Living His Dream
This foodie never doubted he could make it as a chef.
photograph by Kyle Kurlic
In the summer of 1988, a fourth-grade boy won a contest for reading the most books — 50 in all. Were they adventures? Mysteries? Antics of the Hardy Boys? No, says Elijah Townsend, smiling at the memory: “All of them were cookbooks.” Soon this kid who loved to be in the kitchen was dishing up a meal for his family — fried chicken and spaghetti — but apparently the books left some gaps in his education. “That meal was a complete disaster,” he laughs. “We wound up eating pizza.”
Townsend has come a long way since that first failed venture. In February the 33-year-old launched his catering business, Chef Eli’s Table, and stays busy with weddings, parties, cooking demonstrations, and individual menus for those too busy or unable to cook. And starting September 4th, each Tuesday he’ll be hosting Dinner with Eli at Miss Cordelia’s restaurant downtown. “I know that if you really want something in life, you have to go get it,” says Townsend. “Everything has come full circle for me, especially this year.”
The graduate of Frayser High grew up watching his mother, Sheena Townsend, put meals on the table for her four children while working two jobs and going to barber school. “She was just trying to cook dinner,” he recalls, “and when I first started wanting to cook she hated to see me wasting food” — like the meal his siblings refused to eat, and the botched wedding cake he thought “would be cool to pull off.” But when she realized his interest was genuine, his mother encouraged his ambition. As the years went by, he enjoyed working by her side in the kitchen and helping her cater events for their church.
After attending Rust College in Holly Springs — where he made extra money cooking burgers on “an illegal hotplate” in his dorm room, he laughs — Townsend moved to Nashville, where he worked for an insurance company by day, a Kroger bakery by night, and started a catering firm that never quite made it off the ground.
In Nashville he also got his first restaurant job, as a kitchen assistant. Soon he was promoted to kitchen manager because “they saw something in me there,” he says — including the need for a bit of polish. “When I’d tell people I was going to make a compost, when I actually meant compote, they’d laugh at me and I didn’t know why,” he says. The supervisor explained exactly what compost is, and “I didn’t make that mistake again!” says Townsend.
The next few years found the young chef living in New York City, then attending culinary school at the Art Institute of Nashville and L’Ecole Culinaire in Memphis. Back in his hometown, he gradually built his resume, landing jobs at Safari tapas bar on South Main, at the Crowne Plaza’s Canal Bar, and at Wade and Company Catering at the Tower Center in East Memphis. In June he was hired as a chef at Miss Cordelia’s at Harbor Town.
Describing his food as Southern cuisine, with touches of Asian and classic French, Townsend says he’ll not only be hosting the dinners — some with several courses, some homestyle — but hopes by early next year to offer his own line of foods at the restaurant’s grocery store. Among the items: Daddy’s Dry Rub, named after his late father who was also an influence on his cooking; Evelyn Devilin’ Eggs, named after his grandmother; and his Mediterranean chicken salad. “People absolutely love that,” he says.
Eventually Townsend wants to open his own bed-and-breakfast and bistro: “Every time I have an idea for it, I go to the computer and type till it’s all out of my head.” He also is self-publishing The Book of Eli, due out in October: “It’s about celebrating what food brings to our lives, which is so much more than nutrition.”
Asked if he ever thought he’d fail as a chef, Townsend declares, “Never. Even when [the first catering company] was getting no calls, I believed in my passion, my dream. So many people have given me opportunities and encouraged me to open my mind. I’m always creating, finding new ways to make recipes my own.”