Given my crazy seventy hour work week and the community outreach I do, I am not able to post to this blog as often as I would like. Now that we are back just over a month from the James Beard Awards in New York, I had planned on publicly congratulating Isaac Becker on being named Best Chef Midwest this year. It honestly could not have happened to a nicer guy, and the thrill of walking Jacques Pepin across the street from the awards ceremony to Bar Boulud where Daniel Boulud greeted us at the door paled in comparison to the look on Isaac's face as he called his family to inform them of his win.
But this isn't about that or about a behind the scenes look at the awards. This is something much more sobering.
On June 16th, Mega and I lost one of our closest and dearest friends. We had known she was terminally ill for quite some time so her passing was not unexpected. Still, it didn't really make it any less difficult to hear the news when her time finally came.
Sandra Cornelius was one of the most remarkable women I have ever met. I first made her acquaintance when I was employed as Executive Chef of W.A. Frost & Company. Back then, she had just begun dating my close friend Bob Cornelius. At first glance, she and Bob seemed like an odd match. Bob is very quiet and unassuming. Sandra was assertive and demonstrative. While he is your typical introvert, Sandra wasn't anything if not the consummate extrovert. However, if you took the time to look a little more closely, one would see that they were very much alike. Here were two people who were both intrinsically intelligent, driven, empathetic and deeply thoughtful. They had both been highly successful business people who over the years had amassed some considerable wealth, but while they may have enjoyed the finer things in life neither of them was the least bit materialistic. In fact, it was through their generosity and partnership that Mega and I were able to finally realize the dream of opening our own restaurant.
During the dot com crash followed by the recession sparked by the 9/11 terrorist attack and the subsequent real estate crash, they found themselves relieved of their fortunes. Most people would be bemoaning their losses and taking a "woe is me" attitude. Not true for the Corneliuses. Whether it was a result of their deep spirituality or just as a matter of personal fortitude, I never noticed them express a bit of remorse or disappointment in the way things had turned out for them. They were just thankful to have each other. Sandra was fond of saying how fortunes come and go, but no one can rob you of your dignity if you don't allow them to do so. Practicing what she preached, she remained supremely dignified right to the very end.
To say that Sandra Cornelius was a trendsetter would be a gross understatement. Sandra had the relatively unique misfortune of suffering from two major cancers during her lifetime. At our wedding ten years ago, she was recovering from breast cancer. That didn't stop her from travelling to Italy with us, but it was pancreatic cancer that finally caught up with her earlier this year. Still, we were able to see her for the last time just three weeks ago when she and Bob made the drive from Madison where they had relocated some years ago so that Sandra could be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. It always seemed like nothing could slow that woman down. In fact, when Sandra found out she was terminal, she worked with us in planning a bon voyage party for her that we held at Heartland last April. It was an oddly beautiful way to celebrate a life, and I hope when my time comes that I am half as brave and inspiring as she was.
I expressed to Bob my sadness in Sandra's passing. He told me that he and Sandra never felt that way at all. Instead they have happily looked forward to the next journey. So I must respect their wishes and be happy for Sandra. The sadness I feel can only be for me and for everyone else she has left behind. If there is consciousness after this life, I know that wherever Sandra is she is making friends and throwing one heck of a party. Hopefully, she will save us a seat at the table.
Much of what have today we owe in large part to Sandra Cornelius, but it was her friendship that we cherished most of all. For years, Bob was known around the Twin Cities restaurant community as the enigmatic Mr. C. After he and Sandra got together, they became Mr. and Mrs. C. Now Bob will once again be referred to as just Mr. C. For me, that doesn't seem right anymore. Sandra will always be part of our lives no matter what turns we take. She has only been gone for a couple of days, and already we miss her.