Words by Eric Taunton
Chef Cole Ellis has been cooking for 22 years. He’s worked in several critically-acclaimed kitchens across the country including Hominy Grill, Magnolia’s and Carolina’s. He’s owned Delta Meat Market since 2013.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was still running the Delta Meat Market—a restaurant, bar, and grocer in Cleveland, MS—but their hours were cut short due to a citywide COVID-19 lockdown. That left him with a lot of time on his hands.
“I had so much free time, and I just started going around to construction sites and asking people for spare bricks,” said Ellis. He would spend an hour or two each day building a brick oven in his backyard by himself. “I was trying my hand at a little masonry work—putting a meaning to 'freemason,’” Ellis joked. “I just started hammering at it and figured it out. I picked a design off of Pinterest that I liked, and I modified it to where it’s a fire place and a pizza oven.”
Two months later he’s letting the good times roll, having get-togethers with his family outside of his home. Ellis cooks pizza, prime ribs, barbecue sandwiches and more for his community, but has a spur-of-the-moment attitude when it comes to deciding what to make. “It just depends on what hits in the moment—like this is fun today, so we’re going to do this,” said Ellis. “That’s always been the concept of Delta Meat Market. If you just trust us the first time, we’ll try to deliver the consistency that way.”
The pandemic has been an adjustment for Ellis—both in and out of the kitchen—but he’s decided to make the best out of a bad situation. “During the beginning of COVID, my family and neighbors became a little more tight-knit,” said Ellis. ‘We would meet in the driveway for a drink and stay spread out amongst ourselves just trying to find new ways to be social.”
Ellis also decided to use the extra time at home to learn how to do new things. “I don’t want to look back on an entire year and say that I wasted it sitting on the couch,” said Ellis. “There have been people on Facebook groups sharing how they found new ways to make food. There have been people that have become avid runners and have started exercising more from home. So taking that, we’re able to say ‘no we didn’t waste our time. We learned how to lay bricks and then learned how to use a pizza oven.’”
Workers in food are curious about how the restaurant industry will look in the years to come, and Ellis has already seen huge changes. “I don’t go out into the dining room anymore because people don’t necessarily want you at their table,” Ellis said. ”Food isn’t about breaking bread anymore, it’s about making sure that you have enough people eating in a glass house outside of your restaurant.”
Though Ellis has had to make changes due to COVID-19, he refuses to give up. “I refuse to think about the work that we put in over these twenty plus years and then turn around and say ‘hey we’re just going to throw that out of the window,” said Ellis. “I’m always looking for a new way or technique to hone what we do and have fun with it in new ways,” said Ellis. ‘I just like to cook.”