Russ Cornette can seem a little reticent when asked to talk about himself. He’s more interested in you. And he’s more interested in action than talk.
He’ll tell you a little about growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and that he enjoys the work he does as Town Engineer for the Town of Summerville. He’ll tell you how his family loves living here, how it’s a great community for a family to live a good life.
He might talk a little about his love of good barbecue but will likely downplay the formidable skills he brings to the art of cooking this truly Southern delicacy.
Ask him about his work in the community, and he’ll talk a little about some of the things he’s done there, too.
But at the end of the day, Russ Cornette seems a little puzzled by the attention. After all, he’s just giving back to a community that he loves and that has been so good to him and his family.
“It’s definitely an honor to be selected to be in this group (Men To Watch.) But my first thought was, they must be having a hard time finding people for them to pick me,” he said, a slow grin easing across his face.
Cornette, who came to the Lowcountry in 1991 by way of his service with the U.S. Navy. He and his family -- wife Kristen and sons Cole and Graydon -- moved to Summerville in 2003 and became Town Engineer in 2005.
“I like what I do here as Town Engineer – it’s an opportunity to help the town realize certain goals, and more important, it’s an opportunity to help people with issues they may not be initially familiar with.”
He admits he fields a wide variety of questions, but enjoys helping people find their answers.
“Sometimes it seems like it’s a case of, when in doubt, call the engineer’s office,” he said.
But while he is looking out for Summerville during the day, he is also working behind the scenes in a lot of different places, doing what he can to help out in his spare time, too. He has generously given of his time, talent and effort for a number of organizations, including Knightsville United Methodist Church, the Summerville Miracle League, the Junior Service League of Summerville, Summerville Masonic Lodge, Omar Shriners, Lowcountry Food Bank, and Berkeley Lions Club.
He served on the board of Sculpture In The South from 2006-2009 and as president of the board in 2007.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “It was a very interesting, enjoyable experience.”
That he is possessed of strong administrative and organizational skills is something of a given. However, he is also known for his prodigious skills around the barbecue grill and smoker. Like many things Cornette does, that grew from a simple desire to learn more, do it better, and share that knowledge.
“A friend of mine and I went to a barbecue competition at Brittlebank Park in Charleston – walked around, sampled some of the food, and we both thought we could do better,” he said.
So they did. His father built his first cooker, and he and friends and family started their competition barbecue team. The first year they participated in two or three competitions and while they did not win, they did not come in last, either, he said.
And they got better. These days, they are not only in demand for many area events, they have won a number of awards on the competition circuit and they are even involved with the Carolina Pit Masters Barbecue School, a popular, weekend long event held every year at the Dorchester Shrine Club, for which Cornette serves as a principle instructor. A portion of the proceeds – as well as some of the choicest meat – goes to the Shrine Club and the Miracle League, he said.
“That’s been pretty successful – we have people that come from all over for that, and a lot of them come back,” he said.
They even started a barbecue sauce company and branded their own barbecue sauce, Smokin’ Cole’s, which they later sold. Earlier this month, his barbecue team’s sponsor opened a barbecue restaurant in Downtown Charleston named after his barbecue team’s name, “Queology.”
But ultimately, the love of cooking has led to a unique and always greatly appreciated way of giving back to the community, he said. His team has raised funds for many organizations; in fact, Cornette helped found and create the Summerville Miracle League baseball league’s annual “BBQ 4 Baseball” fundraising event.
“I’m guess I’m always ready to lend a hand wherever it’s needed,” he said. “This is a great community and I’m ready to help out any way I can.”