a little bit again, how important is local sourcing? Not just to you, but to the customers that come to your establishments?
Cole Ellis: It’s extremely important. It also creates an opportunity for those individuals to say, “Oh, I’ve been to that corner. I’ve been to that area. I’ll have to try that particular product.” That’s kind of the same. Even if we put Nashville hot chicken on our restaurant [menu], though it’s not a local product or local idea, people can gravitate towards it and relate to it. That’s just another cog in the relationship that we want with food.
Kirk Bachmann: I don’t know how much you’re at liberty to share, but I’d love to come back to chefs Tom Colicchio and Sean Brock. Boy, Sean, great performance on the Netflix series, “Chef’s Table.” People started to learn a little bit about his story, about his journey. Like I said earlier, I was really taken aback when we had an opportunity to dine at Audrey. What’s it like working with the person? Was Sean already on that trajectory when you were working with him, or was he grinding it out still back then?
Cole Ellis: He was there every day. He was grinding it out every day. It was a brief stint, but at the same time it was an opportunity to understand that things aren’t always as you expect them to be. That’s one of Sean’s greatest traits. He has a creativity that will deliver that in the dining experience and also in the work environment. You go in for stage and you’re all of a sudden given a 52-item recipe to make. You’re like, “Dear God, am I going to make it through this?” Focus, attention to detail, and everything plays a key role. Those people are great.
Tom Colicchio would sit there for a New Year’s Eve dinner. I couldn’t have put those black eyed peas at 12 o’clock enough. I’d probably made 30 plates before I put it in the right spot. It might have been him screwing with me. It might have been me as a young buck not paying enough attention to it. Those things develop working with high-level individuals.
Kirk Bachmann: To that point, I always liked the story. I was in New York preparing for something and Eric Ripert and Danny Boulud were giving a talk of some sort. I’ve heard this from other chefs as well. Question came up, it was a pretty simple question: “Who cooks in your restaurant when you’re not cooking?” They both kind of giggled, looked at each other, and said, “Well, it’s typically the same people that cook when I am there in the restaurant.”
How important is that consistency, that you tough every plate? Or, fast forward, that your team 100 percent understands your vision, your philosophy so that you can almost sit back and watch this harmony occur that you created, but that others respectfully execute on your behalf?
Cole Ellis: It’s pretty crucial. You have to hope and pray that they’ve picked up the things that you want them to and try to deliver that message to the best of their ability.
Kirk Bachmann: 100 percent. Any advice for young culinarians from an entrepreneurship perspective? What to watch out for? What to 100 percent make sure you do or you don’t do? Tough question.
Cole Ellis: Show up with the tools you need to be successful. Show up ready to work. Show up with your uniform ready. Show up with your pen, your paper. Keep notes; you’ll use them later in life. When you get done with those notes, go home and type them up.
Kirk Bachmann: Mise en place, I love it.
Cole Ellis: Be ready for the day. Don’t be hung over. That part will eat you up in the business.
Kirk Bachmann: I love at the beginning that you mentioned that your establishment is welcoming for everyone. I don’t know where the time went so quickly, but with that in mind, I’m really interested in how you’re going to respond to this. The name of the podcast is the Ultimate Dish. With all that you’ve got going, Chef, what in your mind is the ultimate dish?
Cole Ellis: The ultimate dish is like I was just saying. It’s preparation. It’s not one particular dish, in my opinion. We change our menus regularly. That’s what we try to provide. It’s the experience, not the dish. Those things bring them all together. The time, the effort, the energy, and the constant focus will set you apart.
Kirk Bachmann: Constant focus. Absolutely great advice. Thank you so much. So much good luck and future success. I loved chatting with you today, and I really appreciate the time. I hope the projects come out really nicely behind you.
Cole Ellis: Great. I’m almost done. Almost there.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Love it. Thanks again, Chef.
Cole Ellis: Appreciate being on.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.
And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.