How a Cleveland Chef Promotes Good Cooking in the Neighborhood Where He Grew Up
A Clevelander is giving back to his community by sharing his culinary knowledge.
Eric Wells offers recipes and techniques at a series of moderately-priced cooking classes in the Kinsman neighborhood.
He tries to make them fun as well as affordable.
“OK, so we got our bacon going, we got our eggs boiling. I’m going to Burger King after this.”
He’s kidding, but Eric Wells can get serious, too, about too much fast food and too little home cooking in this urban food desert.
“The problem with inner-city communities is that there’s really a lack of healthy food, and that’s why this facility was built to kind of be a beacon of light.”
It’s called CornUCopia Place, a multi-purpose community kitchen on Kinsman Road where the focus is on good, fresh food.
A place for better choices
There’s the Bridgeport Café serving soups and salads, a mobile food truck delivering fruits and vegetables from local farms, a space for urban gardeners to prepare their harvest, and cooking classes for all ages.
“Elderly people who may have, like, diabetes and things like that. Those classes are free. Local teens can kind of come in and take classes which are totally free. Then we have a children’s class, too, which are also free. And the neighborhood really loves them. They really support us.”
Chef Wells classes aren’t free, but he says they’re priced for the neighborhood.
“In comparison to a lot of cooking schools in the Cleveland area at $75, $80, $100 a class, my classes are only $35 per person per class.”
He fits in the class every other Friday between Skye LaRae, his catering and personal chef business, and cooking demos on local morning TV. “I have a passion for food and the culinary arts. I love doing this. The money is secondary.”
Besides, this used to be home. “I actually grew up about 3 miles away from here on Kinsman. I’ve always had a passion for this neighborhood, and it was a perfect marriage when I found out about this space.”
This is the fourth year of his “Cooking with Chef Wells” classes at CornUCopia Place, and he says they’re popular. “I have people that come back week after week.”
It’s almost time to get cooking, and some regulars are walking in. “Hey guys. How you doing? It’s been a while. I haven’t seen you guys in so long.”
He’s kidding again. Doreen Cooper of Cleveland has taken classes here before and often brings her mother along. “It’s fun, you know, girl’s night out, something to do.”
Her mom, Diane Allen of Euclid, enjoys this time with Doreen and others who like to cook. “To mingle with a lot of different people, and learn something new. I’ve been cooking for years, but you can always learn something new.”
Doreen also appreciates CornUCopia’s mobile food truck stopping at 23 locations throughout the inner city. “It helps because not everybody can get to the West Side Market or they don’t have the Giant Eagles and the Whole Foods. Those are out in the suburbs, so [the food truck] gives them a little bit more access.”
Chef Wells laments that Kinsman’s been a food desert for too long. “My parents would kind of take us out to the suburbs to shop, but for people who live here and don’t have access to get out and get around, it’s difficult.”
Plenty of Preparation
Ingredients are assembled, recipes handed out and class is about to start. “Alright ladies. You guys want to come join me please?”
Students tie on their aprons and look over the recipes while the chef explains the menu.
“We’re doing what I call my classic American cuisine. We’re taking your standard American fare, and we’re putting a little twist to it.”
His twist for the dessert, a blueberry crisp, is baking it in a cast iron skillet. The potato salad will be made with red skin potatoes; and the chicken will soak in buttermilk before it is fried. In addition students will make fried corn, stuffed portabella mushrooms and a Cobb salad.
Fried chicken is the highlight of the menu, but he offers a lighter alternative. “I’m going to give my students tonight an option to, instead of frying it, you can bake it. You can do a baked fried chicken that turns out really well also.”
Lessons over raw chicken
First he demonstrates how to cut up a chicken.“Now, when I was in culinary school we had to do 4 of these in less than 10 minutes.”
It’s a lesson in butchering, as well as household economics. The chef says he bought the whole chicken for $8.33. “If you were to sell all the 8 pieces of this chicken in separate parts it would probably be 3 times this amount, OK?”
Slicing up the chicken also provides a teachable moment about kitchen hygiene. “Obviously as you see I’m working with raw products here. We want to keep everything clean, so if you use chicken or anything like that you want to make sure that you wash your hands.”
He advises them, too, to avoid processed foods. They’ll make their own dressing for tonight’s Cobb salad. “You don’t see any Seven Seas or anything like that over there. We’re going to actually make our dressing from scratch.”
There’s the opportunity, too, to introduce ingredients, like what they’ll use along with parmesan cheese to stuff the mushrooms. “Proscuitto is an Italian ham. Most ham is smoked. Proscuitto’s not smoked, so it gives a different flavor. It’s really good.”
Chopping celery for the Cobb salad, 15- year old Brashay Adamson says she’s motivated to learn to cook because she’s concerned about her diet. “Very concerned. I’m actually trying to be on a healthier food kick now, so less fried food, less butter, more vegetables.”
Brashay aspires to be a professional chef. She says she’s already pretty good at macaroni and cheese and her family’s favorite, oxtails. “I sear them off first and finish them in the oven.”
Chef Well’s gourmet twist for the fried corn, a traditional soul food dish, is maple-cured bacon. “I love the sweetness of the maple bacon, and it does have a little kick in it, so it has a little cayenne in it.”
He’s willing to compromise when one of the students objects. “Sorry. She don’t do spicy. You don’t do spicy? Alright. We’ll omit the cayenne.”
Following the recipes
After about an hour of work the meal starts to come together. “How you guys doin’ over there?”
Cassandra Adamson shows him what she has assembled for the potato salad. “Potatoes, diced eggs, celery, mustard, mayonnaise and sugar.”
“OK,” says the chef, “You guys can combine that down and we’ll add the potatoes toward the end.”
They’ll sit down to it family style and vote for the best recipe of the night. “Bragging rights I guess. One day I’ll figure out a prize for this, but no prize as of yet.”
Honoring his first teacher’s wish
Eric Wells counts himself a winner. He’d dreamed of becoming a chef since he was Eight years old.“The first thing I ever made was chicken cacciatore. I was hooked from there.”
He’s a graduate of the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute in Chesterland. “That’s Loretta Paganini’s professional program. I was the first African American to graduate from her program back in 2004.”
But he gives full credit for his success to his first cooking teacher, his mom. “She passed away back in 2003, and that’s what inspired me to go to culinary school. The last thing she told me before she passed away was to take this gift that I’ve been blessed with to the next level.”
Now that he’s done that, he’s bringing it all back home.