At 26 years old, many aspiring culinary artists are still bopping around from kitchen to kitchen, doing everything from apprenticeships to working as dishwashers. Despite what some may call his "young age," Tennessee native Joseph Cornett has already found his calling and is comfortably settled as the Executive Chef of Firewater, one of Charlotte's more affordable upscale dining establishments (8708 JW Clay Blvd.; www.firewatercharlotte.com). But Cornett is nothing if not modest. He credits a lot of Firewater's successful menu to help from his sous chef, Jonathan Williams, who also helped create many of the restaurant's signature desserts. "It's amazing how the desserts are just as beautiful as they are delicious," Cornett says. "I think we have some of the best desserts in the area."
Creative Loafing: As a traveler who has spent time in Greece, Italy, Switzerland and France, how has your diverse cultural experiences shaped your ideas about food preparation?
Joseph Cornett: It just makes you respect what we have a lot more, seeing different countries that may not have the same opportunities that we do. Also, any chef is going to pull ideas from any experience, whether good or bad. I have had great experiences and horrible experiences, but there are a lot of times where I've been trying to come up with a special and you always use a past experience, whether it's something you've eaten or something you saw on television or something you saw in another restaurant.
How did you incorporate your personal taste into preparing the menu?
Deep down, I'm from the South, so you see a lot of comfort food and a lot of things that make you smile when you eat it. We have a lot of smoked products and we use a lot of techniques that we enjoy, such as smoking and brining. My favorite item on the menu is the pork tenderloin. Also, I guess you could say something that makes us happy is being able to showcase our skill level. It's not a complex menu that will intimidate anyone, but we have a lot of different skills that we show, whether it's in our sauces or the smoking or the techniques we use with our fresh fish. We feel as if we can do it just as well, if not better, than a lot of people in this area.
What are your thoughts on what distinguishes a casual, upscale dining establishment such as Firewater from other restaurants?
In one word, passion. You can go to Applebee's and get a $13 steak, or you can go somewhere where they cut it by hand and take all the time involved before it even reaches your plate. It's the attention to detail. Also, people eat with their eyes before they even taste the food, so we want to make something beautiful as well as delicious. With the economy, white tablecloth restaurants are becoming a thing of the past. We've got to modify what we do to go with the trends and what's expected.