Small Chef at Large Jennifer Cornell and her seasoned staff prepare for a wedding with 200 guests at The Hemingway House.

Key West caterer kicks off cooking classes

Jennifer Cornell grew up in Vermont accustomed to picking fresh vegetables from her mother’s garden for the family’s nightly dinner salad

“My mother was a gourmet chef at home,” the Small Chef at Large recalled from her business adjacent to the VFW in Key West. “She made us all sit down for dinner each evening and act formally.”

The reminiscing leads to the first time her mother taught her to read and follow the recipe for her favorite dish, beef stew.

“The recipe called for 3 teaspoons of chili powder, and I put in 3 tablespoons,” she laughed. “Everyone was trying to be polite and stomach it, but they were chugging water right there at the dinner table!”

She polished her cooking skills through her teenage years and into her early 20s, but it wasn’t until 2001 that Cornell finally settled in Key West and opened Small Chef at Large.

She soon moved into the Sunbeam Market and two years later to the White Street Deli before it evolved into a bistro-esque setting.

“I’m not a restaurateur, and I never claimed to be,” she declared.

Small Chef at Large Jennifer Cornell and her seasoned staff prepare for a wedding with 200 guests at The Hemingway House.

She now operates her business from the pristine industrial kitchen at the VFW on North Roosevelt Blvd. in Key West from which she can cater events for an intimate dinner for two or a corporate event for 2,000. Her menus, designed after years working in the Caribbean, as a private chef aboard luxury yachts and as a café owner and guide in Costa Rica, are based on fresh, seasonal items found in tropical climates.

“I really like island cooking,” she said. “Because I get to work with fresh ingredients like fish, fruit chutneys, soups, appetizers…” to craft culinary delights that rely on nature, rather than laboratory fortifications to provide the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy lifestyle.

That’s certainly not to say that a hearty meal of belly-filling, comfort food is not in her repertoire. After attending the New England Culinary Institute, she was one of the first female chefs hired at The Russian Tea Room in New York City where she frequently prepared brunch for dignitaries like Hillary Clinton.

Her time at both the Sunbeam Market and White Street Deli garnered the foot traffic to help this event caterer nurture her true passion of sharing a love of food with others. When hard-working Key Westers snagging her grab-and-go delights kept frequently asking, “How do you make this?” Cornell decided it was time to start offering some cooking classes.

“I can share my recipes and techniques, and people have an opportunity to pick my brain,” she explained. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching and watching people when they get it. It’s very hands-on. We drink some wine and have some laughs…it’s fun!”

Chef Jennifer Cornell is all smiles during a recent culinary class as she prepared Kiwi Key Lime Tarts.

Chef Jennifer Cornell’s Small Chef at Large “Laid Back Holiday in the Keys” cooking series kicked off this week and continues every Tuesday from 5:30-7:30 includes themes like “Bubbly, Vino and Awesome Appetizers” continuing through Dec. 20 for only $45. For more information or to register, call (305) 294-1943 or visit


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