Chef Eric Wells swirls mussels and coconut milk in a saucepan with a flick of his wrist as he lofts a typical icebreaker to his clients in the nearby room. “How did you guys meet, anyway?” A briny vapor rises from the stovetop, filling the apartment with an aroma that conjures associations with the tropics. Giggles ensue. Frederick Johnson, who’s canoodling at his dining table with fiancée, Uyen Nguyen, explains that he was once the salon owner’s customer. As she buffed his digits during a weekly manicure, she rebuffed his persistent attempts at nailing down a time to visit off the clock. “Four,” Uyen confesses coyly when asked how many invitations he made before she finally relented.
The night I prepare to meet the chef, I jokingly tell my Brazilian-born husband I’ll be “holding the candle” for my assignment. The expression, when translated in Portuguese, is slang for a “third wheel”—the oft-unwanted guest who crashes a couple’s rendezvous. Admittedly, my assumptions were wrong.
Throughout the evening I spent shadowing Eric, my awkwardness subsided and my notion of holding the candle began to take on a new meaning. Albeit unconventional, Eric’s dinner-for-two experience is anything but intrusive. Reading his diners’ demeanor, the chef tailors his chatter to the taste of his guests, tempering an experience that changes with each meal and mood. With a counselor’s ear and a Christian heart, Eric considers Skye LaRae’s Culinary Services (named after the elder of two daughters) as not only a way to pay the bills, but also a higher calling to a ministry that’s facilitated by his vocation as a cook.
His passion sparked a regular customer base that includes Frederick and Uyen. As they dined on a six-course meal that included a tomato and basil amuse bouche and pan-seared halibut with sweet potato purée and mixed veggies, Uyen admits that dating was the furthest thing from her mind back in 2011 when the single mom of three met Frederick, himself a single dad. After immigrating to the U.S. from Vietnam, her arranged marriage went sour and left Uyen contending with limited resources and a language barrier.
Though she found a village in her mother and four siblings who followed from her native Pleiku (situated in the Central Highlands capital city of Gia Lai, Vietnam’s second-largest province), the daunting role of breadwinner left little room for romance. Chemistry developed straight away, but Frederick’s move to the West Coast soon after led to a far-flung friendship that endured over several years spent on separate sides of the U.S.
In 2015, his mother’s failing health brought him back to the Cleveland area, specifically Shaker Heights, where the two rekindled their flame. It was the same year that Frederick also met Eric during the chef ’s stint as co-owner of Ligali’s Bistro in Tremont. Frederick was impressed by the birthday fare Eric prepared for their mutual friend, and called him to cater a photo session he was planning for Grammy-nominated R&B singer Kenny Lattimore.
“When I organize a celebrity photoshoot, I try to have fun and create a relaxed environment that makes the celebrity feel pampered,” Frederick says. “I hire a hair and makeup team, a DJ, and a caterer. I invited Eric out for Kenny’s shoot, and it was great, so after that he kind of became my go-to guy in the area.”
Eric built the foundation of his culinary career as a child in his family’s home kitchen. As an 8-year-old in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, he was enticed by a cover photo of chicken cacciatore on a Betty Crocker cookbook. He remembered relentlessly asking to make the dish until his mother finally agreed to buy the ingredients. He made a big mess and an even bigger impression on his parents, particularly his “picky” father who loved his son’s freshman attempt at food prep. After graduating from John Marshall High School in 1990, Eric studied journalism at Cleveland State University, but felt the nagging pangs of a passion unpursued. “Before she died in 2003, my mother told me to develop this gift I had,” Eric recalls wistfully.
Juggling family, a full-time job, and classes at Loretta Paganini’s International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute in Chesterland, he fine-tuned his craft as he built the confidence to launch his solo endeavor. Although romantic dinners for couples have become his calling card, community engagement keeps him busy full time. When he’s not preparing dinner a deux, you’ll find him conducting cooking classes at CornUcopia Place, a teaching kitchen located at 7201 Kinsman Road, and serving as an avid participant in the culinary charity circuit. Of recent note, Chef Wells joined a roster handpicked by Michael Symon for the Cleveland Autism Speaks Chef Gala and headlined a group of African American chefs in Cleveland spotlighted by Dinner in the Dark.
With more than a thousand private dinners under his belt, Eric was armed with an arsenal of anecdotes to entertain me in the kitchen between courses. Funniest memory? The time a lady planned a Valentine’s Day surprise dinner for her mate and instructed Eric to get started while she primped upstairs. Her spouse arrived early to find another man in his kitchen. After a bit of explaining, the night went off without a hitch. Most uncomfortable? The couple who appreciatively ate six courses, graciously pausing their two-hour argument to muse over each plate. “I’ve had clients come to me two or three months after their dinner and say they had issues before our meal that seemed to work out since,” Eric says.
Proposals during dinner are nearing double digits, and Eric doesn’t hesitate when asked about his favorite. “A student I taught at the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking hired me to cook dinner for her nephew’s 30th birthday. Midway through the meal, he asked me to excuse myself for a few moments while he asked his girlfriend to be his wife. I was blessed to prepare their rehearsal dinner, their uncle’s retirement party, and follow their family as it’s grown to include two children.”
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