Ellen Cottrill on Global and Local Inspiration

By Lauren Titus / Photography By Amy Robb | March 30, 2016
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Ellen Cottrill
Ellen Cottrill in the dining room at HOBNOB.

For Ellen Cottrill, food and art are the perfect pairing.  As co-owner of Unity Plaza's newest restaurant, HOBNOB, she and her husband designed the space to be a feast for both the palate and the eyes. With a creative new menu plus local art and craftsman details throughout the dining area, guests will find "global inspiration" and "local intentions" in every meal. 

You have partnered on opening several successful restaurants in Jacksonville. How many years have you been in the business of food and how did you get started?

The real reason I am in the food industry is because of my husband, Alan Cottrill. He had culinary training in college, and has been in and out of the industry, in an owner capacity, through the years. He has always had "the bug" and the topic of owning a fine dining restaurant had often come into our conversation. Though we have been partners in a few other places, we feel that HOBNOB really represents who we are and what we dreamed we would want in a restaurant.

Having a prominent display of art in your new venture HOBNOB seemed to be an important aspect of the space. Why is that and what is the role art plays in a dining experience?

Ah, that is the part that really speaks to me and my background. I really love our theme of "global inspiration and local intentions," but it's not just limited to the menu. I want everything about the restaurant to reflect that idea. The art on the walls has a lot to do with that. The large five panel glass embellished painting was commissioned by Carol Shelkin, an internationally known mosaic artist. The Italian glass that is embedded into the painting, lends itself to the international theme, which I love. The large glass ball installation in our lounge is our pride and joy. We commissioned Brian Frus, the assistant director of the Fine Art Department of Jacksonville University, to make over 100 glass balls for us., which are suspended from the ceiling and lit from above, to create a fantastic visual. Other pieces of interest throughout the restaurant include original paintings, an amazing installation of undulating, wood beams above the bar, a 15' long custom steel light fixture and some very cool metal tables, all of which were created by Jacksonville craftsmen and artists.

I like to think of the HOBNOB being a feast for the palate as well as the eyes!

Our region's food community is growing and you've undoubtedly seen many changes. What evolution has been most notable in the last five years? Where do you see opportunities? What are the challenges?

I moved to Jacksonville from Philly over 16 years ago. I remember being struck over the seeming lack of cultural interest and "cool" restaurants. The difference in the last five to ten years has been unbelievable. The trend toward farm to table and creative craft cocktails has certainly pushed the envelope here, as in other cities, to bring new, creative, “sexy” places to eat. An increase in the number of awesome restaurants, as well as interesting places for people to spend time together and socialize, always seems to go hand in hand with the population growth of a city and its ability to attract innovative and creative people. I love the energy in Jacksonville. Whether it’s Innovation Nights at Unity Plaza, Leading Ladies 904, Generation W or CoLabJax, there seems to be an air of interesting people with great ideas that keeps moving this city forward. I’m pretty sure many of these ideas happened while sitting around a table of great food!

You and your husband Alan demonstrate a commitment to the revitalization of Brooklyn and the Urban Core. What do you consider some critical next steps in keeping the the momentum moving forward with this renewed interest in the urban lifestyle?

Walkability is obviously important. Last Saturday, after eating brunch at HOBNOB, I walked to RAM with my daughters. It took about 6 minutes. I think that the location of Unity Plaza is a perfect complement to the whole Riverside/Brooklyn/corridor.

The more interesting activities there are for residents to do, within a reasonable walking distance, the more attractive the "urban lifestyle" is. I am excited to be part of that shift, as the area only gets better and better!

What's the one thing most people don't know about owning their own restaurant business, but should? From your experience, what's the biggest challenge to being a woman in the food business?

Though my role in our restaurant doesn't involve that part of the business, as much as other woman-owned restaurant does, I will say that having a great team of employees is your very best asset. This is true in any small businesses, but even more so in the food industry, because of the nature of the business. Having employees who you can trust, and that represent you well, when you’re not there, is huge. I am really happy with the team we have brought together at HOBNOB, and feel they will be a big part of our future success.

We talk a lot about seasonal ingredients and consumers, chefs, restaurants, artisans and farms working together as a "food system." What are some of the hurdles to restaurants "buying local" on a consistent basis? What could be done to help bridge this gap?

My husband and I have several small businesses in Jacksonville and are well aware of the importance of keeping money in our own community.

We all want to buy local, as much as possible. However, it's not always a viable choice for a few reasons; availability is a big one. The local farms cannot always keep up with the demand of the local restaurant's needs. We use local purveyors as much as possible, for everything from olives to gelato. Most of our sources do come from Florida, but not necessarily Jacksonville.

When you dine out, where do you like to go, and to eat what?

Until now, my favorite place to eat was Taverna. I always enjoy the food and atmosphere there. We have also been known to sneak into the side "to-go" door at B.B.s for bread pudding, for a late night dessert craving. However, I have to say, our banana bread pudding is pretty amazing!

Finally -- is there something, in particular, that draws you to food? If so, what is it and how has it captured your attention?

To me, food, family and friends has always been one package. My happiest times are when all of our kids are home (we have a blended family of 6 kids and 3 grandchildren) and we are cooking and eating together. Food brings people together. Enjoying great, creative food in a setting that is both visually pleasing and warm and inviting, is even better. I think we achieved that with HOBNOB.

Article from Edible Northeast Florida at http://ediblenortheastflorida.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/ellen-cottrill-global-and-local-inspiration
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